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Look Inside 'Open-Door' Policies

“When I told a client he needed to be more in touch with his staff, he told me that he had an open-door policy,” said HR consultant Rick Mauer of Mauer & Associates in Arlington, Va. “His staff told me that he had a sign taped to his door which read, ‘Knock if it’s really important.’”

That’s one approach.

But other open-door policies, whether formal or informal, seek to encourage employees to bring issues forward for resolution.

For example, page 11 of Source Media’s 53-page employee handbook spells out the company’s open-door policy, with assurances that no complaining worker will suffer retaliation for going to any boss about any subject, and espousing a belief that such unfettered engagement is healthy for the 500-person firm.

“A lot of times, employees, depending on how large the organization is, might not be aware of what channels of access they have,” said Deborah Cook, the New York-headquartered company’s HR manager. “They should know their rights.”

And therein is the divide.

The open-door policy, as a corporate construct, is sometimes fluid and sometimes a point of contention. But employment lawyers and HR directors say such a policy is a necessary thing. In addition to promoting an unintimidating workplace where concerns are settled quickly and judiciously—so that the company can focus on getting its work done—an open-door policy can help protect employee and employer from legal and other harms.

“Informality can create a trap,” according to employment lawyer Mark Ellis of Ellis, Coleman, Poirier, Lavoie & Steinheimer in Sacramento, Calif. He gives this example: “Someone goes into the supervisor and says ‘I’m having problems with co-worker X and I don’t feel comfortable with what’s going on.’ There is some sort of discussion; the employee feels better. The supervisor may or may not go to the person being complained about. It may, in the short run, seem that everything’s OK. But three years later, the employee leaves and brings a wrongful discrimination lawsuit and says ‘I went repeatedly to supervisor X.’ ”

The problem, Ellis explained, is that the supervisor kept no notes on those informal discussions. “And because the supervisor is in management, management’s involvement will be imputed,” he added.

A Systematic Approach

Miami employment lawyer Kevin Vance of Epstein Becker Greene said most employers have something they might refer to as an open-door policy. “But it’s important not to just have a written or spoken policy, but a system in place—a streamlined approach where employees know they can go to a certain set of people, of managers, who are well trained in how to process complaints and who do so consistently,” he told SHRM Online. “The last thing you want in a large organization is every manager to have some responsibility in that.”

Too much involvement by too many people risks diminishing the efficiency of such efforts, heightening chances of a serious matter falling through the cracks, Vance added. He suggested that employers who are serious about establishing an open door:

  • Have a carefully researched written procedure for airing and adjudicating issues ranging from alleged sexual harassment to tiffs between co-workers who do not get along.
  • Train managers on the intricacies of how such an open-door policy works.
  • Ensure that employees can identify exactly who are the trained complaint handlers in their organization.

Recognizing that a paper trail is crucial, several of Ellis’ clients have begun using computerized systems, querying employees automatically when they log on each work day and maintaining their confidential responses in perpetuity. “That’s a very powerful tool in terms of both having the communication and the response,” Ellis said. “What management gets is an electronic record of whether that employee perceives a problem, and then management can decide if it merits a deeper investigation.”

But open-door policies are not aimed solely at resolving just the most fractious workplace concerns, HR experts say. There are many other issues, from denied promotions to a given worker feeling that his ideas are not given a fair hearing at the brainstorming table.

No matter the issue, said Cook, “There’s still an appreciation for the employee starting with their manager and going up from there. Otherwise it looks like you’re deliberately usurping a manager’s authority.” There is much agreement on that point of office etiquette, HR consultants say.

Room for Improvement

“The term ‘open-door policy’ itself is so open to interpretation,” said Brian Jones, principal with Table Consulting Group in Gulf Breeze, Fla. “Maybe you’re just good at spending time with the staff, which is an open door on loafers, if you will, and that’s part of the point in setting a sincere tone of openness.”

One of his clients recently set specific hours for any employee to bring concerns to managers assigned to hear them out objectively, Jones said. “It’s come to the attention of leaders in all kinds of industry that it is vitally important to engage people,” said Pam Bilbrey, Jones’ consulting partner, “particularly in these times when we’re actually asking people to do so much more with less.”

Yet encouraging a more-open atmosphere can require fundamental changes. “You’d be surprised how many times we hear workers complain that their bosses pass them in the hallway and never look them straight in the eye or say a word to them,” Bilbrey said.

Table Consulting trains corporate chiefs and their lieutenants about behavior that can appear deliberately anti-collegial. They talk about why it’s important for company leaders to take time with their workers at the water cooler or in hallways or at the same cafeteria table, not relinquishing their leadership, but seeing those moves as necessary supplements. Without them, “open-door policy” is often “just empty words. It allows the manager to believe that he or she is a good leader [though] he or she sees unscheduled meetings as intrusions,” said consultant Mauer, whose book, The Feedback Toolkit (Productivity Press, 1994), is scheduled for re-release in 2010.

“In an ideal world, anyone can talk to anyone about anything. But that does not happen without real effort,” said Kim Wilkerson of Wilkerson Consulting in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. For example, if an employee bypasses his direct supervisor to talk to the boss’ boss, that individual’s response can’t just be ‘Well, what did your supervisor say?’ she explained. “There has to be a real exploration of the issues and a way of creating a protocol that is more involved—not reactive but proactive. We’re not talking about destroying these longstanding chains of command but finding ways to complement them.”

Katti Gray is a New York-based freelance journalist whose work has appeared in Newsday, Ms., Essence, The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune and other publications.

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