Getting the Open Door Policy Right

Courtesy of Stuart Miles -
Courtesy of Stuart Miles –

I have noticed over the years that many leaders purport to have an open door policy with their people but in reality, it has become a facade for doing the same old management process.  There are many excuses for this ranging from lack of time to the need for confidentiality being critical.  Some of the reasons are legitimate but they need to be the exception rather than the rule.
If you truly want to have engaged associates then this is a topic that must be taken seriously and have a solid foundation so people know they are being listened and responded to in the work place.  It should be a part of the business DNA as well as the associate handbook.

So what is an open door policy?

This is a policy where every leader in a company allows every associate to have access to them for engaging in conversations regarding the business and general culture of the company at any time.  Typically, this was created to develop associate trust and ensure that important issues and feedback reaches leadership who can use the information to make positive changes in the workplace.  The tough part of this policy is that the culture of the company can be a major hurdle to overcome and ensure a positive view of the policy.

Associates will seek out senior leaders for a number of reasons, ranging from the simple to the very complex.  They may also have a very personal agenda that has buried within them a series of difficult relationship issues which many want to avoid.  This is one of the primary reasons for the pseudo open door policy with extensive, limiting guidelines attached that we see in organizations today.

While I am a great advocate of the open door policy, I must reluctantly state that an effective policy will require some very basic guidelines regardless of the culture.

A successful and effective open door policy leaves the door open to more senior leaders, but provides guidelines that enable problem solving at all levels of the organization.  The effective open door policy provides the expectation that associates will address problems first with their supervisor.  The first element of the program is to instill respect between all associates regardless of level and role.  Everyone must feel that they can offer suggestions for improvement without retaliation.

Below are some simple guidelines that I have applied over the years:

The Topic Should be Communicated First:

When seeking to have an audience with a senior leader one must provide a reason for the discussion that provides a glimpse of what you are requesting.  Once they have determined the reason for the associate’s visit, however, they have choices they need to make.

Associates seek help from senior leaders with a variety of issues.  However, a common issue is that the associate is having problems with their supervisor or leader.  The senior leader, who seeks to solve this problem, without enabling the leader or supervisor in question to solve the problem first, creates a dysfunctional organization.

There must be Two Way Discussion, complete with LISTENING:

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

If the answer is “no,” the leader must redirect the associate 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 associate’s point of view, or disagrees with the associate’s suggestion.

There must be Resolution or Response:

For example in the situation above, the senior leader must follow up to make certain the associate does address the issue with their supervisor and that the supervisor appropriately responded.  If not, the senior leader needs to bring the associate and supervisor together to assess the situation.  As with any other kind of conflict, the conflict, left unaddressed, will fester and hurt relationships and the organization culture.  It is critical that commitments agreed to are tracked and met within a reasonable timeframe with no hidden variations or constraints.

In any open door policy, once an associate has sought out a senior leader, the leader 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 resolved or responded to by the appropriate people.  There must be a tangible direction documented and published so there is transparency wherever possible.  The more one can have the resolution completed by the delivery units involved the more positive the outcome will be for the organization.

In summary, successful responses and resolutions will go far in empowering the Open Door Policy to grow and become a major part of the organizational culture.  Employee disengagement will decline and a positive culture will ensue.

On the other hand, if there are limited responses or few resolutions the Open Door Policy will go the way of the dinosaur and disengagement will continue to increase.  The choice is yours as the leader.  If you would like assistance in creating a Open Door Policy that works within your organization, contact us today at the Transformative Leadership Group.