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The ‘culture-changing’ effect of pet bereavement leave

Erika Sinner, CEO of Directorie, on pet bereavement leave
Erika Sinner
Erika Sinner, CEO of Directorie and author of the forthcoming book, "Pets Are Family," is a transformative leader and global advocate for workplace empathy. Her background, rooted in humble beginnings and marked by hard work, instilled in her the grit and tenacity that propelled her to entrepreneurial success.

In our fast-paced world, where stakes and expectations are soaring, the margin for error continues to narrow. There’s a crucial need for HR to foster a company culture that not only enhances work enjoyment but also addresses the challenge of retaining hard-to-find talent. Culture goes beyond happy hours, awards or birthday celebrations in the breakroom.

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Company culture is also seen in the other side of our lives hidden behind the laptops and conference rooms—how employees feel on a Sunday night and how they cope when life takes an unexpected turn, forcing them to confront vulnerabilities not everyone may understand. This is my story of how my baby boys, Kingston and Edmond, empowered me with the courage, or rather, the responsibility, to speak up.

Fueling company culture through supportive policies

Last year brought profound loss to our family as we lost our beloved Shar Pei, Kingston, to Hemangiosarcoma within a week. The emotional burden was overwhelming, leading me to suppress grief and carry on with daily responsibilities. Fears of appearing weak to my team amplified my shame. Would my employees think I was weak as a leader? Would they understand or think, “It’s just a dog”?

Then, 21 days later, Edmond, my other dog, was diagnosed with a malignant tumor, initiating a summer marked by the unpredictability of radiation and surgeries, plunging me into an emotional whirlwind.

While my company has always included pet bereavement leave in its policies, the profound grief I experienced inspired me to lead with even greater vulnerability and advocate for pet bereavement leave in other organizations. In every conversation, I connected on a deeper level with others, including strangers, who shared the same level of grief and shame. Some were fortunate to have understanding managers, while others had to use PTO and then were expected to bounce back to work quickly.

This realization prompted me to acknowledge that if I, in my position, felt this way, others also were experiencing similar emotions, possibly with even greater weight—especially when lacking the flexibility to take time off, as policies may not explicitly address pet loss in the same way they do for human loss.

This experience inspired me to write and advocate as the first step in raising awareness about the necessity of such leave. With almost 70% of U.S. households including a pet, it’s essential to address the emotional impact of pet loss and advocate for supportive policies.

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Learn how organizations are leveraging pet bereavement leave and other benefits to shape a people-centric culture at HRE‘s upcoming EPIC Conference, April 24-26 in Las Vegas. Click here to register.

My writing goes beyond a personal account; it serves as a call to action. It aims to bring more empathy into the workplace, urging the recognition of shared human experiences that unite us all. Navigating the complexities of leading a company has highlighted the resilience born from vulnerability and emphasized the necessity of fostering open dialogues. This journey uncovered workplace misunderstandings, manifested in awkward meetings and an overall silence, signaling a lack of resources to navigate pet loss.

This realization fueled my mission to advocate and speak out more for empathy-driven leadership. It goes beyond benefits and values; it’s about recognizing the humanity in everyone and fostering deeper connections rooted in trust and support.

Embracing the ‘moments that matter’

As a minority female CEO, I have consistently blended my masculine and feminine approaches to leadership. Over my years of leadership, I’ve meticulously woven a tapestry of care and support, creating a company culture that embraces the intricacies of our lives beyond job titles. Established protocols guide our actions in moments of celebration or despair. This includes allocated funds and training for managers to send thoughtful gestures like flowers for milestones, promotions, a new baby, a new home, welcoming furry family members with bark boxes and making heartfelt donations to honor beloved pets who passed. Each gesture is tenderly crafted, affirming the essence of our shared humanity.

Within my organization, we have a document called “Moments that Matter,” outlining important meetings, from monthly leadership forecasts to one-on-one meetings with managers and their direct reports. It details topics, organizers, benefits and guidelines.

The goal is not only to set the tone for how we use our time but also to emphasize the importance of mandatory one-on-one meetings. They aren’t nice to have; they are mandatory. This is how you begin to feel and understand the culture within your teams. It must happen at every level of management. This is an example of what that meeting outline looks like.

1:1 TOUCH BASE, Weekly

Attendees: Direct reports

Scheduled by: Manager


  • Life
  • Employee goals/progress
  • Impediments to success
  • “What can I do to help?”
  • Business updates


  • Retention/connections to the company
  • Employee advancement

Things to avoid:

  • Client work/task
  • Projects
  • Expanded attendees

“Moments that Matter” goes beyond meetings for me; losing Kingston was truly my defining moment. Recognizing events outside work that significantly impact our professional lives is crucial. Organizations should value policies supporting employees during pivotal moments and provide management training to identify these instances, even when not visibly apparent. My advocacy extends beyond pet bereavement leave to encompass acknowledging employees’ holistic lives beyond their work roles.

Compassion as a cornerstone of company culture

Today’s employers grapple with talent retention. Acknowledging employees beyond titles, recognizing their lives outside work, and valuing personal losses and celebratory moments are fundamental retention strategies.

The employee journey isn’t linear; it’s about identifying key moments that shape experiences. This doesn’t always require elaborate policies but can be done by recognizing birthdays, celebrating personal milestones and engaging in meaningful 1:1 conversations. A poor manager can drastically alter one’s experience at a company.

See also: The latest trend in employee retention? Even more pet benefits

These efforts don’t always need grand gestures or additional funding. A brief chat, an email or a text expressing congratulations or offering support can make a difference.

It involves pausing to move beyond apparent milestones, actively listening to uncover deeper needs, fostering greater connections in our work, and ultimately making our time at work more meaningful. By recognizing the power of “moments that matter” and embedding empathy into company cultures, we build workplaces rooted in compassion.

The goal isn’t just about policies; it’s about fostering a human environment where employees feel seen, supported and valued beyond their roles. But wow, what a start to show in black and white! A policy that, as you read this article, you have the power to make. Even adding one single day of pet bereavement leave signals to your employees that you understand their life beyond the norm.

All leaders can cultivate a more compassionate workplace by acknowledging these moments and providing the necessary support. You, as HR leaders, however, have an even greater power to initiate conversations and shape a future where compassion in the workplace is not an option but a fundamental aspect of organizational culture.

It can genuinely begin with a sincere policy regarding the loss of a furry family member—a family member deeply connected to your employee’s everyday life. A furry family member who waits at home to greet them with joy, and some even share their beds. Recognizing this as a genuine loss that will impact your employee and not leaving it to chance that line managers are aware enough to understand this loss can be culture-changing.