Magazine article Workforce Management

Court Ruling Puts Workplace Grief on Trial

Magazine article Workforce Management

Court Ruling Puts Workplace Grief on Trial

Article excerpt

The case of a former pharmaceutical company employee whose supervisor allegedly told her to stop talking about her dead daughter while at work has focused attention on an often overlooked workplace health issue: grief.

Cecelia Ingraham's daughter died in May 2005. About 18 months later, she was still deeply grieving her loss when a manager at Ortho-McNeil Pharmaceutical in Raritan, New Jersey, told her that he had received complaints from co-workers about pictures of her daughter Tatiana that she had posted in her cubicle.

"You have to take those pictures down because she's dead, your daughter is dead, and it bothers people," Carl DeStefanis, director of the marketing department, allegedly instructed her. "They have a problem with it. And you can no longer speak about her."

An appellate court ruled in August that Ingraham could not sue Ortho-McNeil, parent company Johnson & Johnson and DeStefanis for intentional infliction of emotional distress, in part because she had not shown DeStefanis' conduct was "extreme and outrageous." But even though the defendants avoided liability, grief recovery experts say the case illustrates the pitfalls for managers who are not trained to be sufficiently sensitive toward and educated about grief.

"Employers need to understand that grief is really a health issue," says Cynthia Oliver, director of the not-for-profit Good Grief Center in Pittsburgh. "You can have the same kind of problems with grief as with any other kind of health concern."

According to a landmark 2003 study by the Grief Recovery Institute in Sherman Oaks, California, employee heartbreak costs U.S. employers $75 billion a year in lost productivity, absenteeism, and increased errors and accidents. The most costly grief incident for businesses is a death of a loved one, accounting for $37.5 billion per year in losses. About 1 in 4 employees is grieving at any given time. Nevertheless, Oliver says, "There's a lack of understanding about [grief] in the workplace." Managers may not even be "able to identify grief."

Ingraham's grief initially came to the attention of Carmen Harris, an HR manager at Ortho-McNeil, who, according to the appeals court's ruling, received complaints "about plaintiff's tendency to speak to them about Tatiana's tragic passing. …

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