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What to Write When an Employee Dies

Our shared mourning over the death of Steve Jobs got me thinking about what to write when regular people die. Tributes to famous people, especially if they are ailing, old or addicted, are prepared well in advance. I remember writing my first obituary at journalism school, about Barbara Walters, still going strong decades later.

Since then, I’ve written many short ones for company intranets, mostly about regular people whose lives mattered deeply to a much smaller group. I’ve tried to keep them simple, classy and personal, without the over-wrought expressions you hear too often at funerals or in newspaper memorials.

The person who has passed should be honored as the unique and special individual they were. That means more than checking the human resources file to list the jobs he held or achievements she will be remembered for. It means talking to the co-workers closest to the deceased. Some will be too shy or stunned to talk, especially if the death was sudden, so you may have to make a few calls to find someone who can provide the insight and information you need for a tribute.

If you ask general questions about what they liked about the individual, you will get general answers. Things like he “worked hard and played hard” or she was “smart, organized and kind.” Lots of people can be described this way.

But ask these friends about times they remember and you’ll get stories that tell people what he was like. For example, you’ll hear about the night he sang loud a cappella karaoke when the power went out at the office Christmas party or how she would pop in to water the plants when she was supposed to be on vacation.

You don’t have to say a lot–just one quick anecdote can capture the essence of the person who will be remembered. Don’t forget that small acts of kindness may be more likely to be remembered than big corporate coups.

To demonstrate the employee was valued, the obituary should come from one of the corporate leaders, whether the CEO, human resources director or local manager. The close colleagues who provided the examples and memories should be acknowledged and a more general expression of sympathy, depending on the relationship, extended sympathy to friends and family.

Of course mourning isn’t a one-person, one-day phenomenon. Set up a memorial page where others can reminisce. If the deceased is be remembered at, for example, a cancer fundraising event, make sure others know.

It’s wonderful to honor giants like Steve Jobs who have transformed our world. But if you want to create an organizational culture where people feel truly engaged, you have to remember that everyone matters, including the dead and the people who miss them.


Barb Sawyers shares her writing expertise here, on her blog and in her new book, Write Like You Talk–Only Better. You can preview it here.

She takes people back to their first and favorite way to communicate, talking. This way, they remember most of the rules and connect with the people who matter to them. Barb combines the best of talking with the best of thinking to make all the routine writing you do easier, faster and friendlier. She also shows how to take your writing to the next level, by applying techniques from movies, music and other media.

Barb mastered these tricks of the trade through her MA in journalism and more than 25 years’ experience writing for large companies, small businesses, politicians, nonprofits and more.

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