What to do when a CEO gets diagnosed with cancer

by Nicola Middlemiss18 Feb 2016
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 organization – 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 HR Magazine. “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 organization, 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.”


  • by Catherine Cahill, Worksense Solutions 18/02/2016 12:50:54 PM

    Check4Cancer is an organisation that provides cancer screening to corporate clients. It would seem this article is an advertisement for their services (although this was not clearly disclosed); and not professional HR advice on the best options for managing this situation in an organisation.

    There are many things an organisation may consider to assist, but the very first consideration would be the wishes of the individual living with the diagnosis.

    Assuming a public announcement is appropriate or necessary would be very poor practice and very insensitive.

    In my experience as an HR professional, employees are much more likely to want information and support on Leave arrangements, Flexible Working arrangements and EAP.

  • by 18/02/2016 2:28:53 PM

    I was diagnosed 2 years ago with an aggressive cancer. My HR leadership role was a relatively new one. I have been given an enormous amount of support from my immediate manager and from the director, both of whom have allowed me time to grieve, to regroup and to plan fir contingency. I am very lucky.

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