How an Open Door Policy Ought to Work

Open Door Policies Provide Options for Employees to Be Heard

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Want to bypass levels of management, strike fear in the hearts of supervisors, and undermine your chain of command? Adopt an open door policy that states any employee can talk with any level manager about any issue at any time. Isn't that the point of an open door policy, you may ask? My answer? Yes and no.

In theory, any employee should be able to talk with any level of manager or any other employee about any subject at any time. Philosophically, I believe we are all equal; we just have different jobs.

But, open door policies, as commonly interpreted, fail to build the ability of the organization to solve problems close to where the problem occurs. They encourage employees to bypass their immediate manager whenever they have a complaint or a problem to solve.

They don't encourage the development of problem solving skills by individual managers. They enable more senior managers to look good and feel good at the expense of mid-level managers.

They train employees to bypass their supervisors and managers. You develop a culture where employees believe, that to accomplish their goals, they need to bypass their immediate supervisors and seek out the ear of senior managers.

This is dysfunctional and undermines the functioning of a successful organization. This is especially true in organizations with managers who fail to understand the impact of their actions and decisions on other managers and supervisors.

Successful Open Door Policies

A successful and effective open door policy leaves the door open to more senior managers but provides guidelines that enable problem solving at all levels of the organization. The effective open door policy provides the expectation that employees will address problems first with their supervisor.

This solution is simple. Senior managers can enable and allow access for all employees, within an open door policy. Once they have determined the reason for the employee's visit, however, they have choices they need to make.

Employees seek help from senior managers with a variety of issues. But a common issue is that the employee is having problems with their supervisor or manager.

The senior manager who seeks to solve this problem, without enabling the manager or supervisor in question to solve the problem first, creates a dysfunctional organization.

When an employee wants to talk about a variety of issues, such as the company, the markets, employee needs and wants, the senior manager must listen. This provides substance to the open door policy. But, if the employee is complaining about their supervisor, the manager must ask if the employee has addressed the issue with their supervisor.

If the answer is "no," the manager must redirect the employee to first address the issue with his or her immediate supervisor. Many factors affect this recommendation. Maybe the supervisor is difficult to talk with, disrespects the employee's point of view, or disagrees with the employee's suggestion.

Consequently, the senior manager must follow up to make certain the employee does address the issue with their supervisor and that the supervisor appropriately responded. A good way to make this happen is to ask the employee to set up another meeting with the senior manager to debrief following the employee's meeting with his direct manager or supervisor.

If the meeting doesn't happen or the outcome is not satisfactory, the senior manager needs to bring the employee and supervisor together to assess the situation. The senior leader's role in this meeting is that of mediator.

As with any other kind of conflict, the conflict, left unaddressed, will fester and hurt relationships and the organization.

In an open door policy, once an employee has sought out a senior manager, the manager should not always solve the problem, and indeed, in these circumstances - never solve the problem - but he or she must monitor that the problem is solved or responded to by the appropriate people.

When the open door policy is effectively supported,

  • the open door policy is honored,
  • the chain of command is honored,
  • the manager's problem solving skills are enhanced,
  • the employee's personal courage, conflict resolution, and problem solving skills are enhanced,
  • the organization benefits from shared information and feedback, and
  • high employee trust is generated from a successful experience with management

The effective open door policy is a win for all participants.