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The urgent need to encourage forgiveness at work

Article by Andrew Rayment & Catherine De La Poer

Let’s start by understanding what we mean by a culture of forgiveness. Culture is built on behaviour and puts the spotlight on leaders as role models, with an emphasis on behavioural readiness to change. This means being clear on behaviours that are rewarded vs punished and holding leaders accountable for behaviours that have a detrimental impact on employee mental and emotional health. Martin Luther King famously said, “There can be no justice without peace and no peace without justice.” So why is forgiveness and organisational justice so important now?

We live in an age of high anxiety and there are many reasons why conflict is becoming a greater risk (and reality) for organisations. The 21st century continues to see an acceleration of change programmes, automation and digital transformation. Movements such as Black Lives Matter and Me Too have gained global momentum partly on the back of rising workforce activism.

The human brain seeks rewards and threats, while the pace of change means there are greater opportunities for misunderstanding and miscommunication. As virtual meetings have reduced our ability to see and interpret non-verbal cues, the likelihood of ‘amygdala hijacks’ – disproportionate emotional responses to stress – being triggered are at an all-time high. The human operating system is a ‘think, feel, do’ model. The way we think impacts our emotions, which in turn govern how we behave. Injustice, for example – unresolved wrongs, unfair criticism, feeling unappreciated or excluded and a lack of autonomy – are all registered by us as perceived threats. When triggered, we start thinking in black and white, our reasoning plummets and cortisol (the stress hormone) is released. This ‘fight or flight’ response can lead to direct or indirect conflict.

Last year saw many employees put under extreme pressure to cope with the stress of moving to remote working, potential job loss, isolation – alongside the worry of a global pandemic and its associated health risks. The last 12 months have demonstrated an urgent need for a formal structure to support mental health and wellbeing in the workplace and a new standard – ISO 45003 – is being established to provide greater clarity around psychological health and safety there. Clearly, it is needed: recent research revealed that UK stress related absence was up 64%[1] in 2020 over the previous year across all sectors. With the insurance industry predicting a tsunami of claims, the cost of inaction is potentially immense.

It is in all employers’ interests to ensure staff feel safe, trusted and that forgiveness, not blame, is the go-to behaviour when mistakes are made (or at the very least is part of the equation) – not simply from an ethical standpoint, but a performance perspective, too. When humans feel safe, physically and mentally, they bring their best selves to work, meaning both team and individual potential can be realised. When organisations reward behaviours that increase trust and promote forgiveness, they benefit from more productive, resilient and innovative workforces.

Businesses with an agile mindset have a core focus on emotional self-awareness. When humans feel secure and trusted to run with their ideas and experiment, innovation and creativity result. The opposite is fear. Improving the bottom line goes hand in hand with building a culture that puts forgiveness and organisational justice front and centre.

From a legal perspective, whilst there is not a “duty to forgive” there are of course well established duties of equality and ensuring that the duty of trust and confidence with the employee is not broken. In it starkest forms, breaching those can lead to claims under the Equality Act and/or for constructive dismissal. As well as those being costly (and disruptive) in terms of dealing with/resolving legal claims, there are the additional issues relating to bad publicity, poor staff retention and making recruitment harder.  Whilst those issues may be hard to put a number on, the costs are real and add further impetus to look at the “value” of forgiveness.

These six practical tips outline how HRs and business leaders can build a contract of trust and a culture where human health and safety is the number one priority.

  1. Nip conflict in the bud. Do whatever it takes to restore harmony when a relationship breaks down, including manager training to focus on developing emotional intelligence skills and restorative justice.
  2. Promote people who demonstrate humility and compassion. If forgiveness is not practiced by leaders, there will be no risk-taking, meaning a fundamental innovation block. It is that simple (and of course avoids the corrosive impact of hypocrisy).
  3. Encourage the leader as coach mindset. This instils behaviours such as listening to understand, suspending judgement and a fundamental belief that employees are both capable of and motivated to solve the problems in front of them. The 21st century contract is one of trust and mutual respect.
  4. Remove systemic contradictions. For example, when you say you want collaboration and to break down silos – win/win – but continue to reward competition and rivalry – win/lose.
  5. Given that admitting fault is a natural precursor to forgiveness, ensure that your systems encourage and allow admissions of fault.
  6. As many of us continue to work remotely, forgiveness needs to be part of building future-ready teams. It sees employees as fully human, fallible on the one hand and brilliant on the other. Better teams lead to better outcomes, both in terms of human wellbeing and commercial performance.


    Andrew’s practice covers all areas of employment law with particular expertise in dealing with TUPE, collective consultation, the gig economy, flexible working, insolvency scenarios and dispute resolution (including restrictive covenants). Catherine is a leadership coach and founder at halcyon coaching ltd, where the focus is to create more resilient and agile individuals, teams, and organisations.

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