Workplace restoration is a developing area which is now being considered by many employers. One reason for the growing interest is the ongoing effort by employers to improve the work experience for their employees and to create a safe and harmonious workplace for them. As part of that effort, employers are exploring more effective tools to tackle issues that are impacting their organization’s culture and employee experience; workplace restoration is evolving as an available tool to assist this initiative.

Many employers who are introduced to workplace restoration through our work seem intrigued, but also uncertain of what the process entails and how it works. They also sometimes question the overarching business justifications for such a process. In this blog, I will explain what workplace restoration is and discuss three of its benefits.

There is no established definition for workplace restoration, but the following has been offered by the Ontario Bar Association as a useful guide:

Workplace restoration is a response to workplace conflict that considers the larger context, and specifically what is needed to create a healthy and harmonious workplace.1

In essence, it is a practical and proactive response to conflicts in the workplace – it involves an assessment of the underlying causes of the conflict and considers what may be required to appropriately address them. Conflict in this context should be understood broadly. It is not limited to interpersonal conflicts but applies to any disruption in the workplace that may be adversely impacting the work environment, such as organizational changes, leadership challenges, and toxic work environments.

The full list of benefits of workplace restoration is lengthy and beyond the scope of this blog, so I have set out below three which best demonstrate the value of the process.

1. Honours the spirit of the legal obligation to create a safe work environment

Employers have a legislative obligation to provide a safe work environment, which is ultimately a workplace that is free from harassment, discrimination, and violence. Workplace investigations are frequently mandated by legislation as the mechanism used to comply with this obligation. A workplace investigation is a very important tool to help employers determine whether the alleged wrongdoing likely occurred or not. We see the value of investigations every day in our work as investigators because it helps employers to determine appropriate next steps in the event of certain occurrences.

That said, we know that an investigation is often a reactive measure because it usually takes place after a complaint has been made. By that time, the matter may have already escalated exponentially. Very often we hear that complaints are made because complainants felt that they had no other option, or because nothing else was being done to address their situation. We also know that, while an investigation may give insight into incidents that have occurred, it does not always fix the problem that may have led to the occurrence or create the safe environment that employers are obligated to provide. For example, an investigation may determine that discrimination or harassment has occurred, but the question then becomes, “Now what?” Are folks expected to continue as if it is business as usual just because the investigation yielded a particular result? That is unlikely. In fact, the investigation itself may have had an impact on the parties’ ability to work together moving forward.

This is where we see the benefit of workplace restoration. Firstly, it is a proactive measure that allows steps towards restoration to be taken prior to a complaint being made. Secondly, it is also a useful mechanism following a workplace investigation which allows employers to address the issues identified in the investigation. In this way, employers can truly honour the spirit of the legal obligation to create a safe work environment. In our workplace restoration practice, we have seen highly toxic workplaces embark on a path towards positive change. It is truly a rewarding experience for the employer, employees, and also for us as practitioners.

2. Allows those impacted to participate in the solution and resolution

Many organizations are committed to responding to and addressing conflicts when they arise. However, when this is done without the input or participation of those impacted, the risk is that those involved may be less willing to engage and there is unlikely to be any long-term change. A workplace restoration process, on the other hand, is designed to obtain and consider the input of persons impacted by the issues sought to be resolved. The result is that they often feel heard, and are likely to develop a sense of commitment to resolution because their input has been considered. In this way, long-term resolution and restoration become more likely.

3. Saves costs for employers

Conflict is inevitable in a workplace. It arises for varying reasons, including toxic work environments, organizational changes, and leadership styles. If there are no appropriate interventions for these conflicts, the likely result is financial loss to the employer, due to loss of productivity, loss of human capital, damage to organizational reputation, and/or even legal costs. It is estimated that workplace conflict costs Canadian businesses over two billion dollars per year.2 Undoubtedly, employers have more to gain from engaging in a proactive, meaningful, and practical process like workplace restoration.

Key takeaways:

Workplace restoration provides an opportunity for employers to: (i) consider reorienting their approach to responding to disruptions in their workplace, and (ii) revise their perspective on how to create a safe work environment for their employees.

We do recognize that to be effective, those engaging in workplace restoration ought to have the appropriate skills and expertise. Where employers feel that they lack the relevant expertise internally, they may engage external support. However, we do encourage employers to consider building this capacity internally, through appropriate training. Doing so may go a long way towards adding depth to the resources employers have to respond to and address disruptions in the workplace.