How Forgiveness in the Workplace Can Harm Relationships

Topic(s): conflict, ethics
Publication: Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes
Article: Forgiveness is Not Always Divine: When Expressing Forgiveness Makes Other Avoid You
Authors: G.S. Adams, X. Zou, M.E. Inesi, M.M. Pillutla
Reviewed by: Will Smith

We think of forgiveness in the workplace as a way to reduce tension or maintain relationships. The act of forgiveness can help both victim and victimizer feel better about the wrongdoing that occurred, and in some cases even strengthen the relationship. However, new research (Adams, Zou, Inesi, & Pillutla, 2015) shows that there are some forms of forgiveness that can backfire and prove detrimental to relationships in the workplace.


How can forgiving someone be harmful to a relationship? Let’s say that after making a presentation, a colleague pulls you aside to tell you that he forgives you for taking credit for his ideas in your presentation. Even though you may have briefly discussed the presentation with your colleague, you genuinely believe that the final ideas you proposed were your own ideas. The authors say that in situations such as this, the person who is willing to “forgive” you may seem morally self-righteous. In the end, your colleague walks away feeling better but you feel resentment for being pardoned unjustifiably. When this happens, you are more likely to avoid or otherwise disassociate yourself from your colleague.

The test this, the researchers conducted three different laboratory studies, ultimately using several hundred participants, and confirmed that people who were “forgiven” even though they didn’t think they had done anything wrong were more likely to physically distance themselves from the person who had offered the “forgiveness.” Also, people offering the unnecessary “forgiveness” were seen as self-righteous.


The results of these studies present us with an interesting conundrum. Forgiveness can be a positive mechanism for ensuring that workplace relationships stay intact, and in most instances it can even strengthen ties. Also, offering forgiveness to someone who has actually wronged us can be empowering for all involved while also helping relieve interpersonal tension associated with brewing conflict. However, if a person feels that they have done nothing wrong, then offering forgiveness can greatly weaken a relationship. In the end, someone may end up feeling victimized.

Like many work-related challenges we face on a daily basis, communication plays a major role in success. By establishing clear lines of communication there can at least be a conversation about how each party involved perceives the situation as well as an open discussion about how they can move forward with their working relationship. At the very least, each side can gain a greater understanding of other peoples’ motivation and work to avoid future instances where forgiveness would even be necessary.