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The concept of giving gets a lot of attention this time of year. Lip service is paid to generosity, whether it be giving of one’s time or money. People are encouraged to volunteer at organizations that help the less fortunate. Businesses are asked to give to charities that help the sick and needy. And charitable giving increases this time of year. We even applaud giving thanks… cheering an attitude of gratitude for what we have and what others do for us. Those are all laudable acts of generosity of spirit. Giving, in all its forms, is worthy of praise. But what about forgiving? Is that also a form of giving?
David K. Williams, a contributor to Forbes’ Entrepreneur called forgiveness “the least understood leadership trait in the workplace.” It is also, arguably, one of the least utilized traits by both leaders and staff. That makes forgiveness the rarest – and because it is rare, also the most generous — thing a person can bestow. While many are happy to give money or even time, those same generous-hearted people are often slow to forgive. Why do so many struggle with giving forgiveness and why is forgiveness so important in the workplace? More the point, exactly who benefits from forgiveness?
Forgiveness Helps Workplace Retention and Teamwork
When people think of forgiveness, they usually think of it as it relates to personal relationships. Forgiveness for transgressions by family, friends and neighbors are what often come to mind. We think of the need to forgive the quarrels, misunderstandings and slights that arise with those in our personal lives. But just as we experience disagreements and hurt feelings as a result of interactions with close personal relations, they also arise with work relationships as well. In fact, given how many hours we spend working each day and the fact that people don’t generally get to choose who they work with, employees are more likely to be hurt or offended by people at work than they would by family and friends. Moreover, the rules of professionalism make it harder to air grievances as readily. The result is that workplace transgressions accumulate and linger, and ultimately ruin teamwork and employee engagement.
It is likely that a large percentage of employee turnover is a result of offenses that remain unresolved and hurt feelings. There is a cost — a very real but mostly hidden cost — of employee turnover beyond the hard costs of advertising positions on job boards or hiring recruiters, such as reduced productivity, overworking remaining staff, recruiting and training costs, lost knowledge of the company’s history, etc.
According to an article in Human Resources Today in 2017, “The cost of employee turnover is outrageously high. When a company loses a salaried employee, it can cost anywhere from six to nine months’ worth of the departed employee’s salary to hire a replacement. This means that if an employee is being paid $40,000 a year, the cost of everything from recruiting to training expenses will be around $20,000 to $30,000.”
It stands to reason that these figures are exacerbated as the employment rate – which is now considered by most economists to be near full employment — continues to drop and competition for available workers rises. Therefore, to reduce employee turnover, not only is forgiveness a trait that companies should value, but employers should foster a culture of forgiveness in the workplace.
How to Foster a Culture of Forgiveness at Work
When Abraham Lincoln spoke of mutual forgiveness between the Union and Confederacy in his second inaugural address during the Civil War, he was criticized and reminded that the Confederates were the enemy and should be destroyed. To that, Lincoln replied “I destroy my enemies when I make them my friends.” Lincoln understood that while offenses may have caused the initial rift, it is the failure to forgive that solidifies separation. Lincoln set the tone for the two sides to heal.
The same is true for companies. Forgiveness starts at the top and trickles down. Employees are more likely to forgive one another when the company implements policies and practices that demonstrate a culture of forgiveness. Employees are more likely to stay with a company where they know that when they make mistakes, the company will help them overcome it and learn new skills to avoid making the same mistake again. Forgiveness restores hope and productivity at work. Much like the mortar that binds bricks in order to construct great buildings, forgiveness is the adhesive that unites employees to forge great companies.
To figure out if a company has a culture that fosters forgiveness, leaders should ask themselves:
- Do we consistently demonstrate forgiveness in our workplace?
- Do we expect forgiveness from others at work?
- Can we practice forgiveness daily so that in time it is a habit?
Since conflicts occur regularly in most any company, leadership plays a big role in helping others forgive someone at work who has disappointed them. According to Kim Cameron who published an article entitled “Leadership through Organizational Forgiveness” on the Impact Web Portal at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business, the best leaders fulfill two requirements when fostering forgiveness.
- They provide meaning and vision. They acknowledge the trauma, harm, and injustice that their organization members have experienced, but they define the occurrence of hurtful events as an opportunity to move forward.
- They provide legitimacy and support. Public expressions using virtuous language — such as forgiveness, compassion, humility, and courage — demonstrate true remorse and commitment to the wronged parties, and restore trust that has been compromised.
After experiencing hurt feelings or an offense, it is up to the leaders to help the team heal, replenish, restore positive energy, and enhance resiliency. Forgiveness is the first step. Cameron offered the following 10 guiding principles for leaders wanting to implement organizational forgiveness.
- Acknowledge anger and resentment and understand that forgiveness doesn’t happen in an instant. It often takes time.
- Clarify the target of forgiveness. Identify those involved. The target of forgiveness is people.
- Provide opportunities for interaction and conversation. Forgiveness usually requires opportunities to express, listen and offer support.
- Mark the end of the hurtful or victim phase from the beginning of the healing and restoration phase. Provide visible avenues to help people begin to move toward resolution.
- Provide opportunities for those impacted to do good by serving others.
- Work toward justice for those who caused harm as well as restoration for those harmed. Provide opportunities for an apology or restitution.
- Celebrate the best of the past in order to have a vision of a more positive future.
- Foster an optimistic climate and a sense of hope.
- Maintain leadership visibility and accessibility to those affected in order to inspire confidence, clarify vision and reinforce concern.
- Gather and record stories and examples of virtuousness. Recount incidents where the company rewarded virtue.
Forgiveness in the workplace is invaluable, and benefits everyone. It benefits the company by reducing turnover and increasing teamwork and cohesiveness. It also cultivates greater loyalty, adventurous creativity, and increased productivity. It also benefits those who need to be forgiven for their transgressions because, ultimately, everyone is human and makes mistakes.
Most of all, it benefits the people giving forgiveness because, as Lewis B. Smedes said, “to forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover that the prisoner was you.” Forgiveness is not only he greatest gift one can give others, it is also the most valuable gift a person can give to oneself. Forgiveness is a burden to the one who harbors the pain. By giving forgiveness at work, one gives a gift to the person who offended, the company and most of all to oneself.
Quote of the Week
“I invite everyone to choose forgiveness rather than division; teamwork over personal ambition.” Jean-Francois Cope
 January 5, 2017, David K. Williams, Contributor, Forbes’ Entrepreneur, “Forgiveness: the Least Understood Leadership Trait in the Workplace.” https://www.forbes.com/sites/davidkwilliams/2015/01/05/forgiveness-the-least-understood-leadership-trait-in-the-workplace-2/#5b184949b3f2
 May 23, 2017, By The Employee Engagement Blog, Human Resources Today, “Four Ways to Avoid the Dreaded High Turnover Rate”, http://www.humanresourcestoday.com/2017/employee-engagement/retention-and-turnover/?open-article-id=6615817&article-title=4-ways-to-avoid-the-dreaded-high-turnover-rate&blog-domain=achievers.com&blog-title=achievers
 By Kim Cameron, Impact Web Portal, University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business,
© 2017, Written by Keren Peters-Atkinson, CMO, Madison Commercial Real Estate Services. All rights reserved.