Updated: Oct 26, 2022
By Dr. Robyn Short, CEO of Workplace Peace Institute
We are experiencing a watershed moment in history. Tolerating sexual harassment is at last becoming a thing of the past. Well, that is what we are all hoping. In order for us to truly put this particularly destructive expression of power to rest, we need to consider new paradigms for not just managing conflict but transcending it. Implementing a restorative approach for addressing workplace sexual harassment offers a new paradigm for just that.
Restorative justice is an approach to understanding and repairing harm that puts the person who was harmed at the center of the healing and reparations process. Restorative justice differs from traditional approaches to addressing harm as it views “wrong-doing” as a violation of relationships rather than a violation of laws or policies.
Restorative justice originated as an alternative to the traditional criminal justice system. A traditional view of justice asserts that crime is a violation of the law and the state. When we view this from a workplace perspective, “wrong-doing” is a violation of corporate policies and codes of conduct. Violations of these laws and policies create guilt. Justice traditionally requires the state or corporation to determine blame and impose a punishment. The central focus of the traditional approach is that offenders get what they deserve — punishment. The focus is on the person who created harm. The person who was harmed is largely left out of the justice process.
What we are currently witnessing in Hollywood, the media, and in the political realm, is the “rooting out” of sexual offenders — men who have used sexual misconduct as a means of power and oppression. Those who have credible allegations against them are systematically being fired. What we are also witnessing is the incredible pervasiveness of the problem. Sexual harassment toward women as a form of oppression in the workplace has been around as long as women have been working outside of the home. While this sudden and drastic attention to a deeply pervasive problem is necessary, the termination of every man who has abused his power is not a sustainable solution. If companies do not engage a new framework for addressing this insidious problem, this watershed moment will pass without transcending the conflict. Organizations simply will not sustain losing that much talent that quickly. The opportunity for healing and transcendence will be lost.
Restorative Justice Offers an Alternative Framework
From a restorative perspective, crime or policy violation is understood as a violation of people and relationships. This relationship violation creates obligations to repair the harm. And justice is understood as “putting things right.” The process of putting things right is oriented around the needs of the harmed individual and his or her community and involves the person who did the harm and that person’s communities. The central focus is on the needs of the harmed individual and the offender’s responsibility for repairing harm.
The workplace is the new frontier for restorative justice because it truly offers a framework for healing and restoring relationships. It offers both the person who was harmed and the person responsible for the harm the opportunity to imagine a new relationship, should that be appropriate, as well as the framework for creating it.
Implementing Restorative Practices to Address Sexual Harassment in the Workplace
Restorative practices in the workplace should always be oriented around the person who was harmed. This should be presented as an option and not as a forced solution. A key principle of any restorative intervention is safety. The physical, emotional, and spiritual well being of all parties must be honored, which is why it is of paramount importance that organizations partner with professionally trained restorative justice facilitators.
So, first and foremost, it is appropriate when the person who was harmed voices the desire to have a facilitated dialogue with the person who caused the harm. The intended outcome is usually some form of a reparations agreement.
Secondly, a restorative approach is only appropriate when the person who did the harm has acknowledged and admitted to the wrong-doing. Restorative practices are designed to repair harm and put right relationships. Restorative justice is not a framework for investigating wrong-doing.
Thirdly, restorative justice is a voluntary process. Neither party can be coerced into the process. This aligns with the core principle of creating a safe place.
Lastly, it is important for corporations to differentiate between criminal behavior and violations of company policy. When a violent crime has taken place, law enforcement must be engaged. That does not necessary preclude the possibility of a restorative approach, but it should not replace it.
Restoring the Workplace Community
Restorative justice operates from the understanding that we are all extensions of one another. When one person is harmed, that harm ripples across the organization.
For example, I worked with an organization where a male member of the leadership team was bullying a female member of the leadership team. This bullying was severe and included sexually inappropriate tactics as well as other tactics intended to oppress the female leader, including a widespread reputation smear campaign that was rife with false stories and blatant lies. The relationship between these two leaders had a significant impact on their individual teams. There was rampant distrust and disrespect between the two teams who relied on one another in order to create their work product. Repairing the harm required restoring the relationship between the two leaders, as well as restoring the relationships between the two communities.
Because restorative approaches include the communities of both the person who was harmed and the person(s) who did the harm, it also holds the overarching community accountable for repairing whatever elements within the system allowed this behavior to exist and/or thrive. So, it takes a systems approach to addressing harm as well.
We are experiencing a powerful moment in history. We have a unique opportunity to create a paradigm shift that will create a positive ripple effect in the personal and professional lives of women and men for generations. To seize the opportunity, we must look to new, more progressive, and sustainable approaches to addressing harm and restoring relationships. Restorative practices in the workplace offers the framework to create real and lasting change.
An international speaker, peace-building trainer and mediator with expertise in restorative justice and transformative mediation models, Dr. Robyn Short works with individuals, corporations, and nonprofit organizations in discovering the root causes of their conflicts, so they may transform their relationships and create new and productive paths forward individually and as teams. In addition to her mediation and conflict training practice through Workplace Peace Institute, Dr. Short is an adjunct professor at Southern Methodist University in the Master of Conflict Management and Dispute Resolution program, the Master of Leadership and Negotiation at Bay Path University, and Lipscomb University's Master in Conflict Management and Dispute Resolution. She has guest lectured at Pepperdine University and Creighton University. Dr. Short has authored four books on peace building.