Leadership in Response to Tragedy

 Leadership in Response to Tragedy


By Scott J. Terres, MA, LPC-S, PhD

Aside from knowing the business inside and out, staying up to date on industry trends and managing the client and shareholder relationships that enable the business to thrive, CEOs have one more critical responsibility: nurturing internal relationships. This task is, in part, about monitoring productivity and performance but, more importantly, it’s about understanding and supporting the emotional well-being of staff members. At its most extreme, it may be about recognizing suicide risk or, God forbid, navigating the company through the aftereffects when an employee takes his or her own life.

Suicide impacts workplaces daily, claiming more than twice as many lives per year as homicide in Texas. Therefore, it’s crucial CEOs know how to recognize warning signs, understand the impact the tragedy will have on the staff and the business, and know the first steps to take in its aftermath.

The following scenario acts as a guide for preventing, and overcoming, this kind of crisis.

The Crisis

John has been with an ideal employee for 17 years. His efficient, quality work and his contributions to his department have helped him climb from entry level to upper management. He has always been friendly with his coworkers, joining in group lunches and happy hours, and playing third base for the company softball team. He has always been happy to lend an ear when peers need to talk.

In recent months, however, you have noticed a change in John. He’s been taking more time off, calling in sick more often. He’s been late on several occasions, arriving at the office disheveled. He’s been completing routine projects late, and his work is deteriorating overall. He’s also isolated himself from coworkers, declining lunch invitations and happy hours, and engaging only in brief, business-related conversation. He missed this weekend’s softball game and never returned messages. Monday morning, the CEO learns that John has taken his own life. The majority of employees know within an hour and the office falls into eerie silence. The CEO needs to act.

The Aftermath

The CEO’s immediate responsibility is twofold: to identify and minimize the effect John’s passing will have on the business, and to ensure the rest of the employees receive the emotional support they need to grieve.

As immediate as the business needs are, caring for the staff is more urgent. A CEO can alleviate the business burden by having contingency plans in place — not only for suicide but for any sudden departure. This plan should include the following institutional and operational knowledge:

  • Detailed staff and executive job descriptions: understanding the employee’s exact responsibilities will make it easier to cover the position.
  • Standard Operating Procedures: keeping detailed instructions for recurring projects will ensure anyone can complete critical tasks.
  • Description of financial responsibilities: the CEO should be able to identify which of the employee’s deals still need to be closed or invoices paid, and change bank access as necessary.
  • Passwords: IT or HR should keep records of login credentials needed to complete each individual’s assignments on company computers and programs.

With this information in place, the CEO can focus, instead, on supporting the staff.

A coworker’s death can be devastating whatever the cause, but suicides may elicit even more emotions. Employees will question why John took his life, and some may blame themselves for not noticing or helping. The CEO must be ready to accept a range of very valid reactions, from sadness, to confusion, to anger.

Critical Incident Stress Debriefings (CISDs), provide the opportunity for staff to process the event through guided, group discussion with a certified leader. Ideally, these are scheduled 48-72 hours after the event for maximum impact. As CISDs are most effective in groups of 20 people or fewer, it may be necessary to schedule several sessions. These group discussions are not designed to be therapeutic, so a CEO may coordinate on-site counseling as well, bringing in a counselor for confidential, one-on-one meetings to address specific individual concerns or trauma. Finally, it’s the CEO’s responsibility to craft a message to staff and/or customers, informing them of the incident and next steps as they relate to both the business and employee wellness.

If a suicide occurs at the workplace or during work hours, immediate needs will be different. Police and other emergency personnel will be called in, and may need to interview staff, including any potential witnesses or the employees who discovered the suicide. Any staff members the employee managed may need additional emotional and logistical support, and many employees may want to leave for the day to grieve in private.


It’s impossible to say whether any one person or group could prevent tragedies like these. There are simply too many factors in play. However, CEOs may be able to get at-risk employees the help they need, if they know what to look for. And, of course, the earlier CEOs can identify warning signs, the more likely they’ll be able to intervene. Start by training designated staff on signs of potential self-harm and guide them through how to speak and ask about suicide in a frank and open manner. Because a suicidal person may not share those thoughts with coworkers at the risk of seeming “crazy” or weak, having trained key staff who can recognize the early warning signs and initiate a conversation could, very literally, save lives.

It all seems daunting, but the good news is, the CEO can get support, too. If the company has a health care plan that is compliant with the Affordable Care Act (ACA), mental health services may be available as part of the 10 Essential Benefits mandate from the 2008 and 2010 laws addressing mental health parity. What’s more, many best practice Employee Assistance Programs (EAP) can help CEOs implement prevention strategies and, if necessary, coordinate the immediate response to a suicide. Creating a strategic partnership with a best practice EAP, especially one accredited by the American Association of Suicidology as a crisis call center, is an essential means by which the CEO can ensure qualified staff are overseeing employee well-being. Most jobs are difficult enough without having to work outside our areas of expertise when experts are available.

Employee suicide is a CEO’s worst nightmare but, by educating staff and implementing well-being strategies, the company’s leader may be able to get at-risk employees the help they need before it’s too late.

Dr. Scott Terres serves as Vice President of Austin-based Alliance Work Partners, a professional service of Workers Assistance Program. AWP has been providing Employee Assistance Programs since 1977 and is one of the largest standalone, best practice EAPs in the nation.

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