We talked to workers at Texas Roadhouse and Kate Spade about what happens to a company when a leader takes their own life
- Texas Roadhouse CEO Kent Taylor died by suicide on March 18.
- When a company mourns the suicide of its leader, a set of challenges follow.
- Workers will need time to grieve and heal, and the successor needs to take a sensitive approach.
- See more stories on Insider’s business page.
The morning of March 19 began as usual for Chané Doolabh.
She woke up, grabbed her phone, and checked her rotation of social media apps. But when she got to LinkedIn, she saw a post that stopped her scroll in its tracks. A colleague had posted that Kent Taylor, CEO of the Texas Roadhouse restaurant chain, had died by suicide at the age of 65. For the past three years, Doolabh had been a Texas Roadhouse server at a San Marcos location.
Doolabh, saddened and shocked, texted a group of coworkers to confirm the news. They began to gradually piece together the details.
Taylor took his life on March 18 in his hometown, Louisville, Kentucky, after experiencing COVID-related symptoms and severe tinnitus. Taylor had no history of depression, according to friends, but he hadn’t been able to sleep for more than two hours in months due to his symptoms.
“It definitely has taken a toll on work life,” Doolabh told Insider. “It hit people pretty hard because it’s close to home, but also not really.”
As a server at the chain, Doolabh had never met the CEO personally, but his presence and values were very much felt throughout the company, she said. “He’s brought up in everything we do.”
Doolabh is one of some 58,000 Texas Roadhouse employees who had to grapple with Taylor’s death in the past weeks. The company announced the CEO’s successor, former company President Jerry Morgan, one day after Taylor’s passing. The impact of Taylor’s death is likely to continue emotions of loss, grief, and confusion for the company and its employees for some time. Texas Roadhouse representatives did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Founded by Taylor in 1993, Texas Roadhouse has grown into one of the largest steakhouse chains in the US, with more than 600 locations across the country. Taylor was respected among employees; the restaurant was named Employee’s Choice Best Places to Work in 2014 by Glassdoor, and he had given up his salary from March 2020 through January 2021 to assist frontline restaurant employees during the pandemic.
The death of an organization’s leader can place significant organizational stress on a company, but when that loss occurs because of a suicide, there are even more challenges at play. And the rigidity of corporate environments can often make it more difficult to process the death of a colleague, much less the CEO. Experts told Insider that some employees may face anger, survivor’s guilt, and confusion around the direction of the brand after a CEO commits suicide.
Taylor’s death recalls the suicides of fashion designers Alexander McQueen in 2010 and Kate Spade in 2018.
“There is a literature on suicide and occupation, but that is not specified to C-level executives,” Eric Caine, a psychiatrist who researches suicide at the University of Rochester, told Fortune. “There is also very little anecdotal evidence. The reason is that people tend to hide these tragedies. Only the most prominent make it to the press.”
Like the loss of a parent
The death of a CEO can be compared to any other type of significant loss, according to Jacob Brown, a San Francisco-area family therapist who specializes in grief counseling.
“It’s not unlike the death of a parent,” Brown told Insider. “In leadership, we really turn to these people at the C-suite for guidance. We depend on them, we have staked our lives and our families’ welfare on following these people. We’ve really given a lot to them.”
Employees at a company can expect to see various symptoms of grief among colleagues. It’s common, for example, for the company’s successors to experience anger or betrayal around the sudden loss. And according to Manfred Kets de Vries, a management scholar and professor of organizational change at INSEAD, colleagues of the CEO are also likely to experience guilt and blame themselves for not being able to prevent their death.
“People feel guilty,” Kets de Vries said. “‘Didn’t see it coming? What could we have done to have prevent it? In this case, people might start to blame themselves.”
Time to heal
While it’s common for employees to experience shock and grief in response to a work-related loss, corporate environments can make it difficult to process those emotions.
“It is very dicey to express feelings of grief at work,” Brown said. “A work environment is really not a very positive or safe environment to express feelings of loss. They’ll let you do it for a week, maybe two weeks in some places, but then everybody really wants you to shut up.”
Matthew Copeland of Fort Walton Beach, Florida, was a sales associate at Kate Spade when news broke about the namesake designer’s suicide in 2018. Copeland said the event stirred up confusion and sadness among employees. For the next week, he and employees discussed Spade’s passing and how such an event could have transpired.
“We took our time to mourn her passing because, obviously, we worked for the company, we loved the brand,” Copeland said. “We also experienced a lot of customers coming in, very saddened by it, trying to buy her product, fearing that the brand would shut down.”
But most of the company’s messaging, Copeland said, was externally facing, acknowledging Spade’s passing and sharing suicide prevention hotlines through social media. According to Copeland, the company made minimal effort to communicate directly with employees.
“It wasn’t a big discussion with us — corporate just reached out to the general public,” Copeland said. “From a corporate standpoint, I felt it was kind of a ‘let’s get this over with and move on’ kind of thing.”
Representatives from Kate Spade did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Meghan Holladay, a former Kate Spade sales associate at a Dawsonville, Georgia, location, said that morale was low at the company for a few months following Spade’s death.
“But we always try to stay happy and positive about the situation,” Holladay said, “because you don’t want the brand of the company to be sad, you know?”
Employees need time to grieve, Brown said, and not just members of the executive team who have worked with the CEO directly. He recommends leadership teams providing access to grief counseling for employees, as well as encouraging managers within the company to be patient if an employee’s performance suffers temporarily in response to the loss.
Challenges for the successor
In the wake of a devastating loss, the company’s successor will also face unique and substantial challenges trying to fill the shoes of the previous CEO. And they will have to do so with a great amount of sensitivity since employees will likely still be reeling from the shock of the loss.
“The way the successor appreciates his predecessor — the way he talks about a person and validates him — plays an important role,” Kets de Vries said.
“When there’s this loss by suicide, the feelings are much more sensitive,” Brown said. “So they really have to be careful to not be seen as taking advantage of the situation or denigrating their predecessor, and to wait a little while before making too much change.”
Going forward, executive teams should also be open about the challenges they’re facing, so that they’re better able to lean on and support each other.
“To build better executive teams, Kets de Vries said, executives need to be “vulnerable and willing to talk about what they’re good at and what they’re not content with, and how they can help each other.”
If you or someone you know is struggling with depression or has had thoughts of harming themselves or taking their own life, get help. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-8255) provides 24/7, free, confidential support for people in distress, as well as best practices for professionals and resources to aid in prevention and crisis situations.
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