Building Restorative Workplaces: Lessons from Our Work

Building on Just Outcomes’ 10 years journeying with workplaces of all kinds, I’ve been engaged this year in focused research on the intersection of HR and restorative justice. I’ve been asking: What do the principles and practices of restorative justice have to offer the most pressing challenges workplaces are facing today? What makes it worth it for workplaces to implement a restorative approach? And what are the challenges?

Here’s what we know: Workplaces are entering a new era of culture and policymaking where the relational is superseding the transactional. The fields of organizational leadership, business ethics, and human resources are aligned in their recognition that the old ways of doing things are not holding up within the current social and economic climate. COVID-19 and the “Great Resignation”. An uncertain economic landscape. Game-changing new technologies. Social justice reckonings. The ongoing challenge of preventing and addressing workplace bullying, harassment, micro-aggressions, and discrimination. Workplaces that have chosen relational approaches to navigating change – by relational, I mean they are centering the wellbeing of people and relationships – are finding that their return on investment is substantial. Organizations are more productive when employees are valued, included and engaged. In addition, they avoid the cost of conflict and poor workplace culture.

Restorative Justice offers workplaces a unified framework for effectively addressing HR priorities like retention, incentivization, and responding to conflict and harm. We have found many common workplace challenges are meaningfully addressed when culture and policy are consistently anchored in building dignity and belonging amongst employees, and when conflict and harm are addressed in ways that center the needs and voices of affected parties. Because the root of many HR challenges are relational, it makes sense that only relational approaches have the capacity to unlock meaningful solutions.

While I am deeply optimistic about what is possible for workplaces that choose to integrate more relational approaches, I am noticing that there are common hurdles and pitfalls that can make the journey more challenging. When voiced, they can often sound like this:

  • “Where will we find the time to create policy changes when we’re already struggling to keep up with the number of complaints being filed?”
  •  “We’re putting in a new break room and boosting our employee benefits package…we don’t have the money to go beyond that!”
  • “We don’t have time to be relational.”
  • “How does this serve our bottom line?”

Beneath these expressions are three common barriers:

  1. a focus on addressing current organizational crises or shorter-term challenges;
  2. an obligation to adhere to pre-existing policies that either limit relational approaches or compel transactional or punitive ones; and
  3. a lack of capacity for, or commitment to, resourcing a comprehensive change process.

To go one step deeper, I’ve observed that the subtext behind these roadblocks is rooted in one concern: how to resource the desired change. My research and experience tell me that, while change does require an investment, the return on investment is worth it long-term. Leaders that are open to playing the long game for the sake of a greater ROI see that attrition rates decrease, conflicts are less likely to escalate into complaints, employees are more satisfied and engaged, productivity increases, and the list goes on. In fact, restorative approaches often provide effective solutions to many of the barriers workplaces identify (it’s the old chicken-egg conundrum).

There are short-term impacts, too. A few years ago, we worked with a team on developing a restorative program manual for responding to workplace harm. We caught up with this client recently and listened as they spoke about the change that has taken place as a result of this manual. As it turns out, the process of creating the manual itself built so much trust and resilience within their team that they rarely have need for using it. In the client’s words, “the process was the product.” With relational and restorative approaches, this seems consistently true. Any effort to move the needle toward relationality, when done in a principled way, generates immediate returns.

How am I defining returns? I’m glad you asked! As mentioned, I am talking about cost savings and profit gains due to the more efficient use of resources. Here are some statistics we’ve come across that help to paint this picture:

  • A 2021 study by Morneau Shepell reveals that workplace conflict costs Canadian businesses over two billion dollars a year.
  • CPP Global’s 2008 study found that surveyed employees in nine countries averaged a little over two hours every week dealing with conflict.
  • KPMG Germany surveyed 4,000 Germany industrial companies in 2009 and found that 30-50% of the weekly working hours of executives are spent directly or indirectly with frictional losses, conflicts, or the consequences of conflict.

Beyond the compelling financial case for restorative approaches, the workplaces that will likely get the most out of adopting a relational approach are tuned into other measures of impact.  While profit and productivity matter, people and purpose are becoming integrated into the “bottom lines” of both non-profit and for-profit agencies. When workplaces measure their success by the impact they’re having on the wellbeing of their employees, as well as their profit, restorative approaches become essential rather than aspirational.

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