Recently I was invited to present a paper at the 2013 Canadian Association of Statutory Human Rights Agencies (CASHRA) as part of a panel titled A Model for the Future: Restorative Approach. The question the panel was designed to address was, “Can a restorative approach meet the stated purpose of each human rights jurisdiction in Canada and is repairing relational harm through dispute resolution part of future adjudicative models in all human rights jurisdictions?”

In 2012, the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission actually introduced restorative approaches to resolve human rights complaints in a manner that addresses the harm to the relationship between the parties and seeks to restore those relationships. At the time of its launch, David Shannon, director and CEO of the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission, stated, “Restorative justice focuses on rebuilding relationships, repairing emotional harms and developing a forward-looking plan that all the parties can take a role in creating and implementing.”

Preparing for the conference got me thinking about ways in which we assist our employer clients in developing policies and procedures that allow them to take a similar approach to internal complaints, especially when they arise between co-workers who will need to continue to work together after the matter is resolved. The goals of rebuilding relationships, repairing emotional harms and developing a forward looking plan are all keys to restoring the workplace following an issue. Simply conducting an investigation and then telling those involved to get back to work will rarely yield a positive result.

  1. Policy Development

A key first step is to develop a policy and procedure around responding to complaints that includes not only a prohibition against discrimination and harassment and an investigation process, but also a process for the resolution of complaints that is more collaborative in nature and seeks to achieve a resolution to issues by bringing the parties together. As an organization’s response will be judged in reference to the expectations created by its policy, it is important that other forms of dispute resolution are built into the document.

  1. Responding to a Complaint

When an employee raises a human rights issue, it is essential that the organization takes the complaint seriously and responds to it appropriately. In order to repair and maintain working relationships, an organization may first choose to respond by facilitating discussions between the employees in conflict in an effort resolve the conflict and restore the workplace. This will depend on the nature of the conflict, the capacity and willingness of the parties, and the organizational needs related to the working relationship.

  1. Restoring the Workplace Following an Investigation

Following the completion of an internal investigation, it is increasingly apparent that some action is required in order to restore the workplace. Real effort may be needed to re-integrate the complainant or to repair the dynamics of a team and this can take a variety of forms:

  • One-on-one coaching sessions for one or both parties to ensure they are educated on their rights, responsibilities and the expectations of the organization.
  • Bring the parties together in order to have them speak directly to each other about their experiences relating to the conflict and to collaboratively develop strategies to improve their working relationship going forward.
  • Conduct a broader review of their organization that recognizes that employee behaviour is often caused, or at least influenced, by a variety of systemic factors relating to the workplace. Often, this process will involve a review of company documents that outline how work should get done within the organization as well as employee interviews that question whether practices actually reflect the policies in order to identify gaps between the two which may have a negative impact on employee relationships.
  • Take steps to address the systemic concerns in order to increase the likelihood for a successful restoration of the individual relationships and group dynamics. Improved communication, increased transparency in decision making, role clarification and policy development are some examples of steps that an organization might take to address the systemic concerns. By involving employees during this process, there will be increased buy-in by employees in whatever changes are determined to be the outcomes of the process.

By spending some time and energy to incorporate restorative approaches into an internal complaint system, employers can better prevent repetitive conflicts between co-workers and reduce the likelihood that a complaint will lead to an untenable work environment once the matter is addressed.