Crime and Punishment? Redefining Ethics Programs through Restorative Practices

December 8, 2015

Crime and Punishment? Redefining Ethics Programs through Restorative Practices

From strengthening company culture to retaining employees, the emergence of ethics programs in the workplace has led to several positive outcomes. According to the Ethics Research Center's 2015 report "The State of Ethics in Large Companies," companies with effective programs saw a decrease in both the pressure for employees to compromise standards and observed misconduct in the workplace.


Companies can continue to grow their ethics programs by focusing on how the organization responds after unethical action has occurred. A growing trend is the use of restorative practices—making amends, forgiveness, and offender reintegration—an approach that moves beyond retribution to include restoring the offender, victims, and other affected parties—an effective model for repairing harm to individuals and the organization after an ethical transgression.  

The most effective form of amends occurs when a remorseful offender acknowledges the transgression, accepts responsibility, and extends an apology or other form of restitution. For example, think of an employee who sabotaged a coworker's computer—a step they might take is to apologize, pay to repair the damage, and agree to seek counseling. This can be an emotionally charged event for both the offender and the victim; however, if done effectively, it can lead to a more harmonious work environment. 

If the offender makes meaningful amends, forgiveness becomes the next key step in the process. By choosing to forgive, the victim makes a conscious effort to give up resentment and retaliation, even if the opportunity for revenge presents itself. Forgiveness can help victims relieve themselves of the burden of anger, resentment, and other negative feelings and can help restore damaged or broken relationships between victims and offenders.

While the process of amends and forgiveness can repair relationships on an individual level, the reintegration of the offender back into the workplace community is important for organizational repair. Reintegration typically begins with making amends and involves rebuilding trust, respect, and the relationships damaged by the wrongdoing. For example health care coworkers might extend forgiveness to a remorseful clinician who made an error in the delivery of patient care and express their willingness to work with the person to resolve the error and the associated harm to the patient and other affected parties. Reintegration works best when colleagues offer forgiveness and provide mentorship to the offender. Follow-up from managers and human resource specialists who can offer support are also important to successful reintegration.

Managers can use restorative practices in response to virtually any type of employee wrongdoing, from relatively minor offenses such as withholding information from a coworker, to more serious wrongdoing, such as workplace theft, bullying and sexual harassment. Responding with a restorative approach can be particularly important in organizations where employees are highly interdependent, such as team-based work environments. Conversely, the failure to repair unresolved harm and restore relationships can undermine employee well-being, escalate wrongdoing and contribute to a toxic work environment.

Not until recently have restorative practices been a major topic of conversation for organizations. Restorative responses to wrongdoing can have many benefits in modern organizations, including emphasizing the impact unethical behavior can have on people and their relationships. For example, when an employee verbally abuses a coworker during a meeting, a solely punitive response from the manager would focus on disciplining the offender. This approach often ignores the victim, who may have psychological and emotional needs after enduring the abuse and associated public embarrassment. Indirect victims are also generally ignored, such as coworkers who experienced stress and discomfort in witnessing the incident. Punitive responses also typically ignore the needs of a remorseful offender, who might experience harm in the form of lost self-respect, a diminished sense of personal integrity and a damaged reputation. Alternatively, a manager who uses a restorative response might arrange a meeting with willing parties to identify the harm that was caused, discuss appropriate amends, and develop strategies for healing and reintegration to prevent future problems.  

Implementing Restorative Practices in the Workplace

Managers therefore play a key role in the implementation of restorative practices in the workplace. Managers can educate their employees on the benefits of these practices (restoring trust, relationship building, etc.) and can take several steps to ensure their effectiveness, including:

  • Educating employees on the benefits of making amends, including the restoration of integrity and moral image, eliminating negative feelings, restoring a sense of justice, and improving workplace relationships.
  • Facilitating making amends by setting the stage for success (e.g., offering to supply meeting space and refreshments).
  • Coaching, counseling, and mentoring offenders in the process of reintegration.
  • Integrating multiple stakeholders (offender, victim, affected third parties) into an interactive process of discussing and responding to wrongdoing.
  • Considering the needs of victims and other organizational stakeholders.
  • Considering that some offenders are repentant and also have needs, such as regaining a sense of dignity, self-respect, and personal integrity or restoring their image and identity as moral people.
  • Empowering those most responsible for and affected by the wrongdoing. Give them power and freedom to identify and resolve issues among themselves.
  • Being transparent. Restorative practices emphasize openness and candor among all participants.
  • Being flexible. Restorative practices emphasize tailoring the process and outcomes for different participant needs, harms, and goals.

Restorative practices can play a significant role in resolving workplace wrongdoing. The current structure of many, if not most, ethics and compliance initiatives follow a more traditional punitive punishment model. Research has suggested that restorative practices and a focus on relationship repair may be more effective in terms of providing satisfaction, a sense of justice, sustained commitment to relationships and to the organization, and a reduced likelihood of future wrongdoing. While restorative practices may not be appropriate for all cases, they can be meaningfully integrated into existing ethics and compliance programs to improve trust and comradery among colleagues. 

The Authors: 

Kenneth D. Butterfield, Ph.D.,  is department chair and an associate professor in the Department of Management, Information Systems, and Entrepreneurship at Washington State University Carson College of Business. Dr. Butterfield has taught management and organizational behavior courses at the graduate and undergraduate level both in Pullman and online with WSU's Global Campus. His current research focuses on managing ethical behavior in organizations and restorative responses to workplace misconduct. He previously studied academic integrity issues, including influences on college students' cheating behavior.

Dr. Butterfield has served on the editorial review boards of Academy of Management Learning and Education and Business Ethics Quarterly, and his research has been published in a variety of management, business ethics, and higher education journals, including Academy of Management Learning and Education, Academy of Management Journal, Academy of Management Review, Business and Society, Business Ethics Quarterly, Ethics and Behavior, Human Relations, Journal of Business Ethics, Journal of Higher Education, Journal of Managerial Issues, and Research in Higher Education. His research has also been featured in numerous media outlets, including National Public Radio, The Wall Street Journal, The Economist, The New York Times, and The Washington Post. He can be reached at