when your boss dies

A reader writes:

I work in a mid-size company of about 100 employees. My department is very small, just me, my boss, and a part-time consultant. My boss died very unexpectedly this past weekend. I was given a mental health day to recover, but I don’t know what happens now. The CEO and VP are out of the office for the rest of the week, presumably to deal with his death, so I’m rudderless. I tried searching the Internet for other people’s experiences, but I can’t find any good advice.

There’s been no talk of hiring a replacement, but it’s only been a few days. I’m worried about my employment, if they’ll decide to simply cut the department or try to promote me into his position (which I do NOT want). What do I do if they try to load me down with his work (which is enormous)? Or try to edge me out of the company? I was looking for other work before this incident, but now I feel like I have to stay at least a month to help them get back on their feet. But after that, I don’t know what to do.

I’m so sorry. How awful. And I’m sure it doesn’t help that amid dealing with the death of someone you probably saw every day, you’re also facing these major questions about what this means for your job.

So next week, talk to your boss’s boss. Ask what is likely to happen next. She may not have answers yet, but you can at least talk to her about what she’s thinking.

Also, know that the most likely thing is that they’ll hire a replacement, not cut the department; decisions to cut departments are generally made for strategic or financial reasons, not because someone leaves or dies.

If they ask you to take on your boss’s position, it’s fine to turn it down.

They will probably try to give you some of his work in the interim period before they hire a replacement. This is pretty normal, and you should do what you can to help out — but you should also set boundaries. You can’t do two jobs, and you should resist any efforts to try to get you to. And you’re in a pretty strong position to push back — if you leave right now, they’ll be left with two holes instead of one.

And speaking of leaving, you don’t need to halt your job search. You say you feel you should stay for at least a month, but unless you get a job offer tomorrow, that’s probably going to happen anyway; job searches take a while, and you’ll give at least two weeks notice when you do take a new job … so the only way this will be an issue is if you get an offer in the next week or so.

Meanwhile, though, the best thing you can do is to talk to your boss’s boss when she’s back. That’s going to give you a lot of answers to things that are looming as huge questions in your head right now.

{ 12 comments… read them below }

  1. Mike

    With regards to notice and waiting a month, if you do suddenly get an offer tell the new employer that you want to give a month’s notice due to your boss’s death. I can’t see any reasonable employer not working with that.

  2. Rob Bird

    My questions would be 1) Why are you looking for work outside of your current job? and 2) How long have you been in your current position? Is there a reason you don’t want to stay?

    I ask this because there might be a chance they look to you to take the now open position and these will be questions you will have to ask yourself, if that happens.

    1. LW

      Hi, I wrote the post. Thanks for your questions- they’re good ones.

      1) I’m looking for other work because of lack of mobility within the company and internal management is terrible (a major reason I don’t want to take my boss’ job).

      2) I’ve been in this position for about 2 years. I don’t particularly like my work (I was hired for another position but thrown into this one when another person in the department left), and I am consistently stunned by the decisions of the company. I don’t like how they do business, and I don’t see how they’re still profitable.

      You’re right, these are the main factors of why I won’t take his position. It’s just not a good move for me or for them.

  3. The Editor

    My boss died last year in a car accident. It is gut wrenching at best.

    For me, everyone knew he was gone, and they all expected things to be in flux for some time. And it was for about two months. Yes, it led to some restructuring. People assumed responsibilities that weren’t theirs, typically temporarily. Some quit, some stayed, some were promoted. But it all passed. It will for you as well. But everyone expected all of that, and people were open to the fluctuations.

    The only thing I would tell you to do is to show up and continue in whatever way you were going, and yes that includes the job search.

    I wasn’t close to my boss (he was remote), but that didn’t make it any easier. I’m sorry for the loss.

    1. LW

      Thank you, it’s helpful to hear someone else’s experience. It eases my mind to know that others were aware of the transition time and rolled with the punches. So far, my coworkers have been very understanding and don’t ask much of me.

      I do plan on continuing the search, although I do feel a bit guilty about it.

      1. Long Time Admin

        I’m so sorry for your loss.

        Don’t feel guilty about looking for another job. Just do the best you can for now, and when you do get a job offer, give as much notice as is appropriate.

  4. Anonymous

    I know someone who was in this situation, but he wanted to and was promoted to his boss’s position. And now he works a LOT more than he used to because the years he would’ve spent learning how to do his boss’s job got condensed into a very short time frame.

  5. Not So NewReader

    OP, Please add my condolences along with others here.
    I don’t know how much this helps- but everyone else is going to feel like they are floundering, too. Sure, they have different reasons, from yours that you say here– but it is still that “up in the air” feeling of not knowing what is next.
    I think you will see that things will tend to move slowly at work and in a odd way this will help.
    You are most fortunate to know right now that you do not want the boss’ job. This is one less ball in the air- one less bit of uncertainty.

    You might be able to look around and volunteer for well chosen tasks- which would 1) keep you busy/guide your day and 2) prevent you from getting assigned tasks you do not want or cannot handle. People might be relieved that you offered to take on x or y.

  6. Rana

    During this week, while you’re waiting for the upper-level bosses to get back, you might take the time to look around your department and see what projects are going to be affected by your boss’s absence. Things like on-going tasks they normally handled, upcoming projects that whoever fills in will need to know about, work in progress that will now need to be re-evaluated, contacts that need to be informed, etc.

    It will give you something to do, and when your superiors get back, they will probably appreciate having a sense of what degree of damage control is needed. It will also be helpful if you end up moving on sooner rather than later.

    It may also be worth reaching out to your part-time colleague, as they may have projects that your boss was aware of, and others are not. Plus they’ve got to be feeling at least as much thrown by this as you, and you could both benefit from knowing someone else is struggling with similar concerns.

    I’m sorry you’re having to deal with this, both personally and professionally.

  7. sk

    To the original poster: I’m really sorry that you lost a coworker – your boss, no less – and that you’re facing so much uncertainty. One of my favorite coworkers, a manager, was recently diagnosed with a life-threatening condition. Although we’re not close socially, the possibility of losing him is very sad. I was grateful for the advice Alison gave you, because I may need to apply it soon. Thanks so much for opening this sensitive topic. Best wishes to you. If you have a chance, please let us know what develops.

  8. Elizabeth West

    I’m sorry you’re dealing with this. At Exjob, we lost a coworker last year whom everybody liked, and it was quite a shock. He wasn’t a boss though.

    I think the other posters have given good advice on what to do in the interim, and it’s nice of you to want to help out (as well as smart professionally). However, I wouldn’t let a good offer slip away if you get one. You may not be able to give a month’s notice and still take it. If it comes to that, your current company will will work it out. They’ll be okay.

  9. Anon

    I lost a coworker who was in a senior position to me , and would have eventually become my boss. It was earth shattering for me. The whole department was devastated, including me – he was well-liked. For two months nothing happened and then the new guy came along who created so much chaos that it was great that things moved forward.
    There was no grief counseling, many team members felt cheated of the new structure. And everyday I grappled with the guilt that I had benefited the most out of his untimely death.
    I quit 8 months after his death and eventually so did some other critical members- the core issue was never recognized or discussed.

    OP- take your time. Wait it out a little. It might seem like an emotional decision to the management, keep an eye out for opportunities and then take it from there

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