Apr 27

Mediation and Restorative Processes – is there a difference?

Sports Integrity Australia (SIA) released its report this week following its review into historical allegations of alleged abuse and mistreatment of a group of former gymnasts who participated in the Women’s Artistic Gymnastics Program at the Western Australian Institute of Sport (WAIS).

The report makes sobering reading and found:

“Based on the information and material Sport Integrity Australia collected during the course of this Review, it is reasonably likely, throughout the Program, that some gymnasts suffered abuse and/or harm while participating in the WAG Program at WAIS. The policies and procedures that governed the WAG Program at the time did not adequately protect some of the gymnasts in the Program. It is reasonably likely that the conduct and/or omissions on the part of some WAIS and WAG staff, coaches and management contributed to the ensuing abuse and/or harm, either directly or indirectly.”[1]

The SIA recommended that WAIS engage in a “restorative and reconciliatory process” to address and respond to the impacts of abuse and harm.

At Worklogic we have been facilitating restorative processes for organisations found to have had historical (and recent) instances of abuse and I asked my colleague, Louisa Dickinson, a specialist in facilitating such processes, to describe how they can be useful in the workplace, and how it differentiates from a standard mediation approach. This is what she had to say:

“In this context, restorative processes are likely to involve those who have experienced harm (the gymnasts) participating in a facilitated meeting or conference with either those who have caused the harm or those under whose watch it occurred. It can be a very powerful way of restoring the damaged relationships by allowing those harmed to speak to their experiences and in turn, receiving recognition and acknowledgment of the harm experienced, usually through an apology and consideration as to whether any further redress is required.

In a workplace context, restorative practices can be used to respond to a range of situations in which an employee has been adversely affected by the actions of one, or possibly more, colleagues. For example, they may be a beneficial intervention where an employee has experienced bullying, discrimination or sexual harassment or some other unfavourable conduct, such as isolation or unfair treatment. A restorative process may take place as an initial step in response to the concerns being raised or alternatively, in the aftermath of an investigation process where wrong-doing has been established. It can involve those who engaged in the harmful conduct or in certain circumstances, those who are in a senior position in the organisation in which it occurred and who are prepared to be held accountable for the harm that arose.

The focus of restorative processes is on the need to address the harm that has been done. The central questions are what has happened, what the impact of this has been and what needs to now happen to restore right relations between the parties, or the individual and the organisation. A key feature and starting point for discussion is usually an acknowledgement of the harm that has occurred. There is an emphasis on the needs of the person who has experienced the harm and on collaboration between the participants to build better connection and understanding.

Mediation is also often used to great effect in situations where concerns have been raised or relationships have been strained in the workplace, and it shares a number of similar features.  For example, like the facilitator in restorative processes, the mediator also has a neutral and impartial role. They likewise meet with the parties individually before any joint session(s). Most significantly, mediation is also used as a process to assist people to attempt to reach agreements to work together more effectively and ideally, with greater levels of understanding of the other person’s perspective and experiences.

There are, however, some key differences. For example, mediations, or most of the mediations we are engaged to do, usually take place in situations where there is a conflict as to what happened and/or a clash of values and/or the way in which the parties should rightly interact with each other. In these circumstances, there is unlikely to be agreement as to what specifically occurred or a willingness to accept that a harm has been suffered and that one of the parties should be held accountable for this. While the process aims to build a greater appreciation of the other person’s perspective about the issues in dispute or a particular situation, it may be that a participant does not ultimately agree with the other person’s interpretation of events and does not acknowledge their own contribution to the conflict or any possible wrong doing. Notwithstanding this, the process can still be effective and the parties may still be able reach an agreement about how they will engage with each other moving forward and avoid further conflict.”

What strikes me as one of the most important features of a restorative process when compared to a mediation, is the acknowledgement and recognition of harm that underpins it. As Louisa said, an agreement cannot always be reached about what occurred or who is accountable for the conflict in a mediation. In the right circumstances, a restorative process can achieve this outcome and meaningfully assist in the rebuilding of relationships.  


[1] Sports Integrity Australia—WAIS Women’s Artistic Gymnastics Program Review report, Executive Summary (found at https://www.sportintegrity.gov.au/sites/default/files/WAIS%20GYMNASTICS%20REVIEW_FULL%20REPORT.pdf)

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