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Respectful Workplace Considerations

Bill Howatt Bill Howatt
Chief of Research, Workforce Productivity, Organizational Performance
This op-ed was originally published in Halifax's The Chronicle Herald on December 18, 2018.

What does your organization do to facilitate a respectful workplace? Would you answer differently if the question started out as: What has your organization done...?

I find it often doesn’t matter, as most people answer from the frame of reference of what their organization has done such as:
  • We have put in place a respectful workplace policy.
  • We have trained our managers to manage respectful workplace concerns.
  • We have trained our personnel in how to conduct a respectful workplace investigation.

Another helpful action is to complete an annual risk audit to evaluate how effectively the respectful workplace policy and training directives expectations are compared to the average employee’s perception of their psychological and physical safety.

One challenge with the above approach is that it’s done as a check-the-box exercise, like setting a speed limit and expecting that no one will speed. And when a breach is detected the approach is punitive. If you speed, the remedy is to be issued a speeding ticket.

Some police officers, in some situations, use their discretion as a peace officer. Instead of punishing, they take the opportunity to educate the speeder by giving them a warning and a few words of wisdom. That can be effective in some cases to reinforce safety and educate a driver to slow down and adhere to the speed limit. It also gives the speeder an opportunity to accept responsibility, apologize and to report their resolution to the police officer.

Taking a punitive approach can breed within workplace culture a general sentiment that any employee found to have breached the organization’s respectful workplace policy will be punished. This can result in judgement of an accused before an investigation is completed and their being perceived as a bad person, which can result in damage to reputation and mental health.

This kind of approach can end up mirroring the criminal justice system, where evidence is collected to determine innocence or guilt. If a person is found guilty, there’s some form of punishment, up to termination, and in cases of workplace violence there can be criminal charges.

However, if a person is found innocent — regardless of the extent of emotional damage — there’s often no action or acknowledgement of the emotional toll or the potential mental injury that being wrongly accused can have on a person.

Organizations interested in employees learning and growing from their missteps will look beyond just implementing investigations. They will seek to support employees to learn from mistakes and to proactively create a culture that promotes the three Rs of reconciliation, restitution and resolution.

Restorative justice looks at conflict and wrongdoing of one person to another in a different way than just defining what’s right and wrong. Its goal is to mediate misdeeds and differences by creating an environment that facilitates opportunity for employees to negotiate and find personal resolution. This allows for corrective action, learning and personal growth for the person who has made a mistake as well as to assist the individual who was wronged to move past the situation in a meaningful way.

Bullying is always wrong and must never be tolerated. However, some behaviours, though wrong and offensive, can reveal gaps in self-awareness and emotional intelligence that provide insight on how someone’s behaviour can negatively impact and hurt another person. This is not an excuse. Someone who hurts another person must be held accountable for their action.

Restorative justice can provide an opportunity to empower parties involved to come to a resolution that is satisfactory to all. Sometimes when a person can simply apologize for what they’ve done can create an opportunity for the victim to forgive and to move past the event.

Kelly VanBuskirk, a Saint John, N.B., employment lawyer who has published on restorative justice, suggests, “Workplace law sometimes dictates two employees who have behaved badly toward each other still have to work together. The current legislative efforts to end harassment in Canadian workplaces will likely make that reality even more apparent.

While the law insists that some work relationships continue, it doesn’t provide much direction on how to do that successfully. I suppose it’s like refusing to grant a divorce and instead ordering that the spouses go home together and work it out, without telling them how.

One of my interests is in the application of restorative justice principles in workplaces. Although some employers and employees might turn their noses up at the idea, they have to acknowledge that, if they are forced to work together, reconciliation is a better alternative than ongoing toxicity. Restorative justice is a promising option for true resolution.”

Coaching tips for layering in restorative justice:

  • Provide employee context — Teach employees what restorative justice is, its benefits, how it works and how it aligns with the organization’s values. It’s beneficial for employees to understand that the goal of restorative justice is to provide an opportunity for employees to be accountable for their actions and to find personal resolutions.

  • Amplify culture value and behavioural expectations — This can be done through leaders who daily role model and talk to employees about the organization’s culture values and behavioural expectations for setting social norms and expectations for how employees treat each other. This helps all employees clearly understand the need for civility, and what is and what isn’t acceptable behaviour.

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