Back from the brink
Workplace relationships experience the same highs and lows as any other relationships – and team conflict is no exception.
When problems emerge, the first response of many staff is to lodge a grievance and managers want to know who has done what to whom and what needs to be done to them to get things back on track.
Code of silence
In England, Scotland and Wales, the ACAS (Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service) Code of Practice on disciplinary and grievance procedures sets out principles for handling grievances.
The Code of Practice encourages people to deal with grievances informally before lodging a formal complaint. While approaching those who make us feel uncomfortable is without a doubt the best thing we can do, it's difficult and risky, so we typically choose to talk to others rather than confront the 'offender'.
As we avoid engaging with each other, we start to resent each other and drift apart. As we drift apart, we start to notice and eventually look for and find annoying, unhelpful and even threatening behaviours in others. Eventually, what could have been dealt with as a low-level disagreement or dispute could escalate into a general state of negative feelings between people – a conflict.
At ProActive ReSolutions we have been using Restorative Justice (RJ) Conferencing to respond to conflict in the workplace for many years.
Unlike our work in the criminal justice system, we don't start with an offender who has admitted guilt, or an obvious victim who can confidently lay claim to more hurt and harm than others. We start with a group of people who feel strongly about what has been happening.
The restorative process begins with confidential one-on-one interviews and listening to people tell their stories about what has been happening. We take notes, which we then trawl through back at our office, looking for incidents, issues and patterns of behaviour. These notes are kept confidential and destroyed at the conclusion of the restorative process.
Having identified the incidents and issues, our final task prior to the Conference is to persuade individuals who have some responsibility for the hurt and harm that has been caused to acknowledge and bear some personal responsibility. Such pre-conference persuasion is crucial when implementing RJ conferencing in the workplace.
Once in the Conference, the process is similar to that of the RJ Conference in the criminal justice system.
Before the conference, our facilitator would have determined what would be talked about and individuals would have agreed in advance to talk about particular incidents.
During the conference, a conversation unfolds where the group slowly and tentatively begins to engage with each other on issues that are difficult to talk about and guaranteed to upset themselves and others. It's a process where we ultimately learn that we're almost always better off engaging with each other than ignoring each other.
The RJ Conference in the workplace follows the same principles as the RJ process in the criminal justice system. We want participants to leave the process with a sense that the process as explained (fair rules) was the process that was delivered (fair play) and participants considered the agreement they reached in the conference was fair and achievable (fair outcomes).
As in the justice system, the way we achieve this is to ensure the process is facilitated and all those affected attend the conference and have their say (participation), everyone's opinions are considered (political equality), all ideas are talked through (deliberation) and no one is able to bully or intimidate anyone else in the Conference (non-tyranny).
ProActive ReSolutions has been facilitating RJ Conferences in the criminal justice system and the workplace for 15 years.
The types of 'offences' dealt with in the workplace range from low-level disrespectful behaviours such as isolating others, spreading malicious rumours and gossip, insubordination and so on through to breaches of human rights and criminal law such as harassment, discrimination, intolerance, intimidation and assault.
Workplaces are complex and dynamic communities. Workplace conflict is about systems of relationships that have gone awry. RJ Conferencing is the approach that best accommodates the complexity and emotional risks faced by teams in conflict, who need to restore their relationships and plan how best to transform the conflict into ongoing cooperation.
For more detail, visit ProActive ReSolutions