An open-door policy: pros, cons, and how to make it successful
Last updated on: January 20, 2022
Like so many other business leaders and managers, you might be wondering why employees aren’t barging through your proudly open door to share with you their insights, ideas, and worries.
On the contrary, you might be one of those leaders who can’t get anything done because your team chat is constantly pinging with employee requests.
Is it possible to find a balance between the two?
In this article, we’ll explore open-door policies in the workplace, consider their benefits and drawbacks, and provide practical tips on how to successfully implement one in your organization.
What is an open-door policy?
An open-door policy is a communication principle in which the CEO, management, and other higher-ups leave their doors open for employees to come in and voice their concerns, ideas, feedback, and opinions.
The purpose of the policy is to build trust by inviting transparent communication where everyone’s voice can be heard and understood.
In some organizations, the open-door policy means the managers’ literal office doors remain open for employees to freely walk in.
In others, the meaning of the open door is more metaphorical in nature, referring to the management’s openness to hear out their employees and acknowledge their concerns.
In remote and hybrid work, an open-door policy can mean employees can DM their managers at any time or schedule a video call, i.e. that their “virtual door” is open.
The open-door policy is an open concept
As you can see, an open-door policy is not a one-size-fits-all solution. Different organizations interpret and use it in different ways.
If you’re looking to implement it in your organization, you have the creative freedom to tailor it to your specific needs.
However, it’s essential to clearly define your open-door policy and successfully communicate it to your staff. If you fail to do so, your policy may end up just a formality or even cause problems.
We reached out to a Top 50 Global Thought Leader in Future of Work and HR, Ira Wolfe of the HR consulting firm Success Performance Solutions.
Here’s what he had to say about establishing an open-door policy:
“My 1st recommendation would be to define the open-door policy. Whose doors are open? Does that mean I can stop by and chat with the CEO whenever I want? Are there rules of conduct (specific times, appointments, etc.), and if so, how do employees view those rules?
He further advises managers to consider the purpose of their open-door policy if they want it to work:
“Think why you would want an open-door policy. Companies and managers shouldn’t confuse open-door policy with transparency and trust. An open-door policy may be one step toward improving transparency but it’s not a substitute. You can have an open-door policy but unless the conversations are warm and welcoming and not cold and corporate, the outcomes won’t be any different than if the doors were closed, secure, and ironclad.”
Therefore, what you want to achieve with your open-door policy should dictate how you set it up.
What is an example of an open-door policy?
When it’s well-thought-out and successfully implemented, an open-door policy can have many benefits for team communication (we’ll explore them further on in the article).
However, if you don’t think it through, the policy can bring more harm than good.
Let’s start with a couple of examples of bad open-door policies before we give you a glimpse at a healthy one.
🔶 Example of a bad open-door policy 1
When Jim, a senior manager at a marketing company, gets to work, he goes straight to his office and barely interacts with anyone all day.
But, Jim claims he’s in touch with his staff — after all, there’s a paper sign on his office door that says: “Don’t hesitate to knock if it’s important.”
Does anyone ever knock? Jim claims it rarely happens because his staff includes “professionals who know what they’re doing and need little assistance.”
🔶 Example of a bad open-door policy 2
Chat support agent Jack thinks his team lead Mark exhibits favoritism when assigning shifts to his support agents. Jack DMs Mark’s superior Hannah in their team chat app Pumble to complain about him.
Hannah sides with Jack immediately, promising to talk to Mark immediately.
The two examples above in no way represent respectful workplace communication.
In the first example, the manager uses his door sign as evidence that he has an open-door policy, when in reality, he doesn’t bother to elicit any real feedback from employees.
The sign even reads as passive-aggressive, making everyone wonder if their concern is important enough to enter.
The second example illustrates what can happen when upper management encourages employees to bypass their immediate supervisors.
This is a dangerous practice, which can lead to negative communication at work, such as gossip and slander, and result in conflict.
💡 Pumble pro tip
To diffuse workplace conflict as a manager, it’s essential to rely on careful wording and not let the situation get out of hand. Check out our blog post on this matter:
Now, let’s see what a healthy open-door policy looks like at work.
🔶 Example of a good open-door policy
Moband is an SME (small and medium-sized enterprises) with an extensive employee handbook, whose chapter 3 lays out the organization’s open-door policy.
The policy is highly structured, detailing the procedures for approaching both line managers and higher-ups, including information about:
- what employees can take up with superiors,
- what channels workers should use to approach managers,
- when employees can approach superiors,
- how complaints, suggestions, and feedback will be processed, and
- what safeguards ensure employees won’t suffer retaliation in case of complaints.
Rita is one of the managers at Moband. She has shared the handbook with her subordinates. But, she also makes a point of actively eliciting constructive feedback, listening, and acting on it.
Rita’s team trusts her and doesn’t shy away from reaching out with any ideas, complaints, or suggestions.
The third example presents the right way to establish an open-door policy — by providing detailed rules on how to use it and being truly open to hearing from your staff.
What are the advantages of an open-door policy?
A healthy open-door policy can improve team collaboration and efficiency in many ways.
Let’s take a look at some of its greatest advantages.
👍 A healthy open-door policy promotes transparent vertical communication
While clear downward communication is important, so is the managers’ openness to hearing their employees out.
In fact, 74% of employees say they’re more effective at work when they feel heard. An open-door policy’s primary purpose is to give employees a voice and facilitate vertical communication in the workplace in both directions.
When managers actively encourage employees to speak up, the staff are much more likely to reach out to their higher-ups. This way, leaders facilitate two-way communication, which is essential for team success.
👍 A healthy open-door policy builds trust
The relationship between trust and open-door policies is reciprocal — you can’t have one without the other.
The policy will work only if employees trust you. But, you can also build that trust through an open-door policy.
In the words of Jes Osrow, co-founder of the HR Strategy and Organizational Culture Consulting firm The Rise Journey:
“If the open-door policy is structured well, then employees will actually come and talk to you. You will be able to openly discuss the issues in your workplace rather than avoiding them or having them swept under the rug, which leads to retention issues.
An open-door policy can be a beautiful thing, but only if there’s trust and psychological safety built into the organization. If your organization doesn’t currently have that, it’s not the end of the world. It just means you need to get started. An open-door policy can be a great place to begin, but you have to treat each and every issue that comes in very thoughtfully and methodically in order to build that psychological safety that will encourage others.”
👍 A healthy open-door policy improves retention
Teams that foster effective communication have a 4.5 higher retention rate than those in which communication is poor.
By employing an adequate open-door policy, organizations significantly boost team communication and, thus, improve retention.
When employees feel heard and valued, they are more likely to stay with the organization and remain loyal to their bosses.
👍 A healthy open-door policy provides fast access to information
In the modern business world, information is king. A break in the information flow can disrupt the work processes of the entire team or organization and lead to costly mistakes.
Ensuring your literal or metaphorical doors are open to employees increases the chances of them coming straight to you if there is a problem.
It doesn’t even have to be about solving problems — employees may notice an opportunity you’ve overlooked and make sure the team doesn’t miss it.
On the other hand, if employees don’t feel like they can talk to you, they may sit on a problem for too long. The waiting may have serious consequences for the team’s performance and even their well-being.
👍 A healthy open-door policy promotes better work relationships
“A closed door” presents a communication barrier that obstructs the building of healthy workplace relationships.
Instead of helping promote openness and engagement, it creates a sense of disinterest, formality, fear, and secrecy. Such an environment is a breeding ground for gossip, workplace conflict, and distrust in general.
In an ideal open-door culture, employees trust their managers and see them as allies rather than enemies or someone to fear. Consequently, they are honest, happier, and more relaxed around their bosses.
What are the disadvantages of an open-door policy?
Open-door policies don’t always work — every door has a flipside!
Let’s explore the potential drawbacks of having an open-door policy in the workplace.
👎 Employees might circumvent their immediate manager
As we’ve seen in our second example of a bad open-door policy, the policy can sometimes encourage employees to bypass their immediate superior.
They may do so for many reasons, such as the following:
- An employee may go where they believe the answer will be favorable.
- An employee may feel distrust for the immediate supervisor.
- An employee may want to complain about their immediate supervisor.
If this happens all the time, it undermines the company procedures and renders some managers powerless.
Executives should encourage employees not to skip any links in the chain of command and only bring in the higher-ups if the two parties can’t reach an agreement.
👎 An open-door policy might end up a mere formality
Leaving the door open for your employees doesn’t necessarily mean they will freely come to you at any time.
CEO of Legal-Island and co-author of the book “Mastering Small Business Employee Engagement”, Barry Phillips BEM understands this well.
In his TEDx Talk, he revealed his observations on why the open-door policy had failed him and other business leaders:
“I realized that they were using this open-door policy just as I was using it — as an excuse not to give any proper consideration to how communication should be done in an organization.”
He argues that there are many reasons why employees might not feel comfortable using the open-door policy, such as:
- They may feel there isn’t enough safety to speak.
- They may come from a culture that doesn’t encourage direct communication.
- They may be new to the company and feel like they lack the authority to walk through the open door and talk to their manager.
Most often, it’s not enough to simply leave the door open. You need to understand how to help employees feel comfortable enough to come in.
👎 Employees might become too dependent on managers
The opposite is also possible — employees might become too dependent on running every idea by their manager before making a decision.
This kind of employee-manager relationship is damaging for the entire team because everyone’s productivity plummets. The superior becomes overwhelmed with employee requests, and the staff is unable to do anything without the manager’s approval.
Such an open-door policy undermines employees’ sense of accountability, as they count on the superior to make all the decisions for them.
It also fuels the practice of micromanagement and erodes the culture of trust in the workplace.
👎 Managers may turn into confidants
Announcing “Feel free to approach me with any problem” is not a great way to set up an open-door policy.
Does it also mean an employee can complain to you about their baby keeping them up all night?
Or their romantic partner breaking up with them last night?
If you’re overeager to be there for your staff, without setting clear boundaries, you risk unintentionally becoming their therapist as well.
While there’s nothing wrong with engaging in occasional non-work-related talk with your team, there needs to be a balance between small talk and work communication.
How to establish a successful open-door policy (even in remote work)
As you can see, an open-door policy can go all kinds of wrong. But, if you set it up straight from the beginning, it can help your team soar.
We offer you some practical tips on how to establish an effective open-door policy and avoid any pitfalls.
➡️ Make yourself more approachable
Leaders often underestimate how difficult it can be for their staff to talk to them.
The findings of a research study titled “Speaking truth to power” support this idea. The study notes that, from their position of power, leaders often fail to see how risky it feels for employees to approach them.
Due to this delicate power play in the workplace, the study authors advise leaders to ask themselves the following questions:
- Are you honestly interested in your team’s opinions?
- Have you assessed how risky it feels for employees to approach you?
- Are you aware of the political game your staff might play? (e.g. They might only say what you want to hear due to your position and status.)
- What status labels do employees apply to you and you to them? (e.g. “CEO”, “young”, “new”, etc.)
- What do you need to do to encourage others to speak freely?
➡️ Actively encourage upward communication
As Mr. Phillips has observed in his TEDx Talk, only active encouragement can prompt employees to speak up.
We reached out to Barry Phillips on LinkedIn and asked him for advice on how to stimulate upward communication.
He believes now is the right moment to make a change, as many businesses go remote:
“An open culture is the best means of encouraging upward communication, but this takes work, in particular meaningful training on how to give feedback as well as considerable thought in terms of how to facilitate meetings well. We have an opportunity now, however, as many meetings go online. We can rewrite the rules in terms of how to do meetings so much better than we ever did before.”
He further recommends creating “a dashboard of communication channels” together with employees, which would facilitate upward communication.
Some example channels Mr. Phillips lists include:
- annual surveys
- 360 appraisals
- Stop Start Continue exercises (i.e. welcoming ideas on what to stop/start/continue doing in the future)
- team debriefs
➡️ Set rules
The best way to approach establishing an open-door policy is to be systematic.
Simply announcing your openness to feedback is not enough, even if you’re extremely approachable.
Such a casual policy will leave the employees wondering the following:
- Is now the right time to approach you?
- Is their concern serious enough to involve you?
- Which superior should they take up the issue with?
These dilemmas and more might altogether dissuade your staff from even trying to communicate.
As we’ve seen in the example of a good open-door policy earlier in the article, it’s essential to cover all the details about how the policy should work.
If there are standard procedures and boundaries employees should follow to reach you, they are more likely to use them. They are also less likely to abuse the policy.
The rules of the open-door policy may include the following:
- Specific hours you’re available to employees
- Instructions not to approach you when you change the status in your team chat app to “Unavailable”
- An insistence on their taking the issue up with their immediate supervisor first and going up the executive ladder only if necessary
- Specific channels for certain types of communication (e.g. a dedicated suggestion box for sharing project ideas)
- The types of problems not to approach you with (e.g. personal out-of-work issues)
- Instructions on when your remote team members should DM you and when they should use a dedicated team messaging app channel
These and other rules will ensure the policy works well, whether you’re running an office-bound or remote team.
➡️ Communicate clearly
You may have already developed a highly detailed open-door policy and are wondering why it’s not working.
Well, it may be because you failed to communicate it clearly to your employees.
Writing up a comprehensive policy and posting it on your company wiki page is not enough. You need to keep reminding your employees of the ways they can approach you.
Since your staff probably doesn’t tend to visit your wiki every day, you can also share and pin the policy in your team chat app for easy access.
Aside from communicating your openness to hearing them out, you also need to set clear expectations with employees regarding the policy to avoid policy abuse or confusion.
➡️ Create a safe environment to make mistakes
How many times a day do you get a “quick question” from your employees?
Their intention is not to take up much of your time. But, if your staff keeps coming in all day long or your chat keeps pinging with quick questions, you end up doing nothing but answering these questions.
The environment where employees are too dependent on their managers is sometimes recognized as “CYA (cover-your-ass) culture”.
In essence, it means employees avoid any accountability for their mistakes by making you the prime decision-maker in everything.
If this is the case with your team, you need to ask yourself why employees are afraid of making mistakes.
Do they fear severe consequences?
Are you impatient with their mistakes?
Create an environment where mistakes are seen as opportunities to learn and grow and empower your staff to make their own decisions.
➡️ Have a conflict management plan
A big part of your open-door policy will be resolving workplace conflict, and you need to develop a plan on how to handle it.
People may come to you because they failed to reach common ground with their immediate manager. In this kind of situation, you should strive to act as a mediator rather than pick sides (as is the case in our second example of a bad open-door policy).
The first thing you need to ask an employee who approaches you with a complaint about their immediate supervisor is “Have you talked to them about it?”
You should bring both parties into the conversation and help them understand the problem and come up with a solution together.
➡️ Train managers on how to handle the policy
Informing your employees about the open-door policy is only one part of its successful implementation.
If you’re an executive in an organization, you also need to enable all the managers to appropriately handle the policy.
Assuring employees that they can approach their supervisors with any issues or ideas will backfire disastrously if managers don’t cooperate. It will breed deep distrust and a sense of betrayal.
That’s why it’s important to train your managers on how to respond to any situation their subordinates approach them with.
➡️ Listen attentively and respond promptly
The art of active listening is one all leaders and managers need to master to truly experience all the benefits of an open-door policy.
What good is inviting people to speak up if you don’t show genuine interest in what they have to say?
A skilled listener pays attention not only to the content of what is being said, but also to the subtext, verbal, and nonverbal cues. They take the time to reflect on what is being said and conveyed before they respond.
In essence, listening should be a major part of the leadership communication process.
💡 Pumble pro tip
To learn more about different leadership communication styles and get practical tips on how to develop one, visit our blog post on the subject:
Wrapping up: Don’t just leave your door open — invite people in!
So an open-door policy can either go great or terribly wrong — it’s up to you to take all the necessary steps to make it as effective as possible.
The key is to put some effort into encouraging your employees to speak up and working together on figuring out what works best for your team.
We hope our tips can help you create a great two-way communication flow within your team, whether you’re office-bound or remote.