Only very occasionally do we experience what it’s like for a work colleague to die unexpectedly. And yet, even when it does happen more than a few times, it always feels new and raw, and even quite bizarre (as well as all the usual emotions, of course). Early in my recruitment career, I had three such instances, which have strongly influenced my thinking in many ways. These are those stories, as accurately as I can remember them. I apologise for any inaccuracies.

In 1991 (if I recall correctly), David (I shan’t mention his surname) was employed as the Edinburgh branch manager for Search Consultancy. I knew David as a previous colleague in HMS recruitment a couple of years before, and he was a hugely popular and funny guy, if a little caustic with his humour.  David had recently become the father of twins, and appeared to be doing well at work. Unfortunately, behind this David had money problems, and owed cash to the wrong kind of people. It was discovered that money had gone missing from the office petty cash, and David was given a warning. Sadly when it was discovered again, David knew he would be shown the door – and he was. Whilst I don’t know every detail, I understand he left the office, had a few drinks before taking the train to Falkirk, left that station platform and lay down on the track. Police notified the office soon after, and everyone was universally stunned.

In 1992 Paula Young was only 21 (I believe), and was the recruiter at the very next desk to mine in Search Consultancy.  She was very good at her job, and very popular too. She had a falling out with a colleague she had been seeing, and moved back home to her parents place, in Bo’ness. On the following Monday morning the police arrived at the office to determine the driver of her Ford car. On the way to work that morning, a truck had careered off a bridge, and land flat on top of her vehicle below.  A few days later the entire company closed for the day, and everyone attended the funeral. It was a grim day at that granite church, high on the hillside overlooking the River Forth. The weather matched the mood, as we packed into the church pews. On leaving the church with the coffin, Paula’s favourite Prince song was played (Raspberry Beret). We followed the cortege to the nearby cemetery, where there appeared to be another girl who looked exactly like Paula, but with dark, not blonde hair. Her twin sister was clearly stricken with unbearable grief. I did later understand that she and Paula’s ex from Search subsequently became close, and left together, bound for Australia.

In 1993 I joined a former colleague to start a new recruitment firm, Maxwell Bruce Ltd. Bruce FitzGerald was 10 years older than I, and the majority partner, but initially it was just us two guys in a room making placements. Skip to 7 years later, and we had grown to almost 50 staff, and 2000 temporary workers assembling PC’s for IBM. On c.£12m turnover, we were making a decent profit. However, these things often do, it all fell apart, and I left acrimoniously following various legal tussles culminating in me serving a High Court injunction on Bruce and the company. I sold my shares to him for pocket change, and set off to build a new company. Cut to 2001, and after Maxwell Bruce Ltd had failed and was reborn under a similar name, Bruce died suddenly. As captain of his rugby club, he liked to keep very fit, and suffered a critical heart attack whilst on the running machine at his gym, aged only 49. On hearing the news, I must confess to being torn in my emotions. This was my business partner for many years, and whilst we were never close, I liked him a lot. However, I clearly felt robbed by the way I was forced to part with the company I had built with him. To die so young is always terrible, but I realised that I was still carrying something of a grudge.

So why do I bring up such a morbid topic now, you may well ask. Well I’ll be 50 soon, and just like those end-of-the-year review shows, it’s got me thinking. If I choose to express my age as a percentage (which I do), then I’m only 50%. I’m now older than Bruce, and expect to have the same length of time again. Having seen colleagues and friends die in tragic and sometimes bizarre circumstances, I realise that there are no guarantees in life, only in death.

When this kind of sudden event affects co-workers, it’s important to remember that everyone will try to rationalise the situation in their own way; some requiring support, and many seemingly taking it in their stride. Such traumatic events can also have the power to affect the working culture of companies too, so business managers really need to focus on ensuring the business stays on track, and all sensitivities are considered carefully.


OK, the creepy animation above may be a little inappropriate, but I like it.

Stephen O'Donnell is a lifelong recruiter, internet enthusiast, fadgadget and peripatetic writer.

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