The Open Door Policy
The open door is both literal and symbolic. If you tell employees they can come to talk with you any time but you work with your door closed, you are sending a mixed message. Most people see closed doors as stop signs. From childhood, we're trained not to enter without knocking, and we often hesitate to knock unless the need to talk to the person on the other side can't wait. Sometimes managers close doors out of habit or to block distractions. But are you blocking distractions for you or for others who might see or hear what you're doing? And what constitutes a distraction? Conversation? People walking past? The noises of a busy work group? Ringing telephones? An employee's question? It's difficult to define clear guidelines. Even if you truly want people to just open the door and come in, many will be reluctant to do so. Unless you're working on something that requires privacy, leave your door open. The only way people know you have an open door policy is if your door truly is open. Consider the following example.
When Mark became manager of the assembly group, he established what he believed was an effective open-door policy. He would see any employee about any matter — as long as the employee scheduled an appointment through his secretary and could provide evidence that he or she had tried to resolve the concern through what Mark called “first-level intervention.” If the problem was about taking leave time, for example, the employee first needed to talk with the other employee who had already scheduled time off to see if the two of them could negotiate a compromise or with HR if the issue was policy or benefits related.
At first, employees welcomed Mark's approach. The group's previous manager only talked to people who were in some sort of trouble and kept group meetings focused on discussions of work tasks. In contrast, Mark seemed amazingly open. Within the first few months, every employee had scheduled an appointment to talk with Mark. While he was friendly enough in these one-on-one meetings, he kept them just as focused as the previous manager had kept group meetings. When an employee came to Mark's office for a scheduled appointment, Mark expected the employee to present a one to three-minute summary of the problem and the steps the employee had taken to attempt to resolve it. He had little interest in casual conversation, and no interest in matters that weren't directly related to work processes or results.
Not surprisingly, appointments soon dropped off. Mark interpreted this as an indication that the group had finally come together as a smoothly functioning team capable of troubleshooting and problem solving on its own. But the employees grew increasingly dissatisfied. At least their previous manager had made it unmistakably clear that she had no interest in them and their problems. Mark gave all the appearances of being interested, but in the end was no more so than the previous manager. Requiring appointments to see Mark meant that his “open” door was shut tight to employees unless their needs fit into Mark's schedule. Although Mark believed he was available, his rules and procedures made him inaccessible.