Does Forgiveness Have a Place at Work? Going Beyond the Cliche

As adults, we marveled at how young children fight with each other one minute and then become the best of friends the next, as if nothing ever happened. In our relationships at home and at work, we wonder if we can take forgiveness in this simplest form like children do, and carry on with our tasks with the same unwavering enthusiasm as we have before the conflict.

But because adults are adults, and because adults are complicated beings, forgiveness is a far fetched idea to comprehend, and more so, to put into action. In the workplace where conflicts and mistakes abound, and where relationships are not as deep as personal ones, forgiveness seems unnecessary and too trivial to be given a thought. Let’s face it, it is easier and more natural to cry, sulk, seek empathy, turn to self-pity or be vengeful than to forgive. This is just one of the complexities of human relationships. Furthermore, the workplace may have a toxic culture where blaming and bullying may be the norm, and forgiveness is just a plain ‘no-no’.

What does it mean to forgive? Google churns out several definitions however forgiveness is summed up as giving up being angry and vengeful at the ‘offender’, and stopping blaming, fault-finding and the feeling of being the ’victim’.

In the workplace, this is difficult to do. This is because there are no set rules or policies on forgiveness and there is no way to measure the result. There is also ‘accountability’ which is the obligation to accept responsibility for your actions and results.  Our work culture touts that accountability enables trust, enforces quality, prevents mistakes and builds confidence. Yet, accountability also means to exact punishment and to put on blame. This work culture is profound and deep-rooted in the legal system, and most importantly, it has a very justified positive side that we cannot do without.

Another reason forgiving is difficult is that we think that doing so sends a message that the negative behavior is condoned, and that we are allowing similar incidences to happen in the future. Forgiveness also comes with a spiritual or religious connotation making it seem ‘inappropriate’ in the work setting.  Worse yet, the gesture can be interpreted as a sign of foolishness and weakness.

The reality that we need forgiveness in our personal lives is undeniable. However, do we need it at work?

Let us examine the value of forgiveness in the workplace. To be unforgiving means having a hard time appreciating the positive in ourselves, others and in the environment. It could also indicate clouded or uncaring judgment. In short, lack of forgiveness can lead to the unwillingness to contribute to a positive outcome. It feeds resentment and mistrust, which halts improvement and invites further conflicts.

Forgiveness can be a positive in the workplace. So how do we work on a culture of forgiveness?

Learn to Let Go

First, we should begin by being aware of our own sense of forgiveness. Being the offended party, how hard is it to unload the negative baggage and just overlook and let go? Has the hurt been too deep or lasted for so long that clinging to resentment seems to be the only thing you can do? Being the person at fault, how does one forgive oneself? Perhaps being hard on ourselves is the greatest barrier to forgiveness. We have to examine ourselves in both places. This is the first step to fostering a culture of forgiveness.

Separate Accountability From Forgiveness

The second step is to separate accountability from forgiveness, akin it to “Let Caesar’s be unto Caesar”. Let the process of accountability run on its own, but throw the wasted feeling away. The story of a supervisor and novice nurse below exemplifies this.

A novice nurse unknowingly interviewed a sexual abuse victim and helped her take a bath before being examined by the medical examiner who was tasked to gather criminal evidence. The supervisor was blasted for the incident and was also held liable. Both had to face the consequences of what happened because of accountability. However, the supervisor did not hold a grudge against the nurse, and the  victim and her family  expressed their understanding of the situation. The institution realized that more concrete measures were needed to prevent future mistakes from happening, and soon initiated an organization-wide awareness program on how to identify and care for sexually abused patients. After having been reprimanded, the novice nurse became an active participant in these initiatives and she turned out to be the top advocate of clients who have been abused years later.

Change Your Mindset

Another strategy is a change of mindset. We should view the saying of “I’m sorry” and “I forgive you” as a sign of strength and as part of conflict resolution rather than as a sign of weakness and leniency. In other words, forgiveness should not be trivialized.

Engage in Restorative vs. Retributive Justice

Lastly, focus on restorative justice rather than on retributive justice. Notice that both terms have the word ‘justice’ in them, meaning rectification and due accountability are ensured. The difference is that the former focuses on serving due justice and then bringing together the offender,  victim and others involved in the conflict for the purpose of healing and moving on. While retributive justice is limited only to the offender being punished.

Fostering a culture of forgiveness in the workplace will enable a more meaningful and fruitful expression of self. This type of culture fosters creativity, conflict resolution, proper recognition and rewarding, sharing of knowledge, and employee engagement. It should be part of every organization’s basket of goals.



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"Forgiveness as a Workplace Intervention: The Literature and a Proposed Framework"