I have a student assistant, who only works 10 hours a weak, mostly from home. She only comes to my office when there is something we need to discuss. Her contract specify the amount of work hours, and we track it.

When she was here last time, she got a message. Her grandmother lay in dying. She was so distressed, I just sent her home to call her family. The next day, she sent me an e-mail. She had flown to her family, and wouldn't come back before the end of the week. As she has exams the next two weeks, she won't be able to work before the 26. this month. She promised to eliminate the resulting hour debt next month.

What she probably forgot is that I am going on vacation and after that on conference, starting on the 29, and will be away for a whole month. So not only will it be hard for her to work enough next month as she would soon hit a point where she won't be able to proceed without me, we'd need to meet before I go, so I can give her as much work as possible to work on. I understand her decision and feel for her loss, but I still have to communicate with her now in order to arrange a meeting for this short time window between the 26. and 29. I can't leave it out and expect that she will just come to my office when she is back, because this is not how we work. And I find it very hard to do write it.

First, it has to be an e-mail. With her away, I have no other means to contact her. This is already unpleasantly impersonal. But second, it just feels awful. She is home, waiting for her grandmother's death or maybe already mourning, and probably feeling guilty for abruptly leaving her work and collecting a debt in work hours, and then comes an e-mail from me arranging a meeting. I just don't know how to write it without appearing cold-hearted. Any ideas what I could do to avoid it?

And third, I don't even know what social conventions to follow. Of course, I would want to include some supportive words to show her that I care and understand. If she had had a message about the grandmother's death, I could have sent her my condolences. But this would probably be terrible if the old lady is still alive, in a critical condition. On the other hand, a wish for speedy recovery also sounds terribly mocking. I can't find a way to formulate it.

I am very inexperienced in such a situation. Not only is this the first time I am managing somebody, I have also never lived through a death within my closer relations, and neither have I been part of a team with a co-worker losing a relative. How should I handle the situation now?

4 Answers 4


Start with "I'm sorry that you are going through this right now. It must be very difficult for you and my thoughts are with you"

You need to be a human being about it first. As someone who lost her father a few months ago, I can assure you that any expression of sympathy is welcome.

Then put it in terms of her point of view. E.G. Please take the time you need, but let's try to connect before I go on vacation (add the date because she's probably forgotten) so you have something to do while I'm gone. Let me know if it will work better by email or give me at time when we can talk on the phone.

While you are waiting for a response, draft up an email with the instructions and put it aside. You will need to send it to her even if you talk.

Finally, be available when you are away in case she has questions. Either set up a call time in the evening, or a time when you will read and respond to emails.

It's very likely she wants to do a good job for you while she's there for her family. Make it easy for her to do that.



Each and every single one of us will experience a death in the family while our work demands continue. Although a student assistant, she still has obligations and responsibilities that she must meet no matter the life stressor with which she is dealing. She has a responsibility of setting things up so work can continue while she is absent and you have the responsibility of helping her do that.

Be compassionate, empathetic, kind, and flexible and tell her what has to get done and when. But be flexible enough so she can work it out as smoothly as possible.

As a manager, you have an obligation to keep things going while balancing the very human needs of your team. Sometimes, your alternatives simply feel awful.


I believe it's a matter of find the balance between the commitment with her duties and her relationship with Family + study.

I totally agree with @PerryWilson, be human. Do not pretend to be someone you aren't, a best friend or a cold hearted. Be sincere and supportive, offer all the assistance she needs, but once the situation is over, remember to keep professional.

Based on the fact that she's a student, working 10h / week, most from home, I assume that she's not delivering a highly critic/risky/heavy new tool to keep airplanes landing safety... so, the deadlines may accept a delay of a couple of weeks (for valid reasons).

Still, you also mentioned she has two weeks of exams. I believe that here lies the window for discussion. Ok, she's taking some days with her grandmother, you fully accept - and make clear, you support - it. There's nothing worse than someone asking for a 'missing signature in someone's document' when you're thinking on your family tragedies. Let her take her time, that extremely important. It would be a relief to her hear that you want her to be there because you know how important it is.

But there's still a contract in place, and if you were already prepared for having her off during this two exam weeks, she could find some margin here. It needs to be reviewed once the situation with her grandmother is ended, not before, not during. At least some hours for some calls to prepare and define her steps once you're off on vacations.

On the other hand, you need to evaluate her emotional situation. Is useless to try to make commitments with her is her mind is far away on her other issues. As @DavidEspina stated, eventually everyone will face this scenario. It's a matter of maturity defining how (and when) to get over it.

bottomline: Give her her time to be with her grandmother. Doesn't matter what you do now, her mind will be there. Once the tragedy is over, professionally discuss about how to overcome the open gaps, even that she needs to take some time from her exam's week.

You did your part supporting her with her problem. She might understand it and help you back.


You should leave her alone and find an alternative way to get the work done.

It sounds like she is a young person who has never experienced a loss like this. She is likely still a granddaughter/daughter first, student next then somewhere down the line, a student assistant.

Give her space and see things through the eyes of her priorities. It will set a precedence for her perceptions on managers and the larger world, in general, for her entire life

From a project management angle, this is a risk for which you need to have a risk response. It is not her fault that there isn't a contingency plan in place.

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