04/04/2012 - 10:58

Rethink needed on open-door policy

04/04/2012 - 10:58


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Many managers proudly declare they have an ‘open-door policy’ that allows any employee to speak with them at any time of the day.

Many managers proudly declare they have an ‘open-door policy’ that allows any employee to speak with them at any time of the day. 

In the same breath they are either saying, or giving the perception that, by having this policy, they are approachable.  

On face value, it appears to be an admirable management tactic. But does it have validity?

If the manager relies on having an open door as the basis for his or her entire employee relationship development, they are in for trouble. 

Like it or not, there will always be a proportion of staff who are not comfortable approaching their employer or manager. These people will be left out in the cold. Communication is a two-way exercise and, assuming that people should always approach the employer/manager, is unfair and unrealistic.

Another aspect to this is that it provides the impression the manager’s other work is always of lesser importance than any issue that an employee may have at any given time. 

This too is unrealistic and, in many cases, untrue. 

It should be clear to everyone in every organisation that each has an important and vital role to play; to expect that anyone can be interrupted at any point in the day is rubbish.

So how do we go about being approachable, maintaining some form of open-door policy while at the same time being able to focus on the output for which we, as managers, are accountable?

Firstly, I would suggest a proactive approach. Instead of waiting for the doorway to be darkened by an employee with an apparently life-threatening problem that must be addressed as a matter of extreme urgency, why not get on the front foot? 

Why not set aside a time during every day to be visible and literally in front of employees?

This requires a couple of prerequisites. One, that you are there to observe what is happening without comment or judgement and two, that you are showing genuine interest in the people who are performing their set roles. 

This is about true engagement with your people, rather than ever being seen as ‘checking up’ on their progress – that’s for another time and place and, perhaps, even by another person. 

As a result, you will be seen as someone who has a genuine interest in people as people, rather than employees who are there only to produce pre-determined outcomes.

This, in itself, will reduce the necessity for people to interrupt, as they will have had an opportunity to arrange a time to see you, during your walk around. 

This ‘management by walking around’ (MBWA) was a phrase I alluded to in an article published last year where I related a discussion with Joe Ricciardo from GRES. 

Without having applied this as a specific management technique, it was something that was – and is – part of Joe’s day and has extremely high staff retention rates as an outcome.

Another way to overcome the necessity of a specific open-door policy is a strict regime of meetings. 

In his highly recommended book “Mastering the Rockefeller Habits”, Verne Harnish provides some excellent templates for a rhythm of meetings whereby everyone in an organisation remains constantly “on the same page” as a result of these regular meetings. 

By having this cast-in-stone policy of regular daily meetings, the lines of communication are easily established and it provides yet another opportunity for people to arrange one-on-one meetings if there are specific issues that need to be addressed, but which are not appropriate for the wider forum.

So what are the obstacles to you allocating a set time of the day for your people? If there are obstacles, how can they be overcome? Is it worth finding that time? I would say definitely and employers with a history of high staff retention would agree.

In summary, the philosophy behind the open-door policy is that the employer is seen as being approachable. 

What I would suggest is that there are other (better) ways of being approachable other than having the door open and being available and at the beck and call of every employee at any point of the day. 

So, the philosophy behind the open door is good, but the practical application is garbage.


John Matthew is owner of management consultancy Switch – Directions for Business.


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