An open door policy means every manager's door is open to every employee. The purpose is to encourage open communication, feedback, and discussion about any matter of importance to an employee. Employees can take their workplace concerns, questions, or suggestions outside their own chain of command without worrying.
Companies adopt an open door policy to develop employee trust and to make sure important information and feedback reach managers who can use it to make changes and improvements. An open door policy is normally communicated in the employee handbook.
How an Open Door Policy Should Work
When a company has an open door policy, employees are free to approach or meet with the senior leadership of the organization. Companies are wise to train managers and executive staff about how the policy ought to work. Otherwise, it can seem employees are encouraged to go around their bosses and tattle on other employees. And if you are not careful, an open door policy can encourage employees to believe only senior leaders can make decisions and solve problems.
Executives need to listen to employee observations and input when the employee comes to their door or schedules a meeting. But, if the discussion turns to the employee's boss and problems best solved by the immediate supervisor, the executive needs to ask the employee if they have taken the matter up with their direct boss.
Sometimes, employees build imaginary barriers with their immediate boss and make assumptions about how the boss will handle a situation. This is unfair, but it happens.
When an Open Door Policy Is Broken
If the manager or senior leader solves the employee's problem or fails to give the immediate manager an opportunity to respond, it undermines responsible decision making and problem solving. An open door policy is not functioning properly if it circumvents the relationship an employee needs to build with their immediate manager. Most problem solving should take place where the solution is relevant—closest to the job.
Avoid setting up a "mom vs. dad" scenario where the employee goes where the answer will be favorable. After listening, executives should ask if the employee has taken the matter to their boss first, and then follow up to confirm a conversation took place.
Depending on the nature of the issue, you may want to include the employee's boss and make it a three-person discussion to ensure all are on the same page. If the complaint is about the boss, the executive should determine how to facilitate a discussion. This should be one of the most common outcomes of an employee approaching a manager who is not their direct boss.
Positive Tool for Solving Problems
An open door policy provides a vehicle for more senior managers to understand what is on the minds of employees when they don't regularly interact. It's crucial that no retaliation be connected to it, or the policy will fail. Instead, use the tool in a positive and productive way to generate ideas and solve problems.