A search on Google Scholar for “lateral violence” suggests it is a serious concern for the nursing workforce. Lateral violence is also recognised as an issue for Indigenous organisations and communities internationally, and has been defined as “the name given to the harmful and undermining practices that members of oppressed groups can engage in against each other as a result of marginalisation”.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner Mick Gooda has been a prominent advocate of the need for Indigenous people and communities to address lateral violence or “internalised colonialism”.

In Adelaide this week, the NACCHO Summit has heard about work by the Bendigo and District Aboriginal Cooperative to address lateral violence in the workplace through a Restorative Justice model.

While it’s early days, the program seems to be meeting its aims of increasing staff morale and creating a more positive work environment, reports John Thompson-Mills.

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Tackling lateral violence in the workplace

John Thompson-Mills writes:

About 20 years ago, a policeman in Wagga Wagga called Terry O’Connell, who was concerned at the high numbers of repeat offenders in the justice system, developed a method for dealing with young offenders, victims and their respective families.

He developed an alternative form of conflict resolution built around scripted questions, called Restorative Justice.

Originally devised in the 1970s (Indigenous North America) as a method of mediation between victims and offenders in the criminal-justice system, Restorative Justice has spread around the world and broadened to include the wider community.

Restorative Justice is used in hundreds of schools around Australia where it’s reduced misbehaviour, bullying, violence and crime and improved the overall climate for learning.

In the modern legal system, the Aboriginal community has also been using Restorative Justice models – including circle sentencing – since the 1990’s.

Here, apportioning blame is avoided and instead the victims and offenders come together to talk and essentially work through four basic questions:

1): What happened?
2): What were you thinking at the time?
3): Who has been affected by what you did?
4): What do you think you need to do to make things better?

Restorative Justice is now appearing in another form of conflict resolution, to address lateral violence in Aboriginal communities.

Lateral violence is a verbal form of bullying but it can occur in many forms from making faces and raising eyebrows to malicious gossip, shaming, backstabbing, broken confidences and social exclusion.

The effects of lateral violence can range from a sense of powerlessness to depression and self-harm. Elders are often victims of lateral violence, but they can also commit it themselves.

In Bendigo, lateral violence has become such a problem that the Bendigo and District Aboriginal Cooperative (BDAC)  has introduced a Restorative Justice model to their grievance process.

To make sure they do it properly, two BDAC staff have received accredited training from Melbourne-based Restorative Justice expert David Moore.

BDAC’s CEO, Joanne Badke, says lateral violence has been around for generations and a recent Victorian-based awareness campaign has further highlighted its prevalence in the workplace.

“It’s started to affect grievance processes, staff relationships, team-building, and a whole range of things. And in this day and age where the governing requirements of Aboriginal organisations, when we’re actually managing the staff relations and risk management, it has a lot bigger effect,” she says.

Joanne Badke says lateral violence has been a part of the Aboriginal community since colonisation. “We’re actually bringing ourselves down,” she says. “Alienating our own people and affecting their employment opportunities.”

Hence, the recent introduction of Restorative Justice practices to BDAC.

She says: “Starting a grievance process in an organisation just doesn’t address the issue properly, but Restorative Justice was actually based on an Indigenous concept of coming together and working through that yarning process and coming to a resolution. So it’s an ideal model for us.”

Joanne Badke admits there are risk factors around RJ and whether industrial agents like Work Cover and Fair Work Australia actually understand what lateral violence is and what effect it has on the individual.

Instead of pursuing a disciplinary process, Restorative Justice allows them to aim for cultural change in an organisation, so that lateral violence is no longer regarded as acceptable.

“So it’s actually starting to change the workplace culture to a system of actually understanding what we’re doing to each other,” Badke says. “So it’s not a last resort but more of a pilot to see if this is a system that can change this type of behaviour.”

BDAC’s lateral violence resolution guidelines follow Privacy & OHS acts, and all parties must agree to participate.

There can’t be any other lateral violence process between the involved parties in the past 12 months and once terms or resolutions are agreed, there can be no backing out; otherwise, formal disciplinary action will be taken.

The aim of BDAC’s Restorative Justice program is to reduce incidents of workplace lateral violence, which in turn, they hope will increase staff morale and create a more positive work environment. And so far, that’s what seems to be happening.

“We’re actually coming together, discussing an issue, and coming to agreements to not continue to have this behaviour,” Joanne Badke says.

“But we’re also making an awareness campaign within the organisation that we’re actually not going to tolerate that behaviour at the same time.

“It has certainly been successful so far, but we’re only at the infancy stages.”

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For previous Croakey reports from the Summit

 • Delivering health in a basket for mums and bubs in Cape York

• Call for action on alcohol, drugs, STIs and HIV prevention

• Stickin’ It Up the Smokes 

• Getting active at Warburton and healthy catering guidelines

• Making Telehealth part of the future

• A call for better support for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Workers

• Improving the lives of disabled people in remote communities: case study from Warburton

• The road to Closing the Gap may be turning a corner

• “Absolutely awesome” tweet reporting from NACCHO Summit 

• Prof Ngiare Brown on the cultural determinants of health

• Previewing the summit and some suggestions for Q and A

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