Conflict resolution program could be used to resolve workplace issues

Restorative justice is a conflict resolution model that has found various applications in the criminal and juvenile justice systems. It focuses on the rehabilitation of offenders through reconciliation with both victims and the community at large.

Susan C. Stone and Kristina W. Supler, principals at McCarthy, Lebit, Crystal & Liffman, are confident this program can also be effectively used to address harm and conflict in the workplace.

“This tool provides bandwidth to address employee misconduct, ethical challenges, harassment and other divisive workplace issues,” Supler says. “One of the most important things that you can have in a business, or in any type of formal group setting, is an environment where people feel there is an opportunity to be heard. It helps to create a more cohesive workplace culture.”

The challenge that arises when one individual does something that harms another is reaching an outcome that allows everyone who is involved the ability to move forward and go on with their lives.

In a best-case scenario, reconciliation occurs and the parties are able to find a way to remain with the organization, avoiding the costly process to identify and hire new personnel.

“Employee turnover hurts productivity,” Stone says. “Restorative justice offers a means by which relationships can be preserved among employees.”

Smart Business spoke with Supler and Stone about the benefits of using restorative justice to resolve workplace conflicts.

What led you to consider bringing the restorative justice model to the workplace?
In a recent case involving a young woman who filed sexual assault charges against a young man at her university, the woman recognized that returning to school and going through the legal process at the university had the potential to cause her even more pain.

Both sides, the man and the woman, agreed to restorative justice. The accused offender took responsibility for causing the woman harm and they collectively worked out an approach to allow both individuals to co-exist on the campus. With a collective background in employment law and discrimination cases, it made sense to explore whether this program could be used in a business setting.

How does restorative justice compare to traditional conflict resolution?
Restorative justice is a way for employers to engage in risk management. By creating a safe forum where an employee can be heard without fear of workplace retaliation, it levels out any uneven perceptions of power.

This tool also allows the harmed party to express the impact of the harm and what he or she is feeling as a result of the inappropriate conduct. It is a way for the person who caused the harm to have a dialogue about it and gain some understanding for the damage that was caused. This is a way to foster some sense of accountability, attempt to repair the harm and try to rebuild some of the relationship between the two parties involved.

What do companies need to know before they get started?
If a company wishes to make restorative justice part of its culture, it needs to be imbedded in the employee or corporate policy handbook. This gives employers a first step to try to resolve a conflict before deciding whether to terminate an employee. By including it in the handbook, it sets a tone that employees can expect to be heard no matter their status in the company.

It’s also important to note that the most severe conflict often occurs amongst high-level executives who have a difference of opinion in the company’s corporate vision. By embedding restorative justice in the policy handbook, high-level employees understand that they need to work through a process that addresses the conflict rather than lobbying or conducting back-room dialogue with others to get their agenda accomplished. This program is a way to get people on the same page.

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