Its About Forgiveness (in the workplace).


by Michael Palanski, Associate Professor of Management at the Saunders College of Business, Rochester, NY

As a seminary graduate entering a PhD program in business, I was shocked – shocked! – to discover that forgiveness in the workplace was a topic of interest to organisational researchers. As one might expect, forgiveness was a common topic among theology scholars. But forgiveness was a relatively new topic in the competitive arena of business. We now know that forgiveness is important anytime we are focusing on human relationships – which, of course, includes business.

Here’s what we know about forgiveness in the workplace:

  • It involves two important aspects: a release of negative emotions and a decision to forgo revenge or other harmful activities against another party who has caused harm
  • It has many benefits, including:
  1.      Health benefits, including lower stress
  2.      Improved team and organisational functioning
  3.      Increased trust and credibility
  • It is related to, but separate from, reconciliation. In other words, one might decide to forgive another person, but not seek to continue in the relationship (or, in the case of a workplace relationship, keep the relationship to a minimal-interaction, transactional relationship).
  • Organisational context matters. Forgiveness is much more likely to take place in an organisational culture that values and practices it.
  • Is not a one-and-done event. Forgiveness is sometimes like peeling an onion. As each layer is removed, new aspects of the the offense(s) may be revealed and in need of forgiveness
  • Is critical for leaders. Leaders are often faced with insults, undermining, and outright attacks. Forgiveness becomes a powerful tool for dealing with these actions.

Perhaps most importantly, forgiveness is not easy, or natural. It is not ignoring or minimising an offense. To the contrary, it is acknowledging the full impact of an offense, and refusing to retaliate. That’s a tall order, but one that growing evidence suggests is critical.

About the author
Mike is an Associate Professor of Management at the Saunders College of Business at the Rochester Institute of Technology in Rochester, NY. He teaches undergraduate, graduate, and executive MBA classes in leadership, organizational behavior, and business ethics. He also teaches leadership skills development and conducts leadership coaching in RIT’s online executive MBA program. He has published numerous peer-reviewed articles in journals such as the Academy of Management Review, The Leadership Quarterly, Journal of Business Ethics, and Journal of Management Education, and is a noted expert on leader integrity. He holds a PhD in Organizational Behavior / Leadership from SUNY Binghamton, an MA in Theology from Covenant Theological Seminary and a BS from Grove City College. Prior to joining academia, he worked as a retail product manager for a Fortune 500 company and as an online banking specialist.