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Newsletter for August 2002

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International Forgiving Day 2004

The wise writer and teacher Anne Naylor, now based in France, has been building networks of forgiveness for nearly ten years to focus on one day in the year - 15 March.  (Yes, the Ides.)

2004 is the tenth year of holding this vision. To celebrate Monday 15 March 2004, she have provisionally booked the Royal Albert Hall, London, England for an evening event with music, and speakers on the subject of forgiving. 

She has seen the possibility of forming many local Forgiving Focus Groups as one way of holding that intention.  For more details contact Anne via this link: Anne Naylor

Kamloops follow-up

The Worldwide Forgiveness Alliance holds a different day for marking the focus on forgiveness - the first Sunday in August of each year.

The Choosing Forgiveness First initiative held a gathering at Kamloops in Canada this June.  Participants have been inspired to continue building a core community of "healed servers" in forgiveness.  For further details contact Noel McInnis via this link: Noel McInnis

"Why Forgive?" - Johann Christoph Arnold

Johann Christoph Arnold's latest book on forgiving, Why Forgive?, is now available as a free e-book - details online at Johann Christof's website

Many of these stories deal with the harrowing effects of violent crime, betrayal, abuse, bigotry, and war. But the book examines life's more mundane battle scars as well: "the persistent hobgoblins of backbiting, gossip, and strained family ties, marriages gone cold, and tensions in the workplace."

New web links

The Forgiveness Foundation

This site by Jim Dincalci aims to promote effective forgiveness among friends, neighbours and members of each community. 

Jim is a family therapist and forgiveness counsellor, and the site provides inspirational articles and wisdom to integrate psychological and spiritual approaches

Forgiveness in the workplace

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  1. A compassionate culture?  - Controversial examples

  2. Forgiveness between higher and lower levels - Can employers and employees forgive one another with practical changes, not just a world-weary sigh?

  3. Recognising different kinds of relationship - Forgiveness affects all kinds of relationship, not just one-to-one

  4. Leaders with resourceful compassion - Leaders who understand their company's core values

  5. Fostering a culture of forgiving - Is our organisation willing to publicly value "taking risks and learning from our mistakes"?

  6. One-to-many : the hardest form?  Can one de-valued employee forgive a whole organisation?

1  A compassionate culture?

Recent news stories have supplied examples of what may be either wise leadership or ambiguity, duplicity and over-reaction in the area of "forgiveness in the workplace".  I wanted, rather tentatively, to open out this issue for wider consideration, since it seems to be largely overlooked both by organisational management and by practitioners of forgiveness.

Many people in full-time employment have personal failings and flaws; and many other people are poor or incompetent in their roles.  Is the only proper response to sack them, or are different responses possible?  Do personal weaknesses require the same response as incompetence?  What might forgiving mean in such various cases?

This month, many women’s groups in England called for the sacking of a Birmingham taxi driver who has a conviction for rape, even though he left prison twenty years ago and has held a trouble-free record as a taxi driver for seventeen years.   A senior gynaecologist struck off for incompetence and negligence was reported to have been controversially re-employed by a Manchester hospital in an administrative role, advising on patient care, which provoked outcry from patient groups and women's groups.   (Newspaper reports do not, of course, allow us to judge the rights and wrongs of a particular case, but they do raise some of the wider issues.)

Earlier this year British Home Office Minister Bob Ainsworth urged firms to deal compassionately with workers who are addicted to drugs, rather than sacking them, calling on businesses to develop a "compassionate workplace culture" by offering to help staff overcome any addiction. Speaking at a conference of business leaders in London, he said,

"Business may feel that the only way to deal with drug users is to dismiss them, but I would urge them to think again. Dismissal should be the end of a process of trying to help the employee overcome their addiction.  Work can often be the only thing that holds a person together and prevent a freefall into more severe addiction, with all the problems this brings."

Illustrating this, English football manager Dave Jones realised this when he was removed after being charged in 1999 with child abuse in a case occurring many years earlier.  In February 2002 he was acquitted on all counts, but the Southampton chairman Rupert Lowe took Jones out of the job so that he could fight the legal case, putting a new manager in his place.  Jones viewed Lowe as a friend, but said he had been wrong to do this.  "I think he genuinely thought he was doing me a favour, but football was my sanity."

2 Forgiveness between higher and lower levels

The question of applying forgiveness in the workplace is not a topic about which one reads or hears very much.  We still use the expression "the Protestant" work ethic, to refer to a worldview in which people are judged and compared by their achievements at work.  This even though Protestantism claimed to return the Christian church to grace rather than works. 

Philip Yancey wisely observes that what defines the bourgeois mind-set in almost all society's institutions, from schools to multi-nationals to churches, is "the insistence that we earn our way" ... our deeds earn or merit their consequences (What's so amazing about grace? p 36)

In contemporary Westernised culture, the norm of good practice in professional organisations when an employee behaves improperly or incompetently is to sack her or him.  This allows the organisation to continue as before, apparently squeaky clean to public view and bearing no responsibilities for or towards the employee ... but also not stopping to learn from all sides (including the employee) about what happened and why.  Even when a company conducts exit interviews in such cases, the norm does not suggest any option to consider forgiveness.

Forgiveness, if it is spoken of in the context of work, is usually limited to good relationships between colleagues … at a personal level but not as a professional matter. For example, Judi Neal, the inspirational director of the Association for Spirit at Work, refers in her on-line course “The Four Gateways” to forgiveness at work only in this one aspect, concerning "conflict between co-workers." 

By itself, the aspect still matters, yet perhaps we can see why it is important to ask about the possibility of more extensive forgiveness at work, when we hear Stephen Neill say:

Forgiveness recognises the wrongdoer as a person. He has done wrong, and about this there is no pretence.  But this is not the whole truth about him.  He is still of infinite value as a person, since every person is unique and irreplaceable by any other ... (A Genuinely Human Existence)

Does this realisation of personal worth allow us the possibility of taking forgiveness at work further … that is, into issues of professionalism and between different levels of employment.  Developing the practice of forgiveness is not just a moral or spiritual endeavour.  It contributes to the creativity and inter-personal depth of an organisation.  And perhaps most importantly, it allows organisations to better understand its responsibility towards employees as well as clients, to talk through and learn from what went wrong, on all sides, rather than continuing with a veneer of unimpeachablility!

Of course, where the consumer is king, it may seem at first unlikely that the virtue of forgiveness is anything other than a romantic ideal, inappropriate in the tough decision making of board rooms and shop floors.  UK Channel4's very fine series on the emergence of the idea of the "self-as-consumer" in the 20th century, The Century of the Self (written and produced by Adam Curtis), concluded by saying:

If even government and religion have to meet the demands of the self-as-consumer, who is the lord and king in all transactions, then an employee who resists that tacit agreement about where power lies will be expendable.

So in what ways, and with what benefits, would it make sense for representative leaders of organisations – business and professional – to show forgiveness to an employee, when the normal option would be to remove him or her summarily?  And how would it make sense for an employee to forgive the leaders of a company or organisation when they exhibit corruption, favouritism, or whatever?

3  Recognising different kinds of relationship

Forgiving is a fundamental possibility in all personal relationships – both forgiving and receiving forgiveness.  I have suggested (ForgivenessNet Insights) that in order to catch a glimpse of the larger scale of forgiving, relationships should be considered in four aspects:   

A helpful way to appreciate the much larger scale of forgiveness can be to see that forgiveness occurs inside a communication-relationship ... and there is not just one type of communication-relationship.  There are basically four types of this relationship, illustrated here by one of the various historic technologies that reflect them:

  • one-to-one (telephone)
  • one-to-many (TV and newspapers)
  • many-to-one (voting in democratic elections)
  • many-to-many (the internet)

This way of viewing relationships provides a stimulating starting point for looking at what is possible, desirable, ethical and spiritual in workplaces.  We need to consider the possibilities of forgiving in all these forms of relationship.  Normally we restrict our view to the first form - one-to-one - and think of it as a purely personal matter, between co-workers.

We should also note that this form operates on what we call "passive levels" of forgiving - changes in inner attitude.  The other forms of relationship require more power, since they raise the question of making changes - transformations - at a public and practical level.  (For an introduction to different levels of forgiving, see ForgivenessNet's The dimensions of forgiveness.) 

Forgiveness in the workplace, if it is to be more than inner letting-go between co-workers in conflict, needs to be forgiveness at a public and practical level.  This means either restoring a broken relationship, or establishing a relationship on a new and better foundation.  In the work context, it may mean refraining from hastily sacking an employee, or re-employing them, or encouraging re-appointment to a different kind of role - perhaps even for a manager or leader who has been "promoted to his level of incompetence."

4   Leaders with resourceful compassion

Leaders represent "the many," in their relationship to each employee, and illustrate the many-to-one form.  It may be appropriate and possible for an organisation to forgive an employee after professional misconduct or incompetence, if the leaders of the organisation have the power and confidence to work for the transformation of the employees attitude or personal situation, or the employee wants to undergo intensive re-training. 

And also, we need to add, if the company or profession believes it is right for its own values and future to weather the possible outcry from consumers.  If an organisation's core values (the ones it reveals in practice, not its words) have little connection with forgiveness, it will find little reason to develop or foster forgiveness with its employees, unless it leads to good publicity!  (See David Augsburger's comments in Can we forgive institutions? and link to the longer ForgivenessNet article The values implied by forgiveness.)

A memorable example of resourceful compassion and a recognition of one's core values came from Argentinean Pentecostal pastor Juan Carlos Ortiz, who led a large church with many staff:

A member of my staff in Argentina began a church in another city and was enjoying great success.  Then one day he fell into a horrible sin.  "Juan Carlos, I know I am wrong," my friend confessed to me in tears.  "I am guilty 100 per cent.  I place myself in your hands."  So I said that according to our rules I would remove him from his ministry.  I told him his salary would be cut off, and I was not sure if he would preach again.

I went into my office to pray.  My conscience said to me, "How easily you did that.  When he was doing well, you shared his glory.  Now that he is doing badly, you don't want to share the blame.  You cut him off.  Maybe he will die of sadness and depression, but you have saved your own life  ...  Juan Carlos, the truth is that his failure is your failure, just as his success was your success.  He is part of you."

So I went and told my friend, "Forgive me.  I haven't really forgiven you.  If I had, I would have treated you differently.  I wouldn't make you pay first.  You will have your full salary back, for you will need it more today than ever, since you must stop preaching and deal with the full consequences of this sin."

"Pastor," he said.  "Don't you know what other people will say about you and about our church?"  I said, "You should have thought about that before you sinned.  But because we love you and you are one of us, we will suffer the blame together."

And we did.  The criticism and gossip were worse than any discipline I could have invented.  He learned - we all learned - what it meant for Jesus to identify with our sins … Sometimes we have to receive some of the lashes meant for our brother or sister in Christ. (God is closer than you think  pp 65-67)

5  Fostering a culture of forgiving

The many-to-many strand of forgiving seems to be a matter of developing a whole culture or ethos. Leaders have to initiate this, as Nelson Mandela did in South Africa.  Charles Handy has suggested that one of the signs of creativity and health in a business is that it fosters this cultural norm of forgiving,  He is particularly concerned to ask whether a business is ready to take risks and place high value on learning from its mistakes:

I asked an American the secret of his firm's obviously successful development policy.     He looked me straight in the eye.  "Forgiveness," he said.  "We give them big jobs and big responsibilities.   Inevitably they make mistakes, we can't check them all the time and don't want to.  They learn, we forgive, they don't make the same mistake again."

He was unusual.  Too many organisations use their appraisal schemes and their confidential files to record our errors and our small disasters.  They use them to chastise us with, hoping to inspire us or to frighten us to do better.  It might work once, but in future we will make sure that we do not venture far enough from the beaten track to make any mistake.  Yet no experiment, no test of new ideas ... means no learning and no change.  (The Age of Unreason  p 60)

6  One-to-many : the hardest form?

What of one-many?  We are asking here whether or not one employee, however senior, can extend forgiveness to the company which behaved wrongly.  Inner or passive forgiving is possible and desirable for individual health; but what of active or practical forgiveness? 

Most of my examples show that this is that hardest form.  Employees who have shown up an organisation's bad practice or incompetence (this may include their own complicit actions as well), or those who whistle-blow, are already being disempowered by the company or leadership even before they are actually fired.  They may sue for wrong dismissal, of course, or for company malpractice … but the steps we take to embark on a legal suit harden hearts, and make forgiving even harder.

Andrew Knock

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