By Tina M. Liljedahl
Tina Liljedahl is a marketing and business consultant who has over 10 years of experience in leadership development with an emphasis on improving communication in the workplace.
Open door policies are designed to increase communication by providing a safe and secure way for employees to voice concerns, resolve issues, and provide new ideas. In my work as a business consultant, I have specifically noticed the increase of this trend in industries that rely on creativity, such as software companies, marketing, and IT companies; as well as industries that pride themselves on a servant leadership atmosphere such as human resources companies and consulting firms. According to Hewlett-Packard (2015), their open door policy is “open communication in an environment of trust and mutual respect that creates a solid foundation for collaboration, growth, high performance and success across HP.”
However, in consulting with companies over the last 10 years, I have also discovered even companies with the best intending leadership can fall into three major traps of the open door policy: damaged trust, ill prepared management, and inefficient work days. Likewise, I have witnessed first hand companies that avoided these pitfalls by bringing a little more awareness, and clear communication to their strategy. As a result, they successfully implemented effective open door policies.
1. Damaged Trust
You want your employees to tell you if they have concerns or issues and share their ideas; that’s why the open door policy is so appealing. However, if an employee feels he or she isn’t taken seriously; it will not only damage his or her trust and behavioral integrity, that lack of trust will spread like cancer throughout your organization. Research shows that when there is a trust violation in the workplace that is left unresolved, it will create a downward negative effect on the overall morale of the company (Savolainen, Lopez-Fresno, & Ikonen, 2014).
Keep in mind employers who respond respectfully, and follow up with action will foster an environment of trust. Actively listening to the employee, providing him or her your full attention by shutting your door or stepping into a conference room, and putting email, cell phones, and work aside will show the employee you are taking the issue seriously. Repeating the problem or idea back in your own words will ensure that you and your employee are on the same page and will reassure your employee that you do understand. Be sure to let employees know how you will be taking action, even if the action is to follow up in a day or so to make sure the employee is feeling better about an issue. Then, follow up on your promises. Employers who do what they say they will do, when they said they will do it, have employees who will go to bat for them every time. That is because, as The Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization revealed, employees who trust their management actually exhibit higher levels of workplace performance (Brown, Gray, & McHardy, 2015).
2. Ill-Prepared Management
When employees are told they can come to management for anything, rest assured they will! Employees may not turn to human resources like they did before, or they may sidestep their direct manager and seek out someone higher up in the company. So, everyone needs to be prepared.
Management that is ill prepared to handle the type of employee interaction they receive could lead to embarrassment for the employee and the manager, or even legal ramifications. For example, an estimated 2 percent-5 percent of individuals in the United States are transgender, totaling between five and 12 million individuals (Hendrick, 2015). With recent media attention on the subject, it is likely that businesses will experience a rise in the number of individuals who choose to openly live this lifestyle and have specific needs as it relates to gender identification, bathroom usage, and informing colleagues (Hendrick, 2015).
Open door policies really work best when department managers and the hierarchy of matrix organizations are working together. Soft-skills and communication training, along with educating management on how and when to go to Human Resources with an issue, can aid management in side-stepping uncomfortable situations and avoiding legal actions.
Large firms may have a training and employee development team that works in the Human Resources department with the expertise on the best way to train management on issues such as cultural diversity, harassment policies in the workplace, and the basic state and federal laws
Of course, if your company does not have this type of resource readily available, I encourage you to seek out a Human Resources outsourcing company to train management on these issues. It’s definitely an investment that could save the company in the future.
In addition to ensuring your management is trained properly, having your open door policy clearly and thoroughly documented and providing managers with a copy is a way to reinforce the expectations on how to respond to employees.
3. Open Door Policies Can Lead to Inefficiencies.
Because an open door policy’s very nature is to encourage communication and the ability for an employee to speak with management at anytime, it can lead to an unfocused and unproductive day for management (Yates, 2015). Open office work areas without doors leave managers especially vulnerable to unending daily interruptions (Yates, 2015).
Let’s be realistic, you hired your managers to complete a specific job and oversee the department, not act as on-going mediation service. Deadlines and projects are still important and vital to their role, and a stressed-out manager will not be good at managing or as a sounding board for employees.
Managers are most successful in retaining productivity when they communicate clearly with their staff about their needs to get projects completed. Managers can do this by sharing calendars and blocking off time that is to be uninterrupted, or having a cue they share with employees that means they are focused on a project (such as, “When I am wearing headphones, I am focused on project xyz”). They can emphasize and assure the staff they will be available to address basic concerns later at a specific time, making sure the employees know they can always be interrupted for emergencies. This provides employees with the knowledge they need to allow managers to work without feeling like they are being dismissed.
Your employees will be receptive to the information and will genuinely understand your request. It’s recommended that communication with employees be handled in advance as much as possible and never directly after an employee’s request. This will diminish the chance the employee will feel as though their concerns are being dismissed.
With precaution, most open-door policy dangers can be avoided making the policy more beneficial than harmful. I have observed companies that reap the most benefits ensure their open-door policies are well documented, clear, communicated to everyone in the organization, and management is educated and prepared.