workplace conflict and theft in a Community-Based Organisation 

Community-Based Organisation 

Workplace Conflict; Theft

Restorative Meetings; Restorative Circles

I work in an established Community-Based Organisation (CBO) that receives its core funding from the State. We try to use both restorative practices (RP) and restorative justice (RJ) with all stakeholders, including with our clients and internally.  

It is our belief, based on experience, that staff are more motivated and effective in being restorative and using RP/RJ, if they experience RP/RJ in their everyday work, especially when things go wrong. I had doubts about a colleague of mine who had been trained in RP/RJ, but found it difficult to use this in their work. Separately, a student who was on placement with our CBO made a complaint that this colleague had engaged in inappropriate and sexualised language while working. The student had also made a complaint to their college authorities.

Members of our board met and agreed to explore if we could use a restorative approach, facilitated by the organisation’s manager, to work through this issue. The manager held separate meetings with both parties and the college staff representative outlining the board’s idea. This was agreeable to all, but it took several meetings with the colleague who caused the harm before they acknowledged the specifics of their conversation with the student.

A facilitated formal meeting was held including the student, her partner as support, my colleague (who chose not to bring a support person) and the college’s representative. The meeting was facilitated by the organisation’s manager. The RP ‘formal meeting’ process was followed, whereby the facilitator, with the participants’ permission, also spoke about the views of the employer. The meeting went well, with all participants reporting it as being very positive.

The organisation’s board made counselling resources available to this student for further support, if needed. The board also asked the organisation’s manager to follow through with weekly one to one meetings with the colleague to provide support and challenge them to return to the ‘with’ box in their work. The colleague was also encouraged and expected to work with their external supervisor on the identified underlying issues which brought about this unacceptable behaviour. The culmination of the colleague’s behaviour had also resulted in them being asked to step down from the board of another community-based initiative until that group were satisfied that the colleague could be considered an ambassador for the group and a true advocate for the people they worked with.

Early in the resulting supervision experience, the worker experienced much embarrassment, guilt and shame, which became overwhelming at times. The colleague was asked to trust that their manager and employer had their best interests at heart, and encouraged to use the negative emotions as fuel for personal and professional learning and growth. It was important to reframe this as an opportunity for deep and honest reflection. The manager worked with the colleague throughout the process and briefed the board at regular intervals, as had been agreed by all.

Eighteen months or so after the formal RP meeting, and after much one to one work with the manager, the board asked the worker to re-join the board of the community organisation from which they had previously stepped down. The colleague is now a passionate practitioner of RP/RJ in all aspects of their work. We believe that their learning from this experience was transformative, and we see every day restorative interventions and benefits among our service users from the person’s presence and work. They are now extremely motivated in all aspects of their work and the relationship with their manager has been significantly strengthened. They have since also been asked to support the CBO in making its disciplinary policy more restorative in its wording and intention.  

Our next anecdote regards how an employee was afforded several opportunities to work in the ‘with’ box, but ultimately opted not to do so. Several complaints were made against this employee by their colleagues over the years. The complaints ranged from being mildly harmful to very harmful and were investigated by the organisation’s board along an informal to formal continuum as needs arose. Most of these complaints were upheld.

When appropriate, the manager facilitated RP meetings between this worker and the person/people they harmed. Agreements on repairing the harm and returning to the ‘with’ box were agreed by all.  The manager was asked to engage with the colleague one-to-one each time to support and guide them to bridge this gap between their unacceptable behaviour and the levels of professionalism expected.

The employee causing harm received proportional sanctions by the board over time. It must be noted here that the board received legal advice when necessary to support its proposed decision or sanction.  While working with the most recent complaint against this person (worker A), they and their colleague (worker B) were offered a restorative process. During this, worker B voiced that they had been harmed by worker A whose behaviour fell far short from what everyone had expected. It was at this point that we were able to underline the constant gap in worker A’s expected and actual behaviours, adding that they had repeatedly avoided staying in the ‘with’ box with their colleagues, despite the organisation’s efforts and support. This was unacceptable and, a month later, worker A left the organisation.      

The above example demonstrates that the use of RP with staff does, in the long term, have beneficial outcomes for staff and the organisation. For example:

  • The wrongdoer eventually concluded that they were out of sync with our expected behaviours and could not/chose not to bridge the gap, so left. This is a positive outcome.
  • The RP processes were used in tandem with this organisation’s disciplinary processes.
  • The RP processes and outcomes were supported by the organisation’s legal advisor.
  • The harmed person in this instance, and in most of the previous instances, had a chance to be listened to, and felt empowered and treated fairly by the organisation.
  • RP applies to all staff, regardless of experience or rank. The harmer in this case was relatively senior, and the harmed person was a newer employee who felt supported through an easy-to-follow and fair process.
  • The process itself allowed the manager to respond ‘curiously and not furiously’.
  • It made explicit the expected high professional standards of all when working with colleagues and demonstrated the way we try to work with all our stakeholders.

Our CBO attempts to work restoratively with all stakeholders. A restorative ethos and how it manifests with the people who use our services can perhaps be best explained with these two simple examples:

The Social Welfare payment of one service user was stolen from his coat on our premises. On realising this happened later that day, we organised a restorative circle for the following day and invited all the participants and staff that had been present to attend. We knew that we would not get the money returned, and this was not the focus of the circle. During the circle, the harmed person explained with emotion that, after their release from prison, he wanted to be more present in his son’s life. Part of this required (agreed formally with the child’s mother) that he would contribute financially to his son’s upkeep through weekly payments to his former partner. He added in tears that he was now unable to do this, which threatened his access to his child and already strained relationship with his ex-partner. He concluded by saying that he felt he was part of a family while engaged with the people present, but that this family had deprived him of his need to be part of his own ‘real’ family. It was agreed that the organisation could replace the amount taken from this man, to be paid for by cancelling 4 hours’ programme tuition, and to improve precautions and security in bringing cash on to the premises. 

This experience was important to us for many reasons:

  • Our clients were shocked that the staff who were present on the day the money was stolen were also invited to the circle.
  • The harmed person got an opportunity to express himself and the extent of the real and potential harm caused to him and his relationship with his son and ex-partner.
  • His emotional contributions resonated with all present and underlined the heartfelt long term impacts our thoughtless and selfish acts can have.
  • All present in the circle accounted for themselves and spoke of the harm they experienced.
  • Participants and staff were reassured in learning that we all were jointly responsible for making the environment safer and more secure for each other.
  • Money has not been stolen on-site since this happened (approx. 6 years).

RP can help empower men and women who have been in the criminal justice process, for whom it can take time to find their voices and establish new routines. One man who worked with us after finishing a sentence felt that he was not being listened to by a member of staff. One day, he demanded that he wanted a ‘fucking circle now with staff.’ We duly organised a restorative circle with him, with other participants and staff members present. He spoke of his increasing frustration and anger at not being listened to by the member of staff. The staff member responded with their experience, and all present agreed on improvements to staff-client communication. Participants’ feedback on this process and subsequent engagement with staff noted that they felt that they were treated as equals and had been listened to. All staff members became more attentive and in tune with this participant’s needs. 

Again, this experience was important for us for these additional reasons:

  • The individual was provided with an opportunity to voice concerns in a constructive manner, without being aggressive, violent or leaving the initiative. This brought about real and positive change in his and others’ lives.
  • It meant that we, as a staff team, were held accountable to our participants.
  • This man’s behaviour was subsequently modelled by other participants, thereby furthering our attempts at restorative approaches and outcomes.