no one wants the office an employee died in four years ago — Ask a Manager

Warning: this letter includes a death by suicide.

A reader writes:

I work for a small company (about 150 employees) that is about to merge with another company. We are in the midst of planning for allocating offices and reconfiguring our space to make it work, but our leadership team is stuck on what to do with one office in particular.

About four years ago, one of our employees died by suicide in her office. While her family asked that the cause of death not be disclosed, her body was found by a coworker and the manner of death required a full scale cleaning and refurbishment of her office. The whole office was closed for a week and I’m certain that the rumor mill did its thing and that most folks at the time knew what happened and where it happened. She was in a role that meant she interacted with everyone in the company and it was a deeply traumatizing event.

In the aftermath there were several employees who requested to do various cleansing or religious rituals in the space (burning sage, having a priest bless it, bringing in a psychic to send a message to our deceased coworker) but leadership felt like that could get both practically and legally problematic in a hurry, so said “no.” Despite the fact that the office in question would be highly desirable under normal circumstances (large space, lots of windows, a beautiful view), nobody wanted to move into it.

After about six months, there was some discussion about converting the office into some other kind of space but nobody could agree on what it could be used for since some people flatly refuse to enter it. Then the pandemic hit and it became a moot point due to remote working.

Now we are about to begin sharing office space with new people and that office is still vacant and there is kind of an unspoken office taboo about it (even some staff who weren’t working here when the incident happened won’t go into it). On the transition planning team we have one person who thinks we should just give it to the new people, with no reference to the history. One person thinks we should convert it into a storage room (which we don’t need), and one person who thinks we should offer it to the new people but give them a heads-up about why people are weird about the space. But if that means that they don’t want it either … does it just sit empty forever? We have pretty low turnover so it is entirely possible that there will be people still working here in 20 years that knew about the event, so will it forever be “haunted”? I think someone on our leadership team should just take it but I’ve been overruled.

What’s the right thing to do here?

Turn the space into something else and make it as different as you possibly can.

Do you not need storage space because you already have sufficient existing storage spaces? If so, relocate one of them into this room. Or stick a copier in there, or filing cabinets, or a fridge and some cupboards. If you can bring in a carpenter so the space looks completely different, that’s ideal. Knock down a wall, do a new layout, different paint, everything — but most of all you want a different use for the space so it’s not an office.

Your company’s employees have made it clear that they can’t see this as an office; they see it as the scene of something traumatic, and understandably so. Yes, it’s been four years — but people are allowed to feel what they feel, and what happened sounds awful enough that it’s not surprising that they do. And yes, it’s possible that if you assigned it to someone as their office and forced them to work in there, in time people would stop associating it with tragedy. And if the person you assign it to is one of the new people, maybe they won’t care that much. But maybe they will — and they’re likely to hear about it from other employees at some point — and why do that to someone if you don’t have to?

It’s worth some reshuffling to respect people’s feelings.

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