What to do when a CEO gets diagnosed with cancer

When a senior leader falls sick, the highly-personal problem can shake company confidence and undermine morale – what should HR do?

What to do when a CEO gets diagnosed with cancer
A cancer diagnosis may feel like a highly-personal problem but if it happens to a CEO or senior leader, the news can impact the entire organisation – so what should HR do?

“There are two fundamental issues for HR here,” says Troels Jordansen, managing director at Check4Cancer, “the effects of a public announcement about a leader’s health, and the wider awareness of the risks of cancer.”

Out in the open

According to Jordansen, transparency is essential when it comes to addressing the situation.

“The nature of the typical leader/follower relationship can be a personal one, with leaders sometimes being seen as senior members of a family,” he told HRD. “Employees will feel excluded and let down if there is secrecy around such a serious issue, both at a personal level and in terms of the future of the organisation.”

Communication isn’t enough on its own though, stresses Jordansen – it must be followed by a thorough phase of planning and consultation at a senior level.

“It’s about exploring and determining the preferences of the individual with the cancer diagnosis,” he adds. “What do they feel physically and psychologically about the coming months and what they will be capable of doing, and want to do? How do they wish the difficult news to be communicated, and what detail should be provided on how the business will be run during any periods of absence?”

The major risk to an organisation, he warns, comes from a lack of planning.

Knock-on effect 

“High-profile cases of cancer tend to prompt an examination of what processes and systems there are across an organisation to manage and support all staff, as well as the importance of early cancer detection,” says Jordansen, pointing to one MD who brought in free testing for staff and partners following his own diagnosis.

“Offering cancer screening – and not just to senior executives – is an important way of demonstrating an employer’s commitment to staff health,” he suggests.

Control, not crisis

Thankfully, hearing that a colleague has cancer is not a common occurrence but that means few HR professionals are prepared for how best to handle the situation.

“The first rule in supporting any employee with cancer, at whatever level in the organisation, is not to be reactive,” stresses Jordansen. “It's far too emotional a situation to make up a response on the spot,” he continues.

“Everyone would need sympathy and understanding, but they also want a sense of normality and control, not crisis. HR needs to be thinking about this now; preparing overarching guidance for each stage of the situation, such as when a diagnosis is made and when the employee wants to return to work.”
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