Airblue crash: The business of death and moving on

Published: July 29, 2011
Email

It is the job of the HR department to step forward and take measures on dealing with the loss of an employee. PHOTO: REUTERS

I recall the good times mostly – the funny situations and the comedy of errors that occurred the last time we met. And I remember the disagreements, the professional jealousies and the never-ending rivalry.

The death of a colleague last year, in the most tragic circumstances, shook those of us who worked with him.

It was surreal.

We spend 80 per cent of our days in the office and not surprisingly make deep bonds with co-workers. Some end in marriage, others in life-long friendships, and many others in acquaintanceship. According to studies, workers value their jobs more if they have friends in the office.

But no management book teaches you how to deal with a moment when you realize that your lunch-buddy will never be eating with you again, that your carpool partner will not come to pick you ever again, the friend who tells you his deepest fears won’t ever know if they were unfounded.

It’s as if time stops.

The organisation was generous with its monetary support for the deceased’s family, including settling any outstanding debts. But, for the next two months, time stood still for my department. Everyone was trying to cope. Soon rumours began circulating that a replacement was being brought in.

The new manager, whose cheerful disposition and micromanaging created a lot of commotion, was the best distraction the department could ask for. But, he moved into the same room as his predecessor, and even kept the same décor. The man who, until two months ago, was directing the course of a major product launch – his belongings were now strewn on the floor.

You would think that the head of the department should have guided the new entrant on the sensitivities of the matter. But, he was more affected by this tragedy than anyone else – one Wednesday he was giving his protégé clichéd advice on marriage and on the next he was burying him.

In my department, the deceased manager was spearheading a major initiative, so his loss was more than just emotional and physical – there was a massive loss of knowledge too. For me it became a Catch22 situation – the changes in the department structure put me in the spotlight and I ended up handling a critical element of the initiative.

Every day I had to struggle with the dilemma – I had benefited out of someone’s death.

If the guilt wasn’t enough, the resentment from the other team members was reason enough for me to question whether it was worth it. It’s something that makes you wonder about your legacy at the office.

The claws do come out eventually. At one meeting, a third-party vendor quipped that the new manager “is better than the fellow who died.” For project deadlines missed, all the blame was shifted on the deceased. Then opinions start pouring in – the person’s professional incompetence, the bad decisions, the lack of business acumen etcetera.

Employee turnover eventually catches up. It disguises itself as a better opportunity, relocation and launch of own business. With exit interviews as mere formalities, it is still rare for an HR department to make a conscious effort on the impact of a death, on the morale of the employees.

*******************************************************************************

It has been a year since the Airblue crash took place and many affected say their companies have failed to step up. It is the job of the Human Resources (HR) department to step forward and take measures on dealing with the loss of an employee. Grief counselling is unheard of in Pakistani organizations where the HR departments are still just paper pushers. Unaddressed grief results in resentment for the replacement and for the change that follows.

Ahmed, who lost his brother in the Airblue crash and worked with him in the family business, says small businesses don’t have HR departments. As the CEO, he had the burden of taking the company past the tragedy with a constant reminder at home and at work, of the loss of his sibling. With no HR department to blame, he had to bear it alone.

Sanam, whose friend died in the crash, tells me that she and others put a picture of their colleague in his cubicle and left his workspace untouched for a long time.

Bereavement is a long process and refusing to talk about grief doesn’t make it go away. As co-workers, we don’t really have a claim over the departed person. Nothing compares to the loss of a family member, but people with whom we share two-thirds of the day, become a family of sorts, so the loss is in fact a major one. Pakistani organisations need to equip themselves on how to help employees deal with grief. They should bring clinical psychologists on board to assess the collective symptoms of grief and provide training on how to acknowledge the situation to make the transition easier.

Nothing ever prepares you for the loss of a loved one, but whether you are a family member or a co-worker you will need to find closure, sometimes with the help of others, and hopefully move on.

Sadya Siddiqui

Sadya Siddiqui

A personal branding consultant based in Karachi, who also contributes to The Express Tribune.

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.