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When Bad Things Happen: Dealing With Tragedy in Your Firm

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Before you read this blog, I feel I need to preface it. I have been writing in the pages of Investment Advisor magazine and on the virtual pages of AdvisorOne for nine years now. What I have learned about being a writer is that it gives you an opportunity to process your thoughts and actions (or someone else’s) as a professional and as a real person.

Most of the time, we write about complex situations that benefit our readers. However, I also know that writing does a lot for the soul of the writer herself. In thinking about my blog subject this week, I decided to write about dealing with tragedy in a company.

This blog may in fact be more for me than for you right now. I debated about publishing it and even turned it in late. I ultimately decided to go ahead with it because it was, indeed, exactly what I needed to say. My hope is that you never have to experience what I talk about in this blog. I hope that if one day you experience something similar, you will remember this article, refer back to it and the words will be encouraging and helpful to you.

Here’s the situation: Last week we had a tragedy in our office. One of my employees was diagnosed with lung cancer and given less than a year to live. As you might expect, she immediately quit working to decide about what treatment, if any, to pursue, and to spend time with her family. In a small business like ours—like many advisory firms—the loss of any employee has a major impact, and even more so when it’s the result of something tragic like this.

The first thing you should know is that everyone (employees, partners, spouses, friends) reacts to terrible news in different ways. However, upon first hearing bad news you can almost predict the reaction.

First, there’s denial—Are you joking? That’s not true! It will be fine! Take a shot of tequila! Then there’s anger—Yell, slam a door, and/or throw, break or punch something. Finally, many people just cry. I know this because in my 35 years on this earth I have dealt with death and tragedy too many times. In my first business, two of my employees were killed in a car accident, and eight months later my mother died. I’ve had a best friend diagnosed and die of cancer at age 32, in addition to the expected deaths of my grandmother and grandfather. I’ve also gone through this a few times with my client firms. I’ve dealt with everything from a suicide to a plane crash. But as they say, it’s always different when it happens to you. 

In our culture, people my age don’t usually have to deal with the loss of a peer. With the death of grandparents and eventually our parents, we’re often somewhat prepared, and then we usually have family to support us. But in a small company, where co-workers usually become friends, we haven’t developed ways to cope with such a loss.

In my office, people reacted in different ways. My business development manager increased his focus on significantly growing the company—totally impractical considering the hole in our current workforce. My office manager couldn’t bear to take our former colleague’s name off the staff meeting agenda, and later, shattered a glass against the wall. Me? I’m an avoider. I refused to go into the office and compulsively cleaned my house listening to “The Fighter” by Gym Class Heros on repeat for hours. While vacuuming and in my typical pattern of avoidance, I simply decided we wouldn’t replace her (even though the firm was running at maximum capacity when she was working).  

We all deal with grief and tragedy in our own ways: denial, anger, overwork, avoidance, etc. But what I know for sure is that it’s important to let everyone work through their sudden shock in their own way. Yes, we have to work together to maintain our high level of client service, which in itself can be healing. But we also need to be aware that the remaining staff will have additional needs—and probably need additional time—to get back to the point where we’re conducting business as usual.

As the leaders of our company, business owners need to be sensitive to these various needs. And understand, no matter how much you have gone through personally and professionally, there is no right way to deal with tragedy. In our first staff meeting after we got the bad news, I learned this the hard way. My focus was to start dividing up the firm workload as if we weren’t going to fill the vacancy—without actually explaining that to everyone. Consequently, I got impatient with the predicable pushback. It wasn’t my finest moment.

Instead, I should have known better than to immediately make any long-term decisions. (As I said, I tend to avoid anything that reminds me of my sad feelings.) I also wasn’t very sensitive—read: not—to how my employees were feeling. We did need to divide up the extra work, but it probably could have waited another day or two or perhaps even a week. And when we did so, we should have limited our focus to only those things that absolutely needed to be done in the next couple of days: a longer-term redistribution of duties can wait until everyone’s in a better place to think realistically about them.

Making decisions before people are ready to make them usually doesn’t turn out well under any circumstances. When people are dealing with strong emotions, it’s even worse. That goes double for firm owners. Before we do anything, we need to get ourselves back to the place where we are thinking clearly about our business, our clients, and our employees—and really, really try not to make any big decisions.

I suppose I am really writing this blog to say that in life, we have to let go of people under many circumstances which are not ideal. When tragedy happens, what makes a great leader in the professional world is realizing you have to take care of your emotions first without immediately reacting, and then slowly be patient, support, and be very sensitive to everyone else under you. Eventually, I know, we will find a new normal.

Lastly, my former employee religiously reads my articles and blogs. Teresa, if you are reading this, in the words of the song The Fighter, “If you fall, pick yourself up off the floor. And when your bones can’t take no more…that’s when you press on. Give em’ hell, you are a fighter.”