Restorative practices in the workplace

Melanie Roberts
May 9, 2024

The concept of restorative practice originated in the criminal justice system as a process to repair harm to victims and it aims to get offenders to take responsibility for their actions and to understand the impact of the harm they have caused, and to make amends.  Restorative practices in a workplace context can be used to respond to several situations where an employee has been adversely affected by one or more colleagues, and sometimes by the employer’s management of issues.

Restorative processes focus on the need to address the harm that has been done, exploring what happened and what has the impact been, and what needs now to happen to restore the working relationship between the parties, or the employee and the organisation.  Rebuilding trust is an important objective. At the outset of a restorative process is usually an acknowledgement of the harm that has occurred, with an emphasis on the needs of the person who has experienced the harm and with the goal being on the individuals building a better understanding, which leads them to find a way to move forward and repair and restore the relationship.

Restorative practices can be used in numerous ways.  They can be used as an initial response to a complaint or concern being raised between individuals, or within a team, or in the aftermath of an investigation process.

Restorative practice as an initial response

Restorative practices can be used instead of formally investigating a matter.  The focus is on the complainant being heard and it enables the respondent to understand the impact of their behaviour and show remorse, and for the parties to discuss how to repair the harm and restore their working relationship.  It is also an opportunity for the organisation to address any systemic issues to prevent them arising again in the future.

Restorative practice – post an investigation

An investigation will, inevitably, cause damage to the working relationship between complainant and respondent; one party may feel they were proven right and the other wrong, it may be a mix, but unless steps are taken to restore their working relationship, there is real risk of long-term conflict.

Restorative mediation between the parties will enable them to explore their future working relationship and they can agree the way they will work together going forward.  It is not an opportunity to rehash the investigation. The participants may share and acknowledge the impact of how things are now, however, the focus of the mediation is future orientated as to the way they will work together.   

Participants frequently want to discuss the impact on them of the investigation with each other, and this must be carefully managed by the mediator, as it is not a forum for reopening old wounds. The mediator can assist the parties when they are engaged with the mediator in one-on-one sessions, prior to coming together in the mediation, by enabling them to talk about the impact and to express how they feel with the mediator.  Often just being heard by the mediator is sufficient for a party to move forward and think about their options for the future.  The mediator can assist each party to think about whether discussing the impact will advance their future working relationship and if they do discuss the impact, how to do so.  Participants may wish to discuss the reason why the complainant made the complaint and talk about it in the context of how to prevent any behaviour or issues or complaints arising in the future, this may include how to approach one another when an issue arises.

An alternative to a restorative mediation is to have a restorative facilitated discussion, which is more directive, and which may involve a senior manager as well as the complainant and respondent coming together to agree the way they will work together; or it may involve just the complainant and respondent in the room but allow some input from a senior manager or Human Resources.

A facilitated discussion could take place with anyone involved; it may involve colleagues who were witnesses to assist a restoration of relations between those impacted by the investigation, and to assist in restoring the team dynamics which are frequently disrupted by an investigation.

A restorative mediation will not always be either required or a productive process. If the investigation found that serious misconduct has been proven, yet the respondent has not been terminated, and the parties are expected to still work together, it is necessary to consider the psychological safety in bringing the parties together for a mediation. There is a necessary balance here between the natural discomfort parties may feel in participating in a mediation and feeling psychologically unsafe.  Having a one-on-one preparatory session with the mediator has value in itself as it not just enables the mediator (and the participant) to determine if the joint session should proceed, but discussing options for the future with the mediator will help the parties and an option is always that a participant may decide to leave the organisation.

There are cases however, in which a respondent to a matter is genuinely remorseful and would like to make amends.  He told me of his eagerness to apologise, make amends and ensure that the complainant did not feel uncomfortable with him still in the organisation and he hoped that a restorative process would assist to achieve these ends. 

It does, however, suggest that there may be situations in which respondents to investigations or those who are made aware that their conduct has caused distress, hurt or discomfort, may be willing to participate in such a process if it were offered.  It also illustrates that there can be a gap in what support is provided to participants in an investigation to re-establish or reset their relationships or even given an opportunity to make an apology in a safe and confidential space.

Restorative processes between individual and the organisation

Restorative processes between an individual and the organisation are predicated on an acceptance that an individual has suffered harm, and the organisation is prepared to accept and to be accountable for its failures to prevent the harm or from failing to respond appropriately when it was reported.

A participant is given the opportunity to participate in a restorative process that enables them to give a personal account of the impact and harm, which may be serious bullying or sexual harassment or sex discrimination, to be heard and responded to and acknowledged by the organisation.   The principles of trauma-informed practice and restorative justice underpin these processes and are constructive in supporting individual recovery and organisational reform.

The situations where a senior representative of the organisation participates in a restorative process with an individual may occur in a number of scenarios:

  • Where an investigation found the behaviour proven, and the respondent’s employment has been terminated as a result. The complainant seeks to be heard by the organisation to ensure this type of behaviour does not occur again and the organisation is open to understanding what systemic or cultural factors contributed to the harm and want to ensure changes are made so it does not reoccur.
  • Where the complainant is returning to work from a period of being on Workcover, whether or not an investigation took place, and in order to assist them to return to  work a restorative process is used, whereby a senior representative from the organisation listens to the impact on the individual, with a focus then on what needs to be put in place to assist the individual to return to work.

Using restorative practices in a variety of workplace contexts ensures the emphasis is on communication, connection, repair all steps to build  a psychologically safe workplace.

Feel free to contact the Worklogic team if you’d like to find our more about restorative practice in the workplace.

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