Restorative processes are valuable in all of those situations where members of a community, whose ongoing relationships are underpinned by some shared concern, regularly need to build, maintain, deepen / strengthen, or restore / re-set relations.

This sort of relationship management is essential in workplaces.

Restorative practices are consistent with emerging best practice approaches in Human Resource Management and Industrial Relations. Restorative practices help organisations move beyond an over-reliance on bureaucratic “grievance procedure” systems.

Notoriously, grievance procedures often lead to more grievance than they resolve. The initial case management of workplace harm is sometimes referred to as ‘triage‘. However, this is not consistent with the original or most common meaning of the term: a quick assessment followed by assignment to one of three streams. A presenting case of workplace harm may include elements of more than one of the categories of:

  1. workplace bullying and misconduct,
  2. breaches of professional standards, and
  3. inappropriate behaviour of a sexual nature

What much contemporary HR practice calls ‘triage’ is in fact a segmentation process. It determines which aspects of a case will be examined by:

  • a unit or organisation that addresses sexual harassment, predatory behaviour, and sexual assault of a criminal nature; &/or
  • a unit or organisation that addresses employee misconduct, corruption by any employee and criminal matters involving employees; &/or
  • a workplace relations unit responsible for responding to concerns of workplace bullying and staff misconduct against other staff.

In some cases, following quick assessment, a case may be assigned for further assessment to one, two, or all three of these streams.  Each stream is seeking to resolve a dispute by answering the binary question:

‘Did someone cross a threshold into officially unacceptable behaviour?’ 

Under current arrangements in many disciplinary or grievance systems, attention can turn to addressing relational conflict within the workplace only after these disputes about formal misconduct have been resolved.

This problem of what to address, how to address it, and when to address it remains a widespread challenge in workplaces.  

In the Australian context, these questions were formally addressed by the 2012 Federal Parliamentary Committee examining complaints of bullying in Australian workplaces. They were addressed more specifically and effectively by the 2013-14 Pearce Report into workplace issues affecting CSIRO

The two volume CSIRO report confirmed that current grievance systems tend to generate (further or new) grievance, because their default question is “against whom are you aggrieved?”  Asking this question creates two profound problems. Neither of these is necessarily-initially-obvious:

1. A problem of diagnosis known as the ‘fundamental attribution error’:

Asking who someone is aggrieved against makes it highly likely that the answer will give too much explanatory weight to the personality or behaviour of an individual. The answer will not give enough explanatory weight to systemic or structural issues;

2. A problem of treatment created by (the process dynamic of) adversarial debate:

Adversarial debate delivers a basic (yes/no) answer to a basic question. (“Has there or has there not been a breach?)

The question assumes that the presenting situation is simple, and thus also assumes that the appropriate treatment is simple. But the question “Has there been a breach?” is not-necessarily-easy to answer – nor is it necessarily the most important question to ask.

The Pearce report into allegations of bullying at the CSIRO suggests that the default initial question in response to workplace harm should be:

What’s happening in this work unit?’

Any answer should give adequate explanatory weight to systemic or structural issues. Under current arrangements, specialist consultants advise on the options available to victims of workplace harm, typically “connecting them with relevant investigative bodies and welfare services.” 

In other words, the available resolution mechanisms primarily do things to individuals (by way of post-investigation punishment for those who may have caused harm) and then also do things for individuals (by way of therapy for those who may have been harmed).

Conflictual workplace relations can be better addressed by asking:

What has happened, how have people been affected, and what might now be done to restore or reset right relations?

Restorative practices, and relationship management more broadly, can be part of broader exercise of consciously redesigning for a more conflict resilient workplace. Again, this approach is based on foundational principles of:

  • causing no further harm,
  • working with those involved, and
  • seeking to set relations right.

A “restorative” approach asks a different set of questions.

It works in a different way, with all people who are directly affected by a difficult situation, and the people who can provide support and oversight of any plan for remedial action.

Rather than ‘segmenting’ issues, this approach seeks a more comprehensive understanding of context, relationships and impact, along with a series or sequence of processes to provide an integrated intervention. A systemic approach enables early effective diagnosis of difficult workplace situations, and offers treatment with the right process or combination of processes. A systemic approach will typically include effective frameworks and skills training, such that staff are more able to talk performance with their line managers in a constructive way.

An important shift in emphasis is occurring in the field of workplace dispute and conflict handling. Practitioners and policy makers are seeking to devote a greater proportion of resources to promoting wellness as opposed to solely responding to sickness.

(Similar shifts from reaction to prevention have occurred in areas such as public health, psychology, and policing.) In many workplaces, effective managers are shifting their primary focus from:

(i)  refining or elaborating grievance handling systems; to

(ii) promoting a culture in which all staff are engaged in efforts to improve communication and promote constructive working relations across the organisation:

A philosophy or restoration over retribution is part of this fundamental shift in emphasis, from:

  • Reacting to negative features of a system, through
  • Preventing negative features of a system, through
  • Promoting positive features of a system. 

A system of relationship management, including restorative practices, can help to fine-tune communication across all of the domains where interpersonal communication occurs:

  • in the observational coaching that is a core part of teaching and mentoring,
  • in direct (“unmediated”) conversation between individuals,
  • in mediated negotiation, and
  • in facilitated group discussion.

This work of fine-tuning can occur around communication that occurs when something bad happens, &/or communication to prevent bad things from happening, and &/or communication to promote good things. (“Communication to promote good things” includes using the group conferencing process to support effective group decision-making on a range of issues:

  • a single incident;
  • an incident with a history;
  • some issue of common concern;
  • harm caused in an institutional context from which the institution can and should learn.

Fine-tuning communication is as relevant in a workplace as it is in any other large and complex community. In general, fine-tuning communication should improve decision-making, resolve disputes more effectively, minimise the conflict generated by poor decision-making and/or unresolved disputes, and manage more effectively any conflict that does arise.

A system of relationship management represents a fundamentally different approach from behaviour management.

The term “behaviour management” is consistent with a system of behaviourist order maintenance. The guiding philosophy of behaviour management is that members of the organisation or community should be:

(i) persuaded through external rewards to behave appropriately, and

(ii) dissuaded by the threat of punishment from behaving inappropriately.

In a system of behaviourist order maintenance, authorities maintain order by doing things to or for people.

In contrast, a philosophy of restorative practice or responsive regulation holds that the key requirement is not for authorities primarily to provide outcomes, not to do things to or for others.

The key requirement for effective relationship management – to support appropriate behaviours, minimise inappropriate behaviours, and provide for learning and healing when inappropriate behaviour does occur – is skills and systems for working with people.

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