What exactly is an open door policy?
Most of us have heard the phrase open door policy in the work environment. But what exactly does that mean? Or rather what should it mean?
Recently a client shared that although they have used this term before, the reality is they don’t like it. They felt it was a waste of their time and didn’t do anything to resolve issues. They even cited a recent business book that advised doing away with open door policies altogether!
We agree that these policies have problems, but we also agree that in most cases, they are ill-defined, have no structure, are not communicated well, and no one knows what their role is…neither managers nor staff.
What is an open door policy?
It depends. Colloquially a manager may say they have an open door policy and encourage people to come talk to them when something is on their mind. While this seems straightforward, leaving it there leads to a host of problems and soon the manager may want to close that open door and even lock it.
In other places you see something stated in the employee handbook, usually a couple of paragraphs. But again, it rarely goes beyond letting the employees know they should talk to management if they have questions about their jobs. It certainly doesn’t tell them much about the process or provide guidance on how to resolve matters on their own.
A bona fide open door policy is designed to ensure that employees who are having issues at work have an avenue to express them to someone who can do something about it. It invites and encourages employees to let management know if there are issues so that management can address it. If an employee chooses not to use the open door policy, then the organization has some defense against claims the employee may make through courts or agencies.
Having said that, the way organizations [mis]manage their open door policy can cause more problems. For example:
- Managers who have not been trained on responding to open door questions may not know they can acknowledge them without taking immediate action, which allows them to seek guidance and try to uncover other facts.
- Also, managers may not know that ‘open door’ does not mean they can’t set limits…they may need to limit the amount of time they are available to address open door issues or redirect the discussion to current issues and not previously-discussed issues.
- Employees have not been told what the open door policy can and cannot do for them, and they may have unrealistic expectations or believe they do not have to be part of the solution.
- Employees use it as a means to gripe without offering solutions.
- Some employees fear bringing matters up because they fear how they will be perceived…that they are a complainer or a problem employee.
- Employees fear retaliation…if managers respond poorly or in a retaliatory way to issues that have been raised, employees will stop sharing them.
Avoiding pitfalls can make your open door policy an effective tool in fostering good employee relations and providing you with a means to uncover issues before they get into courts or agencies. Here is what we recommend:
- Develop policies and procedures that explain the role of the manager in the open door process.
- Provide managers with guidance on how and when to respond, and how to manage the conversations.
- Communicate the open door policy to employees and make it clear that they have the RIGHT to bring important matters up or ask questions of management about their job. Also explain that they can go to their supervisor, senior management, or Human Resources…whomever is appropriate, or they feel most comfortable going to. Additionally, employees need to know they also have a RESPONSIBILITY to raise concerns that are not trivial, and that they will assist in the resolution of the matter in an active fashion.
- Train managers to understand their role and responsibility in the open door process and what actions they are required to take. Because many managers are unfamiliar with how an open door discussion should go, we advise role playing as part of the training so that they are comfortable with handling situations effectively.
- Make sure you follow through. If an employee brings something up and hears nothing further, they assume their issue is not being addressed. Make sure you advise people what you are going to do and make them aware that in some cases action may be taken but in the interest of employee privacy they may be able to disclose what actions if any will be taken.
Our experience has shown that a well-managed open door policy ensures important matters are brought up so that they be addressed and can be done so without becoming a burden to management. It goes a long way to improving morale if staff knows they are listened to, and managers know they can successfully resolve employee concerns.