Repairing Harm as an Alternative to Employee Discipline in Business and at Work


Once again, my horizons were broadened this weekend by Professor David Karp of Skidmore College and Duke Fisher of Learning Laboratories, as I participated in the Skidmore College Campus Restorative Justice Facilitator Training.  David and Duke were also my trainers at the Basic Mediation Training at Skidmore College 4 years ago, sponsored by Mediation Matters (where I occasionally volunteer as a mediator).

I was the sole private-sector participant in a group of talented and committed College Deans, Student Conduct Officers and Skidmore College students from all over the United States and Canada.  Based on my interest in mediation in general and workplace mediation in particular, Duke and David suggested that I attend as the next step in my development as a mediator.

I was not disappointed.  I was also immediately intrigued by the potential application of Restorative Justice Facilitation as an alternative to just using progressive disciplinary processes in the workplace.

As described on David’s College Restorative Justice website, the process of Restorative Justice as repairing harm by the person responsible for the harm to the person who has been harmed is powerful:

Restorative justice is a collaborative decision-making process that includes victims, offenders and others seeking to hold offenders accountable by having them (a) accept and acknowledge responsibility for their offenses, (b) to the best of their ability repair the harm they caused to victims and communities, and (c) work to reduce the risk of re-offense by building positive social ties to the community.

Restorative justice has become a popular practice worldwide. Its practices range from Neighborhood Accountability Boards in Denver, Colorado, to Victim-Offender Dialogues in Pennsylvania prisons to peacemaking circles in aboriginal communities in Canada to Family Group Conferences in New Zealand to Truth and Reconciliation Commissions in South Africa and Rwanda. Models and practices vary significantly under the RJ umbrella. However, most would agree that the core elements of restorative practice include a facilitated dialogue between an offender and a harmed party to identify and acknowledge the harm and find ways to repair it.

The first day of the training included sharing best practices of successful Restorative Justice processes around the country.  The power of story, on the part of both the persons harmed and the individuals responsible for harm, is central to this process.  The shared stories, for example, of two college students (one student who destroyed the belongings of the other student in their dorm), and how their college’s Restorative Justice process facilitated the repair of both the damages and the reputations of both students while keeping them both in school, was powerful indeed.

As I progressed through the training, I immediately thought of how productive a tool the Restorative Justice process might be in resolving / repairing employee workplace disputes. For example, in sexual harassment cases where it is a minor first-time policy violation that does not rise to the level of requiring termination, a harassment complainant periodically requests that the harasser apologize, and promise to not repeat the offense, rather than face formal disciplinary action.

Imagine remediating a harassment complaint using the Restorative Justice Process:

The Core Elements of Restorative Justice

Definition

Restorative justice is a collaborative decision-making process that includes victims, offenders, and others seeking to hold offenders accountable by having them (a) accept and acknowledge responsibility for their offenses, (b) to the best of their ability repair the harm they caused to victims and communities, and (c) work to reduce the risk of re-offense by building positive social ties to the community.

Core Process

Co-facilitators…

  • Host a dialogue with an offender and harmed party letting them tell their story
  • Listen to identify and list the harms
  • Facilitate the exploration of solutions to repair the harms and rebuild trust

Core Principles

Core Questions

What was the harm?

  • “What impact has this had on you and on others?”

What can be done to repair the harm?

What do you think needs to happen to make things right?”

  • Emotional harm> Apology
  • Material harm> Restitution (not fines)
  • Communal harm> Community service

What can be done to rebuild trust?

  • “What can be done to reassure us that there will be no further problems?”
  • Actions that respond to individual risk factors
  • Actions that demonstrate commitment to community
  • Actions that explore harm and demonstrate understanding

Apology Guidelines

Apologies are expression of remorse and the willingness to take responsibility for a transgression. They must be sincere if they are to be taken seriously. Apologies are an important way to repair community relationships and restore trust between parties. Apologies should be written (not verbal), and approved before sending to a harmed party.

Apology letters should contain the following elements:

What Happened:

  • A description detailing the harm caused by the offense. This shows that the offender understands the harmful consequences of his or her behavior.

My Role

  • An acknowledgement that the offender was responsible for the offense. Watch out for expressions that deny, displace, or minimize responsibility.

How I Feel:

  • An expression of remorse or regret in causing harm.

What I Won’t Do:

  • A statement of commitment to responsible behavior and causing no further trouble.

What I Will Do:

  • A statement of commitment to make amends for the harm caused.

 
Community Service Guidelines:

Volunteering in the community is a way to be helpful to others, show that one is socially responsible, and rebuild the trust that is lost through misbehavior. Community service should be meaningful and rewarding. Community service serves two important goals:

  • Service is a way of making amends to the community.
  • Service is an opportunity to demonstrate good citizenship.

 
Proposal: Offender should take the lead on proposing a relevant form of community service. Proposals should include:

  • The type of service project
  • How the service makes amends for harm done to the community
  • Learning goals for the offender’s personal development
  • A timeline for service completion

Validation: Offender should submit a letter, signed by a service agency staff member, to verify that all assigned hours are completed.

Reflection: Offender should write a letter describing the value of service experience personally and for the community. 
 

Restitution Guidelines

Restitution is monetary payment or labor that pays for financial losses. Restitution is very different from fines even though both involve money. Fines are a punitive sanction meant to impose a cost or burden upon the offender. The amount is determined by what is believed to be effective in deterring repeat offending. Restitution is determined by an accounting of the losses incurred by the harm party. Restitution agreements should include:

  • Clear specification of financial losses to the harmed party
  • A payment plan that meets the needs of the harmed party, but also takes into account the offender’s ability to pay. Sometimes labor is substituted for payment.

Imagine how the repair of a Restorative Justice process could transform our current paradigm of employee discipline, to better support retention and morale in our workplaces.

Because couldn’t we all use a bit more peace, in business and at work?

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