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#Communicate
What an Open Door Policy at Work Means
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Laura Berlinsky-Schine,
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Whether you are new to management or have decades of leadership experience, you should always be taking steps to ensure that your employees feel comfortable and valued and are able to speak their minds.

Some employers adopt an open-door policy to encourage communication and make themselves approachable to employees. What is this type of policy, and how can managers design one that is effective? Here is what you should know.

What does it mean to have an open door policy?

An open-door policy is just what it sounds like: keeping your door open to employees. In a figurative sense, it is an established policy that encourages your employees to approach you at any time to discuss issues, questions, problems, or ideas. In order to make it effective, managers generally communicate this policy to their employees up front. Many adopt it in a literal sense, too, by physically keeping the doors to their offices open when it is feasible to do so.

Why do companies like this policy? 

Many companies encourage or require their managers to have an open-door policy because it can benefit the business, such as by:

• Increasing accessibility

Employees have more access to their managers and may feel less fearful about approaching them.

• Encouraging communication

Rather than letting issues fester to the point at which employees might feel like they just have to quit, they know they can discuss their concerns with their managers and work together to resolve them. An open-door policy provides a forum for employees to make suggestions, voice issues, and deliver feedback.

• Promoting an exchange of ideas 

One of the most beneficial aspects of an open-door policy to employers is that it encourages employees to vocalize and share their ideas without wondering if it is their place to speak up. This type of participation can lead to innovation and creativity in the organization.

Pros and cons of open door policies at work

There are many benefits to having an open-door policy at work, as well as some downsides. Here are some pros and cons to consider when adopting or improving your policy.

Pros

• Open door policies can improve communication.

Communication is essential to ensuring that employees feel comfortable and heard. Establishing an effective open-door policy tells your employees that you want them to voice their concerns and opinions. While it is only one part of your effort to encourage communication in the workplace, it can be a helpful one.

• It encourages feedback.

As a boss, it’s important to keep evaluating your own performance, not just that of your employees. One of the best ways to understand your own strengths and areas upon which you could improve is by encouraging your employees to give you feedback.

Of course, this idea may be intimidating to the people who report to you. An open-door policy, however, can create a more transparent and welcoming atmosphere and enable your employees to offer feedback without the fear of repercussion.

• It can increase the flow of information.

Your employees may have fabulous ideas but feel too anxious about approaching you with them. Having an open-door policy at work can help your employees feel more comfortable with voicing their ideas since it implies that you are more than willing to hear them.

This type of policy can also encourage your employees to voice concerns they may have. You don’t want someone to keep problems she is having at work to herself and resign rather than raise the issues. An open-door policy can suggest to her that it is okay to discuss what’s bothering her and that you’ll work with her to address her concerns.

Cons

• It may reinforce established hierarchies.

When managers tell employees they have an open door policy, they are acknowledging that they have a door and they can close it but are choosing not to do so, a power the employees don’t share. Furthermore, they are also reinforcing their own upper hand by asking employees to approach them on their turf. This reinforces the idea that the manager is the person with control and the employee is the subordinate.

• Some managers may just be throwing the phrase around while not actually meaning it.

It is very easy to say you have an open-door policy, but many managers may not actually appreciate hearing feedback or being bothered by employees’ issues or questions. It is not enough to just use the phrase; you have to really mean what you say.

• It doesn’t go far enough.

According to Megan Reitz and John Higgins, leaders need to both acknowledge the power dynamics at play and make a true effort to encourage employees to speak up. In The Harvard Business Review, they suggest that managers take steps to build a positive workplace culture beyond simply establishing an open-door policy through measures such as introducing a “red card” that employees can use to challenge their managers in meetings.

Open-door policy in the military

In the military, commanders must establish an open-door policy with their commands. This enables soldiers to communicate and raise issues with their leaders first. Commanders are required to articulate this policy to their commands, and soldiers are encouraged to work to resolve problems at the lowest levels before reporting the issues to higher-ranking leaders.

Open-door policies: The bottom line

Ultimately, an open-door policy can be an effective way to encourage communication and create a supportive work culture. However, it is not enough to simply establish this policy and hope for the best. In addition to encouraging employees to approach you with issues, feedback, or suggestions, you must also take proactive steps to ensure that they feel comfortable and supported. 

James R. Detert, Ethan R. Burris, and David A. Harrison report that, according to their research, open-door policies don’t go far enough because they require the employee to initiate the conversation as opposed to the manager. They suggest adding approaches like inviting employees out to coffee to ensure that they have a forum to speak up.

As a manager, you set the tone for your employees, and encouraging a climate of open communication is certainly a step in the right direction.

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