Three Days for Death (or Why HR Policies Make No Sense)

Sometimes, bereavement policies put together by HR make little sense. (Photo by

This past week a member of my husband’s team suffered a devastating loss: his one-year-old daughter died, which sent my husband — his manager — looking into the company’s bereavement policy.

It was three days.

Three to five days is standard, so this isn’t a knock against his company. This is a knock against blanket HR policies which don’t get discussed much (by those outside of HR) until, that is, you come slamming up against one of them.

Play it out: what parent would be worth anything after only three days? What company would want to ask a parent to return after only three days? (Yes, I know people can use their PTO bank — tell me that drastically changes the situation.)

Here’s a talented, committed individual dealing with an unforeseen and isolated crisis. The policy, which looked great on paper, is now nonsensical and soulless.

Sure, HR policies are designed so everything’s buttoned up, fair, and focused on keeping the machine moving, but in application … ?

In reality, they’re a slippery slope that:

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  • Drives a wedge between talented, committed employees and the company that wants to keep them;
  • Which translates into countless hours spent by managers, managers’ managers, and HR devising workarounds for key players;
  • Which in itself translates into bad feelings among co-workers who don’t get the same treatment — after all, there’s a policy!

Employees need empathy and support. Managers need guidelines and freedom to manage.

And companies? They need to get real.

Note: My husband’s company did arrange for more time off, a humane gesture that will come back to them in spades.

This article was originally published on Fran Melmed’s free-range communication blog.


17 Comments on “Three Days for Death (or Why HR Policies Make No Sense)

  1. Fran,
    It is certainly a devistating loss that your husband's team member faced and it sounds like the company did the right thing. I don't disagree that it is a flawed system, but let's think of the other side here. As a HR practitioner, I know that most bereavement policies cover parents and grandparents as well. There have been lots of employees in my past who I have personally seen abuse the use of paid bereavement time. I can say that regardless of which employeer I worked for, when someone really lost a close family member, they were handled on a case-by-case basis. I have never had an employee that didn't feel like they were not cared for. In addition, I have had more than a handful of people over the years who actually wanted to work the day after the loss because it got their mind off the situation. Then, they would take leave after that. I think policies are a guide and the HR pro and managers need to look at the situation at hand and make the right decision for that employee. But, you still need some kind of policy to fall back on, otherwise it will be abused. Thanks for the thought provoking post.

  2. hey trish. thank you for your comment. gratefully, this post is an older one, so the story now has an even happier outcome. the parents have adopted a baby and are beginning anew.

    couldn't the policy just stipulate that each situation will be handled on a case-by-case basis, with full consideration for the situation and the business needs, if that is indeed what's done anyway?


  3. This post really hit home for me. As a small business owner, we've had to deal with three “major” situations in 16 years – one employee lost her brother in 9/11, one employee lost his father due to a seemingly benign fall and one employee lost her 20-something sister unexpectedly. We found it wasn't about the paid time off – although each situation did have us revisiting the verbiage in the employee handbook – it was about the support the organization could (or could not) deliver to help these employees grieve their losses and return to some form of productivity. We think it makes sense to have stated guidelines but vote for addressing each situation individually. There are some moments in life that do not fit into a neat little box. Thanks to Fran for illuminating a tough topic.

  4. I like both the responses here from Trish and Fran, but it makes me wonder — why couldn't there be a policy with some specifics but that also indicates case-by-case flexibilty?

    For example, a bereavement policy that acknowledges that the company standard is three days, or five days, but that HR and the line manager will work with the employee to be flexible to deal with their individual situation?

    In my experience, policies that have a hard and fast component without any specifc nod to flexibility get thrown back at the employee as a way to quickly and easily say no (“well you know, our policy for bereavement is three days…”).

    Plus, a nod to flexibilty in the policy and perhaps even some formal discretion given to the line manager would go a long way to letting people see the company (and HR) as caring and concerned about the welfare of the workers at a time when they need it the most.

    I'm not surprised Trish has seen people take advantage of bereavement, but do you draft a policy with an eye toward the small numbers who might want to abuse it, or the larger number of people it would help?

  5. my one hesitation about putting a number out there is that it's suddenly all about the number. managers know what they can afford and how to create workarounds. or they should.


  6. jeanne, kudos to you for looking at each situation in isolation. and what horrible circumstances for all. my father died 13 years ago (in fact, today's his birthday. how weird.), and i showed up to work the very next day and each day after because i hadn't a clue how to cope otherwise and we needed time later when we could clean out his house and deal with his affairs. my employer at the time partnered with me to figure out how to keep all things flowing and all people served. as you said, no neat little box exists to deal with these circumstances.


  7. Let me share a story. My three children had a close relationship with their mother. When she died they were all devastated. Two of them lived out of state. Their companies handled the bereavement leave very differently.

    One had a policy like the three days you describe. She used the time to travel back for the Memorial Service. The rest of the time she went to work where, by her own admission, she was “totally useless.” A couple of months later she left the company.

    Our son worked for a company that had been owned by the founders. It had been recently acquired by a larger company, but was still managed by the owners. One of them called him in and simply said, “Take whatever time off you need. Just keep us informed.” They did not dock his pay or his sick and vacation time.

    Our other daughter worked for a company where people can accrue Personal Time Off (PTO) and also assign it to others. Her friends, including her boss, gave her enough of their PTO so that she did not lose a dime of pay.

    Where would you like to work?

    There's another part to this story. When my daughter left the “three-day” company, I also sold my stock in it. I do not want to be investing in, and thereby supporting, any company that treats people like standard cogs in the gearwheels of commerce.

  8. I don't see HR as the issue here.

    HR doesn't make policy in isolation, they typically have to get them approved by top leadership and bereavement policies don't typically designate how many days an employee can have off. They designate how many days an employee can have off with pay. The question of how much time and accomodation is made for an employee speaks to culture and leadership. You gave “the Company” credit for arranging more time off and placed blame on HR for writing what is a competitive bereavement policy. That doesn't feel like a fair distinction to me.

  9. What is the alternative? It's easy to say 3 to 5 days is mean-spirited, but how would you address from a policy point of view? In my experience, HR policy is formulated in a union environment where everyone has to be treated equally. When you have 100+ employees, how do you state the case-by-case approach?

  10. I won't speak for Fran but a union environment is obviously different. Go back to the contract. If there is any flexibility, use it. Otherwise, tough. Unions typically value equality over fairness of circumstance. You get five days for the grandma who you never saw in Hawaii and for your spouse of 25 years.

    Who says there has to be a hard policy in non-union environments? The only thing you can't do is make a decision based on a protected class issue. And making a hard bereavement policy because of those concerns has been a problematic thing in HR for many years.

  11. @graceandspackle i wouldn't say the policy is mean-spirited, because i don't think that's the intention. i do think it's driven by a desire to have consistency and something to refer back to. i'd agree with @lance — do you really need it? as @wallybock shows, companies that approach this with a measure of meeting the business needs while honoring the person's, reap the rewards.

    @jimhertel, i'd love to think that HR helps create the culture through its own influence & leadership. so fair enough & good distinction.


  12. One pitfall of the “make adjustments when needed” approach is the potential for unequal treatment of different employees that may belong to one or more protected classes, based on the manager’s perception and judgement about what amount of bereavement time is needed. It is the compassionate thing to do, but that compassion may come back to bite you if you extend considerations to one employee based on the individual circumstances and do not feel that extending those same considerations to another employee (who happens to be of a different gender, race, age, etc.) is appropriate based on those individual circumstances.

  13. I had a heart attack at work. I had 2 sick days accumulated, my manager told me (and my wife) that I should take off as much time as was needed for me to recover. I took an additional 5 days (doctors order) and upon returning was told I would be docked the 5 days. When I balked I was told it was policy and to accept it. One would think the manager telling you take as much time off as needed would not mean you’ll be docked half your paycheck. (I am salaried).

  14. A coworker lost the man who had been a surrogate father to her and was distraught. On the third day of her bereavement leave HR contacted her at home and said she’d better be at work tomorrow with an obituary proving the loss or she’d be fired. She was back on time, telling the whole team what HR had said and sobbing the whole day. We’d all have got more done if she’d been given another day off.

    1. I hope she responded by leaving that horrible company and the most talented individuals followed her out the door. Companies that choose to treat their employees like equipment they own eventually find its drain in their profits when the best people seek flexibility and support elsewhere and they are stick with the weak performers who can’t find employment elsewhere. And they deserve it.

  15. I lost my Dad unexpectedly – got the phone call (from my then husband) at work that he had a heart attack. Time went into slow motion. I had the most compassionate leadership team at that time, they gave me the time I needed (no having to use PTO allotments or vacation days) the company HR policy was 3 days……
    16 years later, I lost my Mom unexpectedly – still with the same company 20+ years tenure – had to provide date of funeral (to prove she died?) & got the standard 3 days bereavement. Thank goodness I had vacation days available so that I did not loose any pay while being off.

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