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Issues in Setting Time Off for Bereavement Q&A

22 October 2010

No one likes to think about needing time off to deal with the death of a family member, but every employer has to be ready to address these requests.  Your compassionate response can help employees get through a difficult time.

Q:         We want to implement a bereavement leave policy but are not sure how much time off to provide.  What do most employers offer?

A:         Unfortunately, as the old saying goes, the only sure bets in life are death and taxes.  As a result, every organization should plan for the inevitability that its employees will need to take time off because of a death.  (Download free Short-Term Absences model policy including HR best practices and legal background.)

Most employers provide at least a minimal amount of paid time to attend funerals, and some give additional paid or unpaid time off to employees who must deal with estate settlement issues or who need more time to grieve.  The amount of time allowed varies, but, traditionally, many employers have used a simple formula that allocates a specific number of days depending on who died.  Thus, these employers often give three paid days off if an immediate family member dies and only one day off for more distant relatives.  The term “immediate family” generally includes only close relatives such as parents, siblings, children, and grandparents.

While this approach may be easy to implement, it does not acknowledge differences in familial relationships or grieving processes.  For example, an employee who has been estranged from his parents (covered under the definition of immediate family) but who was raised by an aunt (often excluded from that definition) would be limited to one day for the death of his aunt.

An expansive definition of immediate family that takes into account more than just blood relatives and marital relationships provides additional flexibility.  By including members of an employee’s household and any person who has been like a parent or child to the employee, you recognize the closeness of the relationships and the employee’s likely need for leave.  Therefore, to give employees more flexibility, some employers drop the “immediate” requirement and include in the definition all blood relatives, as well as household members.

Another problem with a bereavement leave policy that allocates time off based on familial relationships is the set amount of leave provided.  Many grief counselors question whether anyone can work productively just three days after the death of a close family member, especially a spouse or child.

A more flexible policy is one that allows employees a set number of paid days off to use for a variety of personal reasons (including death, marriage, and urgent personal business) and permits employees to determine how much time off they need, up to the set number of days allowed.  Other employers provide even more flexibility by using paid time off banks that combine all of the employee’s paid leave (including vacation) into a single leave pool to be used for any reason.  (Download free Short-Term Absences model policy including HR best practices and legal background.)

In addition to paid time off, you may want to consider granting unpaid leaves when more time to grieve and deal with estate settlement is needed.  Not all employees will need this extra time, but it should be appreciated, particularly when a close family member is involved.  Some employers even give time off several weeks or even months after a death in recognition that the grieving process may be delayed.  And, if your organization provides access to an employee assistance program or other counseling program, you can direct employees to this benefit as well.

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