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Have An Open Door Policy – Literally and Figuartively


Do you have an “open door policy” at work? The term open door policy has multiple definitions, so possibly we should start by defining our term.

1. The first definition that originated in 1899 stems from a concept in foreign affairs. The open door policy stated that all European nations, and the United States, could trade with China. My guess is that this definition has little relevance in most American workers’ lives today.

2. The second – organizational behavior – definition is relied upon when an organization has the policy that any employee can bring a gripe or problem to the attention of upper-level management without checking-in or getting permission from an immediate supervisor. This definition can impact an organization and its workers frequently. Sadly, despite the importance of this definition, this second definition is commonly forgotten due to the frequent references to the third usage.

3. The third, and most commonly used, definition relates to a manager having his or her door figuratively open at all times. Is your manager a person who is approachable and accessible? If yes, wonderful! He or she has an open door policy.

Does it mean that his or her door is always physically open? I think not. Some businesses disagree and believe that managers should always have their doors physically open or at least ajar. That sounds like a major time waster and a recipe for confidentiality concerns to me. In my mind, the ratio of open-door/closed-door/ajar-door time should depend on the individual manager, the floor plan of the organization, and the needs of the employees.

In a nutshell, being reminded of the multiple definitions of the open door policy can have at least four positive outcomes for employees and managers alike:

1. It brings back to mind the historical nature of the term.
2. It reminds us of the importance of allowing subordinates to “leap frog” over us and take concerns directly to a higher-up. Does it hurt? Yes. Is it a possible warning sign that we are not as open or as level-headed as we may want to believe when dealing with our subordinates complaints? Yes. These are difficult messages to hear but certainly important.
3. It helps us to re-center – and recognize the importance of – our supervisory role at work. No matter what level you are within an organization, if you manage people, you need to be accessible to them. If you have wonderful relationships with 80% of the individuals you manage, you are failing the 20% that cannot come to you with questions or concerns. A true open door policy means 100% of the people you supervise feel comfortable approaching you with a problem.
4. Pay attention to how much time you spend in your office with the door completely closed. It should be the exception, not the rule. Let those you work closest with know the door “rules” – whatever they may be. Maybe an open door means, “Come on in, even if I’m on the phone.” But maybe it means, “Although the door is open, I’d really prefer that you knock before entering.” Whatever the rules are, be clear and consistent.

Organizations that support clear and open communications – and practice an open door policy – breed healthy work cultures. And while the specifics of your organization’s open door policy may be in your staff manual, it is best understood by watching the behaviors of your organization’s supervisors, managers and executives.

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