How to Help Employees Who Are Grieving

Mindy CorporonMindy Corporon was CEO of a successful wealth management firm, traveling around the country meeting with clients, garnering recognition as a high-profile woman in finance and mentoring emerging leaders — all while raising two boys.

Everything changed on April 13, 2014, when her father and oldest son were murdered by a white supremacist in the parking lot of the Jewish Community Center in Overland Park, Kansas.

The tragedy would eventually prompt her to take action to spread kindness, encourage productive interfaith dialogue and promote healing in the workplace. Corporon started the Faith Always Wins Foundation and organized an annual community event, SevenDays. She has also formed programs for productive interfaith dialogue and assists companies in creating healthy workplace environments so healing can occur after a tragedy.

Corporon, who has since stepped away from the company she founded, Boyer Corporon Wealth Management, spoke with us about her journey of grief and healing, and gave her advice on how organizations can support employees who are struggling with a traumatic life event.

You had a lot on your plate when this tragedy suddenly happened. How did work change for you?

I could only work for about two hours at a time. My brain and my body were not really available to me — I felt like I had been sucked into some other realm of reality. It just did not seem real that this could have happened. I was struggling with so much.

I’m an empowerer, so I like to give people more more responsibility than they may expect or than they may want. The team really stepped up — they took over clients and they did client calls. I had put things in a pretty good position so that the company could still operate, and I was really was only absent significantly about four weeks. But when I came back, I couldn’t focus. Things were foggy. About six weeks in, as I was in a meeting with a client, they were talking, and all of a sudden I couldn’t even hear them. I was in the parking lot with my dad and son. Then I’d be in the funeral home. I’d have to shake it off. I just was reliving these memories, and I felt so disconnected from the workplace.

How did your position as CEO impact your experience?

I had so much flexibility as a co-founder and a CEO. I felt a responsibility to the company and to the clients to pay attention, but there were times when I couldn’t. I had this flexibility, and now I look back and see that other people don’t have that.

That’s why I started focusing on my “healing in the workplace” objective. When people do go back to work, does their supervisor or their co-workers know that they’re not all there? I think people need to have those kinds of conversations and get emotional assistance along the way.

When did you decide to step away from your company?

In 2015 to 2016 I realized I had to leave my company. I wasn’t doing something that I felt like I needed to do, and that was talking about healing in the workplace. Because I could look back and say I could’ve healed better, and I could’ve helped my team heal better if I had known more, if we had had people come in to help us or if we had had a counselor come in and talk with us. We didn’t do any of that.

I felt like it was really important to oversee workshops and a process to help others through their grief. And when I say grief I know that most people aren’t going to experience what I experienced. But even the loss of a pet, the loss of a job, a divorce are very common. When trauma happens, we are so shaken, but we’re expected to come back to work in five days, or six days, or three days. I’m trying to help people, HR professionals and CEOs, understand that to get that whole person back, that person that you valued that was so important to you and your team, you have to do some things in the workplace to help them get comfortable again.

If an employee goes through something traumatic, what steps should their manager, organization or team take?

Let’s say an employee is going through a divorce. Divorce is a good example to talk about because it is common. That kind of situation takes your brain out of play because you’ve got your ex-spouse you’re dealing with, you’ve got probably a court appointment, or attorneys and meetings. You’re taking time off and you’re distracted. There could be significant grief involved if it was really bad.

As co-workers we need to be more honest with one another. We need to give each other grace and faith to come in and say “This is going on in my life.” As a supervisor, rather than maybe starting with “You didn’t get that report in,” you want to start with “Hey, I just noticed that there’s some stuff going on and I’m just curious, is there anything going on in your personal life that could be affecting your work?” These are relationships that if they haven’t been started or nurtured and then the divorce is happening, they’re even harder. That’s why with our workshops we offer some questions to ask, some icebreakers to get things started.

HR people are very busy, and things don’t come to their attention unless there’s a problem. So the supervisors are the people that are going to need the extra education, or the ability to pull that employee in and give them an opportunity to talk.

It’s also important to assign a buddy when people come to work — someone that each person can go and talk to and just vent a little. You want to have a very open conversation.

If you’ve gone through something really tough, how should you communicate with the people around you at work?

I learned that sometimes we need a mediator — counselors, people in the mental health profession. Because if you don’t have a great relationship but you need to go in and talk to a supervisor, it helps if you have somebody with you. Maybe that’s a buddy that was assigned to you or a more formal mediator sitting there, helping you, giving you support.

Tell us about your foundation. How did starting that help you heal?

We started the Faith Always Wins Foundation and we really focused on kindness. We created an event called SevenDays: Make a Ripple, Change the World. I put my heart and soul into that, and that was a big healing process for me. It’s been going on four years. It’s a big event, it’s well branded, it has a lot of people attend, schools are involved, artists are involved. It’s fantastic.

I’ve put heart and soul into helping people understand that with Judaism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, everyone needs to be more accepting respectful and not be hateful. The respectful part doesn’t come if we’re fearful, so we do a lot of education.

It’s really impressive that you’ve been able to turn something so awful into helping other people.

Thank you. I do it for my dad and son, because they were great people, and everything I do is to encourage other people to live to the fullest every day — because that’s how they lived life.

Healing vs. Achievement

While giving a recent acceptance speech at a BAFTA award ceremony, actress Kate Winslet shared an inspiring message:

Don’t listen to the people who hurt you, shame you, and belittle you.  Believe in yourself and follow your dream.  She ignored the people who insulted her, and made it to stardom.  So can you.

This advice is repeatedly given with the best of intentions.  We hear it at awards ceremonies, graduations, and in Facebook posts every day.  It is reiterated by inspirational speakers, coaches, and business gurus.

At the risk of sounding like a curmudgeon, I am going to take issue with this message.  First of all, no matter how hard you try, it is not mathematically possible for everyone who wants to be a famous actress to become so.  This same unbending math applies to other endeavors such as writing bestselling children’s books and making it in the performing arts.

I am not saying that people should not follow their dreams or their heart’s desires.  But I am saying this: Perhaps we should be more specific about the dream or heart’s desire we are seeking, and not confuse healing with achievement.

I once achieved a fair amount of success as a musical performer, but it happened for all the wrong reasons.  I worked hard to get there, but my goal was not to provide service to a customer.  I was seeking healing.  I thought success in showbiz would give me the respect, attention, and validation I desperately needed.  But the primary purpose of bass playing, or, for that matter,  of authoring, acting, speaking, or any other business endeavor, is not to get your own needs met.  They are all situations where you have to work very hard to meet the needs of others.  If you are fractured internally, you will struggle to meet the needs of others, and even if you do meet them, you will still be unhappy in your work, and make others unhappy too.  Achievement is not healing.

There is a similar problem with a common sort of encouragement for grandiose leadership.  If you seek success mainly to get the perks of power and attention, and you define success mainly as being better than everyone else, perhaps you need to rethink why you are seeking success.  Maybe you are destined to provide great value to society, but then again, maybe you are just reacting to injuries that are pushing you towards unhealthy levels of grandiosity, disconnection, and workaholism.

Now don’t get me wrong– achievement is a wonderful thing.  For me, playing on major stages with superstars was a glorious experience.  I loved doing it and I learned a lot.  But at the heart of it, the big lesson was this:  achievement is not healing.  The biggest success in it was really something else altogether: It consisted of being freed from the limiting idea that love is conditional upon performance, and external success was the only path to internal harmony.  As it turns out, I had it all backwards.

We often get mixed up about the need for healing vs. the desire for achievement, and let’s face it, many sales pitches for professional training exploit that confusion.  Healing is about what you need, and business success is about providing what other people need.  There are more direct means of achieving both objectives, and they are both so much easier when done in the right order.

photo credit: Beautiful things you can’t touch. via photopin (license)