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'Corporate America Is Killing Us.' Employees Share Gut-Wrenching Stories That Reveal a Compassion Crisis. Back at work one week after losing a newborn baby. Fired the day she took her mother off life support. A job offer rescinded because she had to bury her father.

By Amanda Breen Edited by Jessica Thomas

entrepreneur daily

When Kait LeDonne, founder of Brandwise Media, wrote a LinkedIn post about her heartbreaking experience with bereavement leave, she never expected it to go viral — but it did, garnering some 50,000 reactions and 1,800 comments as of this writing.

"In 2013, my grandmother, who was my favorite person, had a brain tumor," LeDonne's post begins. "She was rushed to the hospital and put on life support. She was states away, and I had a narrow window to go down, hold her hand, and tell her my final goodbyes before they stopped the support. The funeral would be held about a week later."

LeDonne was given one day to grieve the loss of the grandmother "who was like a parent" to her. In disbelief, she pushed back, but she was met with apathy, and her willingness to take time off without pay was similarly dismissed. She was dumbfounded.

"It ended up working out that the funeral happened over the weekend," LeDonne tells Entrepreneur, "but I just remember thinking, If this is life working in corporate, and I'm experiencing this little compassion when I'm very much grieving, I don't know if this is the world for me."

Now the founder of her own company, LeDonne ensures her employees have adequate time to grieve, granting leaves for the loss of a loved one, friend or pet as part of a people-before-policy approach.

Unfortunately, many U.S. companies still don't grant adequate leaves for grieving employees.

The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) does not require payment for time not worked, including attending a funeral, and there are few exceptions at the state level. Oregon is the only state to legally require bereavement leave for qualifying employees, though that time off doesn't have to be paid. Certain states, including California, mandate bereavement leave for public-sector employees.

Millions of U.S. workers continue to endure compassionless bereavement-leave policies.

Related: Can Hassle- and Worry-Free Employee Leave Exist? This Trio Is on a Mission to Prove It.

Back at work one week after losing her newborn baby.

Margaret Mincer, a mother and marketing professional based in Iowa, lost her newborn son in 2020. Despite having experienced childbirth and traumatic loss, Mincer reported to work just one week later, afraid that a prolonged absence could cost her the job.

"If my baby had lived, I would've been granted a minimum of six weeks off," Mincer says.

Mincer cites corporate America's "profit over people" mentality and the frustration of being a woman and mother in this country — a crisis that merits its own conversation.

"Through my grieving process, I've met multiple parents who are in similar situations," Mincer says. "Many of them were only given three grievance days to navigate the loss of their child. This is reckless, for a country to claim they care so much about their people, but, in turn, not honor the time they need to heal from loss. Corporate America isn't in it to take care of their people — they're in it to take care of their paychecks."

The U.S. is also reckoning with a mental health crisis, Mincer says, but appropriate intervention isn't readily available to many, as sky-high healthcare costs (among the most expensive in the world in all categories) keep people from receiving the care they need. A corporate culture providing the bare minimum level of support exacerbates the issue.

"We're not robots — we're humans," Mincer says. "The mind is an organ, and when traumatic events do happen, we must take the time to care and ensure a healthy recovery. Unfortunately, Americans are not able to do so with the expectations that we must work or else. Corporate America is simply killing us."

Related: What Leaders Get Wrong About Mental Health

Fired the day she took her mother off life support.

Ashley Torres's mother spent months in critical condition before her family was advised that she would need to be removed from life support. Throughout her mother's hospitalization, Torres "worked countless hours from her hospital rooms," never letting her work suffer.

Torres's mother's final wish was to be buried in her hometown in Texas. At the time, the family lived in Michigan; Torres would need to be away from work for two weeks to see to the arrangements. When Torres called her manager to explain, he claimed they'd been more than accommodating to Torres's "situation" and requested she check back in once she "handled whatever needed to be handled."

Once the initial shock subsided, Torres attempted to send her manager an email. But her message didn't go through — shortly thereafter, Torres received a message from a coworker, asking her what had happened, along with a screenshot of a company-wide email that had been sent just moments after Torres got off the phone with her manager. It said that Torres "had moved on to another opportunity." Torres had been fired.

"It was the last thing I needed to deal with in the hours before taking my mother off life support," Torres says. "It was a very long day and night taking that final step."

The next day, Torres went into the office to return her computer and pick up her personal belongings. When her boss saw her, he asked, "So, what's the deal with your mom?"

"I was very confused by that question," Torres recalls. "I had made it clear in my request that my mother would not survive the previous day, and my request was specifically to handle her final arrangements out of state. It was clear to me that he had not paid attention, much like he'd failed to do throughout her hospitalization. When I responded, 'She is dead. We took her off life support just after midnight,' the look on his face said it all. He went ghost pale and just stared at me, eyes wide and mouth gaping. I walked away without another word."

A few days later, he messaged Torres to inform her that her paycheck wouldn't be penalized for the days she was out of the office during her mother's hospitalization.

"To this day, I wonder if it was guilt or fear that contributed to that decision," Torres says. "I investigated legal avenues to address how my firing was handled. Unfortunately, because this occurred two weeks shy of my one-year mark with the company, I was not eligible for protection under the FMLA. Aside from the casual cruelty of how my situation was handled, it was perfectly legal for them to do it."

Like Mincer, Torres emphasizes the prevalence of a "profit before people" ethos in the U.S. In addition to providing paid bereavement leave, companies should offer flexible working arrangements following a bereavement period, she says, allowing for remote or hybrid options.

"In essence, lead with compassion," Torres says. "People will remember how they were treated in their most difficult days."

Related: 3 Ways Increasing Your Empathy Makes You a More Effective Leader

A job offer rescinded because she had to bury her father.

Tatianna Vassilopoulos, a biologist, zoologist and food-chemist founder of JP's Delights, was set to start a new position the day after her father passed from cancer — at the very hospital where he'd been treated. When Vassilopoulos told her soon-to-be boss what had happened, she offered for her to take the week to bury her father out of state. Vassilopoulos was also required to show his death certificate.

But Vassilopoulos would never actually start her new job. The day before she was supposed to, HR contacted her to inform her the hospital rescinded her contract. It provided no reason, and the woman who would have been Vassilopolous's boss ignored her emails and calls requesting clarification.

"I think the lack of bereavement leave comes as much from a morbid taboo attitude [towards death] as it does from a selfish lack of understanding and sympathy on the part of corporations," Vassilopoulos says. "It is a callous and inhumane way to treat people going through extraordinary suffering."

What's more, Vassilopoulos notes that grief can lead to depression and worsen mental and physical illnesses, all of which can impact an employee's work. Forcing engagement under such circumstances simply isn't an effective approach.

"There is nothing to gain," Vassilopoulos says. "Your employees will not feel good about your company if they are obligated back to work immediately after death. It does not engender loyalty and can lead to high turnover rates and expenses in hiring and training. Staff that feels cared for deliver quality work. Employees are people and deserve to be treated as such. They will not forgive or forget denied requests for time off due to death. Employees merit worth at least as much as profits."

Vassilopoulos also stresses the value of increasing flexible working arrangements following a loss. It's a small adjustment that can have a big impact when it comes to the grieving process, giving employees the space and time they need.

"Let your employees individually take the lead," Vassilopoulos says. "Listen, and respect their wishes as they come to terms with their new normal. Human beings should be able to work and be there for their families without having to compromise."

Related: 10 Leaders Who Set Good Work-Life Balance Examples

It's not like this in other wealthy countries.

Corporate America's attitude towards paid time off, including bereavement leave, stands in remarkable opposition to that of other wealthy nations. In Europe, for example, although not every country offers an extended bereavement leave per se, many do provide generous sick leave, enabling grief-stricken employees to take what they need.

Per FMP Global, in Sweden, employees on sick leave are entitled to 80% of their salary for up to one year; in Iceland, they're entitled to 100% pay for the first 12 sick days taken, then to sickness benefits for up to 52 weeks in every two-year period; and in Lithuania, they're eligible for paid sick leave for up to one year and three months, and are to be paid, at a minimum, 62% of their salary during that time.

Hamburg, Germany resident Johannes Georg Leib appreciates his country's approach.

"Every employer is mandated to continuously pay your salary if you are not able to work (for different reasons) for up to six weeks," Leib explains. "In most cases, this law applies for 'sick leave.' It means you go to your general practitioner, get a certificate — where the reason for the time off is not visible to the employer — and then you can stay home for up to six weeks and get your regular salary."

Once those six weeks have passed, the employer is no longer required to pay the employee's salary, but the employee is entitled to 66% of his or her salary, to be paid by public health insurance, for an additional period of up to 72 weeks.

"I have worked for a U.S. company myself," Leib says, "so I know how it is. My impression is that work is generally more important in U.S. culture. Being available to answer emails on holidays or during your free time is more expected than in German working culture. Also, social benefits such as bereavement leave are considered much less important in the U.S. While in the U.S. you generally make a bit more money, you get less social benefits."

Related: How Leaders Should Think About Employee Benefits

Paving a way forward with meaningful change.

What does a solution to the U.S.'s compassion problem look like? Mita Mallick, head of inclusion, equity and impact at software company Carta, says there are a few places to start.

Mallick first began considering bereavement leave in the U.S. after her father passed suddenly in 2017; fortunately, she received an outpouring of support from her company at the time, but she recognized that wasn't the case for so many American employees.

"Sometimes it takes going through something to have empathy for the experience," Mallick says. "If I hadn't lost him so suddenly, I might not be a champion for bereavement leave — and shame on me, but that's the whole job of us trying to understand different life experiences in the work I do."

At Carta, employees are given MTO: minimum time off. They're required to take at least 15 days off; that's in addition to vacation time that's unlimited — and encouraged. This helps ensure that employees actually take time off. The company also hopes to "shift norms around vacation," demonstrating it values employees' personal time, family time, time to grieve and time to rest.

It's an admirable model, to be sure, but for those companies that aren't willing to instate MTO just yet, there are still simple, compassionate ways to support employees in their time of grief.

Related: Why Empathetic Leadership Is More Important Than Ever

One place to start? Don't ask for a death certificate or obituary. "How horrifying is that," Mallick says, "that somebody's gone through this experience, and someone thinks they're lying and wants proof of it. That's when we've built policies that lack heart and humanity."

Employers should also stop granting bereavement leave for immediate family only, Mallick says, as that policy doesn't account for the extremely close relationships existing outside of that scope.

Along with that, the definition of loss should be expanded to include instances of miscarriage or stillbirth. "There are so many things that can happen — so many ways we can lose people we love," Mallick says.

Additionally, Mallick stresses how important it is to consistently check in with people after a loss. She cites Sheryl Sandberg's memoir Option B, which explores the aftermath of her husband's death — just asking someone how they're doing that day and meeting them where they are can go a long way.

"Kindness and compassion are the biggest tools available to leaders," Mallick says. "When we think about what this new phase of leadership looks like at work, kindness is the biggest retention tool you have. When you show up for someone in their darkest hour on your team, when you show up for your employee in an unexpected way, they will never forget you."

Amanda Breen

Entrepreneur Staff

Senior Features Writer

Amanda Breen is a senior features writer at Entrepreneur.com. She is a graduate of Barnard College and received an MFA in writing at Columbia University, where she was a news fellow for the School of the Arts.

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