Workplace Restorative Justice

What is Restorative Justice...at work?

Restorative justice is an alternative method of addressing wrongdoing in the workplace.  Rather than looking at wrongful behavior as a violation of policy, restorative justice addresses the effect of the wrongdoing within the framework of the employees’ relationships to one another and their communities.  According to Howard Zehr’s publication “The Little Book of Restorative Justice: Revised and Updated,” the core values of restorative justice include participation, reparation, and reintegration. 

Some individuals believe restorative justice to be a soft, insubstantial method of addressing wrongdoing. But how often is the aftermath of an incident of bad behavior addressed? Employees are left trying to make sense of the incident and how it affects their daily work and their place within the organization.  While punitive action does meet a desire for justice, rarely does it restore a victim’s sense of safety or help the victim rebuild again.

When wrongdoing in the workplace occurs, both formal proceedings and restorative methods and goals are not always in tandem. However, businesses can still reach formal accountability for the offender’s action while also addressing the psychological health and safety of the victim and the impact on the organization as a whole.

The Legal Responsibility of Businesses to Address Wrongdoing

Employers do have a responsibility to 1) investigate most allegations of wrongdoing and 2) keep their employees safe.  Not only can the harasser be charged, but so can an employer if they are aware of the harassment taking place. To mitigate their risk, employers need to have policies that prohibit all types of discrimination, bullying, and harassment. But once their legal responsibilities are fulfilled, there is still the aftermath of the incident to process. A business’s responsibility to the victim’s health and safety doesn’t end once punishment has concluded.

Addressing the wrongdoing through a restorative process can retain employees, promote a positive work culture, and ultimately increase productivity.  Often the victim’s right to speak of the wrongdoing is ignored, which can lead to disengagement, retaliation, anger, sabotage, and even escalation of the conflict. More importantly, inaction to address a victim’s mental health and safety by an employer leads to the loss of employee trust.

“People start to heal the moment they feel heard.” ~ Cheryl Richardson

The Participation of the Employee

Laws don’t necessarily have to be broken for someone to experience strong reactions and emotions when bad behavior occurs. It might seem like the best thing to do is to help employees get past it and move forward. But trying to forget an incident of bad behavior rather than address those negative emotions can result in greater harm and consequences. An experienced facilitator in restorative HR reexamines and explores those vulnerable emotions like grief and anger without a focus on aggression. It’s more than just correcting the imbalance between the victim and the  wrongdoer; it repairs the peace through meaningful dialogue.

The Process of Reparation

In the reparation process, the focus is away from an organization’s responsibilities, and the offender, towards a focus on the victim. It begins with acknowledging the harm done and discussing how reparations can be made. Participants work together on a problem-solving activity with a focus on the victim. The result is either in the form of an apology whether written or verbal or both and if possible, forgiveness. The reparation process should not be considered a punishment but an opportunity to learn from mistakes and repair the harm done.  Ideally, the offender should be hopeful about rebuilding their reputations which in turn promotes positivity while also raising inclusivity among everyone.

If forgiveness is the end result, it does not mean condoning or excusing the actions of the wrongdoer but separating the misdeed from the violator. Forgiveness is defined as “the release of anger, revenge or resentment toward another for an offense, flaw or mistake, and the freedom from anger associated with the harm to one’s self or self-image.”

Another result of restorative practices in HR is the increased attachment among teams. Having open discussions with experienced facilitators allows for an understanding to develop among them.  The understanding to respect the rights of others and to assist in resolving conflicts without intermediaries.  As the teams move forward with this new level of understanding, they mutually agree to exercise accountability. The teams, working together, define norms and expectations for themselves.

As businesses consider options for restorative processes, rethinking their approach to harassment, discrimination, or bullying in the workplace there arrives an opportunity to ask the right questions:

  • Who and how has the victim been harmed?
  • What does the victim need?
  • Who is responsible for the victim’s needs?

A clearer focus on the victim and their needs helps build stronger, caring, and more purposeful employees.  With restorative HR practices, organizations set the vibe for mutual respect, provide opportunities for leaders and establish good practices among all their employees.


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