Workplace Restoration: An Interest-Focused Approach for Work Units or Teams

Conflict that arises in organizations is complex and often driven by a multitude of factors unique to each situation. If ignored, the conflict generally does not get better with time. Unresolved workplace conflict can destroy relationships, create feelings of uncertainty or distrust, erode morale, and negatively impact productivity.

Most organizations are well-equipped with processes to respond to conflict that has been escalated to a complaint or grievance. A formal process may entitle an employee to a fact-finding investigation, hearing, or arbitration before a third-party neutral factfinder, a hearing officer, or an arbitrator. These “rights-focused” approaches to conflict resolution centre on the legal rights of the parties and can be adversarial and competitive.

Many organizations have implemented informal conflict management processes that focus on problem-solving at an early stage, in an open manner and as close to the source of the problem as possible.

Mediation is frequently employed in organizations as an informal conflict management process to resolve differences between individuals. As we have found, workplace mediation can allow those experiencing conflict to engage in a facilitated dialogue that helps them identify shared interests and mutually agree on the next steps to rebuild, or build, a respectful working relationship. As such, it is an “interest-focused” approach to conflict resolution where the employees involved ideally create a “win-win” solution that they are more likely to sustain because it meets their interests.

What is the appropriate informal conflict management process for work teams/units, departments, or perhaps even whole organizations? Workplace Restoration is an “interest-focused” process that is forward-looking and can create win-win solutions to assist larger groups of employees develop and maintain healthy and positive work environments.

While the process is implemented on a greater scale and uses different tools than mediation, Workplace Restoration similarly actively engages employees. In doing so, the process gives employees a voice as they identify what they value in their workplace, their concerns and fears, and any suggestions for resolving commonly identified issues.

Is a Workplace Restoration Right for Your Organization?

Things to consider:

  • There is no “one size fits all” when it comes to Workplace Restoration
  • Meaningful involvement from employees, unions, and management creates buy-in to the process and ownership over the outcome of improving the workplace culture.
  • The needs of each situation must be evaluated through a Workplace Assessment phase followed by the development and implementation of a custom-designed Restoration Plan.
  • Solutions and strategies should be based on the information gathered and varied according to the unique circumstances of each workplace.
  • Restoring the workplace is typically not a quick or easy fix, and regular check-ins on progress will assist the workplace in adjusting initiatives, as necessary.
  • Don’t let lack of follow-through destroy the momentum gained.

Not surprisingly, Workplace Restoration processes are most successfully employed when implemented proactively, guarding against a deteriorating work environment, the inundation of leadership with numerous complaints and grievances, or challenges like employee turnover. Leaders who pay attention to the signs will have a gut feeling that something needs to be done to improve the health of the workplace culture.

Signs that a workplace culture is at risk and may need restoration:   

  • Negative narratives
  • Informal complaints
  • Persistent damaging rumours
  • Increased instances of incivility or disrespect
  • Low morale or apathy
  • Poorly performing team
  • Limited or poor communication
  • Prolonged interpersonal conflict, cliques and/or gossip
  • Negative references to the workplace as “toxic”, “poisoned” or “dysfunctional”

Terms such as “toxic” and “poisoned” are becoming commonly used and may, or may not, include harassing behaviours as legally defined. What they do signify, at the very least, is a negative perception of the workplace environment. Should that perception be prevalent it may become a seedling for behaviours and a culture consistent with that belief.

Workplace Restoration is particularly challenging following the conclusion of a Workplace Investigation, which has all the benefits and disadvantages of the rights-focused process it is.

Workplace Investigations

Investigations are:

  • A necessary part of the system to protect employee entitlements in the workplace
  • Most often commenced by a formal complaint about an incident or event that occurred in the past
  • Confidential and formal to provide for a fair and full investigation
  • The investigator, as an independent third party, gathers evidence and makes a finding as to whether each allegation is substantiated by the evidence
  • Focuses on rights and does not address all the underlying issues that brought the complainant to make a complaint, the future workplace environment, or relationships
  • Can be lengthy and disruptive

Consequently, restoring the damaged relationship between the complainant and respondent after an investigation can be complicated and challenging. In this win/lose scenario, if the allegations are unfounded, the respondent often feels completely exonerated, while the complainant feels the process is flawed and loses faith in the complaint process. If the allegations are founded, the respondent may feel the process is defective which makes their successful reintegration, if appropriate, difficult.

Workplace Restoration Post-Investigation

A Workplace Restoration post-investigation should include a comprehensive and individualized assessment to identify the parties’ broad range of interests and needs. This includes what each would need to be in place for them to participate and what will allow them to move forward. Based on these insights, the restoration plan might include coaching, training, mediation, and operational or structural changes.

The unintended and widespread negative impact the investigation process may have had on the work unit is overlooked after a workplace investigation. For example:

  • Colleagues who may have been directly involved as witnesses will have some sense of the people and incidents under investigation but lack knowledge of the outcome which can create uncertainty and skepticism.
  • If the larger group becomes aware of the situation, confidentiality requirements may leave them in an information vacuum which can create confusion and, possibly, erode trust in each other, leadership, or the complaint and investigation process.
  • The work unit may experience anxiety and fear, decreased morale, and a loss of productivity.
  • Other working relationships may be damaged if gossip or alliances occur.
  • Disruption may be the result of changes to personnel, roles, processes, and workload during, or after, the investigation.

Where restoration of a larger group is required post-investigation, a Workplace Assessment is needed to not only diagnose the root causes of underlying issues but also to identify what is working well. This information-gathering phase should be future-focused and inclusive. As it is not limited to investigating a specific complaint or grievance, customized restoration strategies may include:

  • Mediation between pairs or multi-party mediation
  • Team building exercises
  • Trust building interventions
  • Resetting community norms and expectations
  • Training around conflict management
  • Facilitated opportunities for people to heal
  • Improved communication processes
  • Clarifying policies and supports
  • Operational or structural changes

Workplace Restoration in Practice

The following is a summary of a workplace that experienced disruption and harm during two interconnected investigations that took place over one-and-a-half years. The investigations were significantly delayed by an illness experienced by the investigator. The organization was located in a small town; there were five local managers, 20 full-time permanent staff, some contract employees, and many more seasonal employees; the next level of management and Human Resources were not located at the site. The first investigation consisted of allegations of sexually inappropriate behaviour by a manager, which were substantiated by the evidence. In the second investigation, the respondent made allegations against nine of his colleagues. The majority of these allegations were not substantiated, and some were found to be in bad faith. The manager, who lived in the small community, was immediately removed from his position at the time of the complaint and was allowed to resign once both investigations were completed.

During the assessment for the Workplace Restoration, managers and permanent employees expressed a high degree of remorse as the manager’s conduct had been an “open secret” that had been tolerated for years as “that’s just what he is like”. The team described themselves as a “family” and had a number of interconnected relationships. Due to the instruction to maintain confidentiality, they felt unable to seek support from individuals they normally would engage with during stressful times. The work unit felt abandoned by management as the senior local manager, a respondent in the second investigation, had to rely on upper management and Human Resources (these personnel were not consistent during the time period of the investigations) to coordinate the investigation and communicate information to the organization.

The Workplace Assessment consisted of confidential interviews with the complainant, all local management, each respondent in the second investigation, others whom management identified as impacted by the investigations, and any others who expressed an interest in being included. Based on the input from these individuals, the following interventions took place, with consideration given to sequencing and timing:

  • Executive leadership and HR attended on-site to provide acknowledgement and make a renewed commitment to ensure a respectful workplace and effective resolution of complaints. They described key learnings from this experience on managing and supporting work teams during an investigation.
  • In-person training for all local management on their prevention and resolution responsibilities under the Respectful Workplace Policy.
  • In-person training for employees on appropriate conduct under the Policy, communication and conflict management skills, and a stepped approach to issue resolution.
  • General information provided on the investigation process.
  • A facilitated peer circle to create a safe and inclusive space for individuals and the workplace community to heal.

Several other issues were identified by the interviewees that were not related to the investigations. Interventions to address these issues included:

  • Overcoming resistance to change by refreshing the strategic plan and multi-year business plan through consultation with employees and providing ongoing communication of changes.
  • Aligning the organizational structure to support strategic objectives.
  • Providing local management with executive leadership and HR support to hold employees accountable for performance.
  • Offering mediation to address negative interpersonal working relationships between two different pairs of employees.
  • Demonstrating procedural fairness in resource management (fair hiring practices).
  • Convening team building workshop(s) with objectives such as gathering feedback on the restoration action plan, providing training, and creating a Team Charter.

Workplace Restoration is an important tool to have in your toolkit when seeking to improve the work environment for teams/units, departments, or a whole organization. As an informal and interest-focused process, it can be best employed proactively when signs of an unhealthy culture emerge.

An inclusive assessment and customized restoration strategy can avoid the unnecessary escalation to formal and rights-focused processes that can cause disruption and damage relationships. Workplace Restoration is also an effective remediation tool to engage a work unit in building a healthy and productive work environment after an investigation.

About the Author

Heather Swartz, M.S.W., C. Med, Acc. FM Emeritus, has been a conflict management professional since 1999. She has delivered a broad range of dispute resolution services across Canada including mediation for workplace, family and civil disputes;  coaching;  fact-finding investigations into workplace discrimination and harassment complaints;  workplace assessment, and workplace restoration. Heather has provided group facilitation services for numerous construction partnering workshops, strategic planning, and consultation forums. She offers customized training in various topics: communication skills and handling difficult conversations, mediation, organizational conflict management, managing employee relationships, and workplace restoration. She has been an instructor for the University of Waterloo in the Certificate in Conflict Management Program at Conrad Grebel University College, McMaster University, the School of Social Work at the University of Toronto, and Trent University. Heather is a Chartered Mediator (C.Med.), a past President of the Alternative Dispute Resolution Institute of Ontario (ADRIO) and the 2017 recipient of the ADR Institute of Canada (ADRIC) Lionel J. McGowan Regional Award of Excellence.

Heather is a facilitator for Queen’s IRC custom programs, including Workplace Restoration.

Managing the Benefits and Challenges of the Multi-Generational Workforce

The increased diversity in Ontario workplaces, the benefits and challenges that diversity presents to organizations, and initiatives to increase awareness and make our workplaces more inclusive have been an important focus of Canadian businesses and their human resource professionals over the past several decades.

Continuing to refine our definition of diversity in the workplace requires going beyond consideration of the more familiar differences such as race, ethnicity, gender, disability, or culture. It means considering all the features that make people dissimilar, and therefore unique. Defining differences in this broader context assists us in assessing the complex dynamics of today’s workplace, the interplay of individual personalities, and the behaviours and expectations of co-workers and managers.

A person’s background and circumstances influences the way that person approaches their job and inevitably affects their work style, work ethic, and workplace relationships. One of the ways we are “different’ is the generation we grew up in. During our developmental years, the world events and conditions that we experience shape our overall worldview for both our personal life and our work life. These experiences help to define our values, career goals, motivators, perception of work, and views on work-life balance. In turn, these values, goals, and motivators impact our behaviours and interactions in the workplace.

In my practice, as a conflict management consultant, I am invited in to a variety of workplaces to conduct a mediation between colleagues, assess a toxic work environment, investigate complaints alleging harassment and/or discrimination, or provide coaching, training, or facilitation as a restorative measure. I find that many times interpersonal workplace conflict is labelled as “they have a personality clash,” “he has no work ethic,” or “these young people have no respect for authority or experience.” The root of the conflict may, in some cases, be people struggling with different perceptions and expectations of each other, arising out of generational differences. With three to five generations working alongside each other in most workplaces, a lack of understanding across generations can create value clashes and communication failures that have a detrimental impact on working relationships. Based on my experiences, I provide three strategies to manage the multi-generational workplace: flex management styles, encourage multi-generational teams, and openly discuss generational differences.

Strategies for the Multi-Generational Workplace

1. Flex Management Styles

Since each generation brings its own set of strengths and challenges to the workplace, it is important for managers to manage and motivate by flexing their style. For example, a Baby Boomer (born from 1946 to 1964) expects feedback once a year, with lots of documentation, while a Millennial, Generation Y or Nexter (born from 1981 to 1994), is used to praise and could mistake silence as disapproval. Millenials are confidant, sociable, tech-savvy, and optimistic. At the same time, they may question authority, display a lack of overall professionalism, bore easily, and enter the workforce with high expectations.

A large retail chain I was providing conflict management training for was having difficulty with their Baby Boomer managers working effectively with Millenials, a population that represented between 60% and 70% of their workforce. In a training session, the following tips for managing the Millenial generation were discussed:

  • Expose them to a variety of tasks, switch tasks frequently, let them multi-task and discover new ways of doing things;
  • They’ll listen, but they’re used to their voices being heard. Be a mentor or a coach rather than the “boss.” Take time to explain things, step back to let them do their best, and return to assess;
  • They are group-oriented and inclusive and want to work alongside friends, not just “co-workers.” Build a friendly atmosphere and a sense of team;
  • They have a lot happening in their life. Allow for their input into the schedule, with advance requests for days off and a structure that allows for switching shifts;
  • They are more likely to respond to a daily challenge than a long-term goal. Provide structure, clearly state goals and define daily success factors;
  • Provide formal and casual feedback regularly, as they expect acknowledgment of their achievements.

An interesting revelation for these managers was that the generation they struggled to manage and motivate at work were, not surprisingly, the creation of a constellation of factors in society during these employees’ childhood and youth. Some managers, with children who were of the same age, sheepishly acknowledged their contribution to raising individuals who presented challenges to employers and reminded the group of this generation’s strengths.

2. Encourage Multi-Generational Teams

A workplace assessment for a provincial government agency revealed that in one of the five technical units, the manager was a conflict-avoider, who wasn’t addressing the split in the unit across generations. A division was obvious in the physical layout of desks, the assignment of tasks, the nicknames for the groups, and the perceptions of team members. The Baby Boomers saw Generation X (born between 1965 to 1981) as being less loyal to the company, wanting to be promoted before “paying their dues” and being “me-oriented” in that they both expected and received special treatment from the manager (a fellow Gen X). The Gen Xers referred to the Baby Boomer group as the “old guard” and viewed them as unmotivated to work and entitlement-oriented, based solely on seniority, rather than technical skill.

One of the recommendations for the unit was to structure the workforce to create cross-generational teams, in order to build relationships and share technical knowledge for tougher projects. This re-distribution of tasks and management attention demonstrated respect for both senior and junior technicians.

3. Get it Out In the Open

In a team-building workshop held for a federal government agency, a candid conversation allowed co-workers to discuss the differing values that were causing stress in their working relationships. These values had often been expressed in the workplace, with judgmental statements made towards others, such as “That’s not the way it should be done” or “In my day…” Value-driven disagreements can arise out of the generation a person has grown up in.

Traditionalists or Radio Agers (born from 1922 to 1945) and Baby Boomers, raised in an environment which taught them to respect authority, may have a tendency not to challenge the status quo, which can frustrate Gen Xers, who have been encouraged to speak up. Gen Xers, as the “latchkey” generation, developed self-reliance, which can cause them to view Millenials as spoiled and privileged. Achievement-oriented Millenials may see Gen Xers as overly pragmatic and cynical.

Openly discussing how historical events, developments in technology, and the changing nature of society have created strands of commonality within generations created an unexpected outcome. It allowed a values-based disagreement to be shifted off the individuals involved to the environments in which they were raised, by developing awareness of the attributions people were making about others and the underlying cause for these labels. At the same time, it dispensed with some of the existing stereotypes, and acknowledged the uniqueness of each person.

On a reflective note, I struggle with the contradiction that, in order to explore diversity, we describe commonalities, which has the risk of creating stereotypes. Yet, often it is the courage it takes to talk about difficult and sensitive topics in a respectful way that creates the opportunity for tolerance, insight, acceptance, and respect for our differences. The benefit, of course, is the ability to recognize and maximize the strengths that each individual brings to the workplace.

Contemplating diversity in the workplace from the perspective of a broader range of individual differences, including the influence of generation, allows co-workers and managers to recognize that each person is unique. Today’s complex workplaces cannot survive, nor can they thrive, without this recognition.

Selected References

Gravett, Linda, and Robin Throckmorton. Bridging the Generation Gap: How to Get Radio Babies, Boomers, Gen Xers, and Gen Yers to Work Together and Achieve More. New York: Career Press, 2007

Lancaster, Lynne C., and David Stillman. The M-factor: How the Millennial Generation is Rocking the workplace. New York: HarperCollins, 2010.

Zemke, Ron, Claire Raines, and Bob Filipczak. Generations at Work: Managing the Clash of Veterans, Boomers, Xers and Nexters in your Workplace. New York: AMACOM Books, 1999.


About the Author

Heather Swartz

Heather Swartz, M.S.W., C.Med., is a Partner with Agree Incorporated.



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