HJ Writes: I have an employee who has recently lost a close friend, whilst it is not an immediate family member I want to be mindful and sympathetic to their situation. In these circumstances how do I approach sympathy leave?
As soon as employment begins all employees acquire a statutory right to have time off in the event of an emergency involving a dependant. This can include an emergency involving a death of a dependant, however, this entitlement does not extend to time off to grieve. Unless the close friend falls into the statutory definition of a ‘dependant’, there would be no legal obligation for you to allow this employee any time off.
Allowing a staff member such time off, often called sympathy or bereavement leave, may be something which an employer chooses to provide in the contract of employment and in this case, the employer can also choose who would fall within the scope of the entitlement e.g. friends rather than just family. If you already have a policy which provides for time off to deal with a loss of a family member, then it is within your discretion whether to extend these rules when the deceased is not a family member.
Talking to a bereaved employee may be difficult, but it is important that you have an initial discussion, as well as communicate frequently while the employee is away from work. Assure them that they should not worry about work and that their workload will be dealt with by other employees. If there is no contractual right nor a policy, you may use a custom or practice as an idea as to the length of bereavement leave, but keep in mind that grief is different for different people and how much time a person needs depends on them. You should use your discretion, but remember that any set custom and practice should be applied fairly and consistently, including whether bereavement leave has been paid or unpaid in the past. Offering paid bereavement leave is a good practice for all employers as it can have a long-term positive affect on your relationship with your employees but is not a legal requirement.
Remember that the bereaved employee may not wish to share their situation with the rest of the workforce and they have a right to keep that confidential under data protection law. It is important that you have a discussion with the employee and ask them what, if anything at all, you can say to their colleagues.