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

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

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.

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