Having an open door policy, where employees are free to approach upper-level management regarding any issue, seems like a winning position for a company to take. It promotes employee engagement, improves morale, and reduces turnover while allowing the firm access to internal knowledge and inspiration that could improve efficiency, productivity, growth, and adherence to ethics. Right?


Not necessarily. When implemented poorly, an open door policy can cause disillusionment and loss of credibility among employees, their supervisors, and distracted senior executives. In the case of middle market companies, since they tend to have fewer silos and fewer layers between top and bottom, these negatives could have a dramatic cumulative effect on the workforce.

The key to successful implementation of an open door policy is for upper management to actively prepare all stakeholders, including themselves, right from the outset.

1. Manage expectations before implementing the policy. If you simply announce "our doors are open to anyone," two problems arise immediately: Many employees probably won't believe in the policy, and your managers might feel impotent or threatened.

To overcome the first challenge, interact with employees before announcing the policy. A brief one-on-one conversation in the office when there are no pressing issues helps to build trust. If you share this responsibility across departments, it will aid a buying-in amongst employees thanks to the word-of-mouth process.

2. "Open door" does not mean "on demand." An open door policy could be taken by your employees to mean that phone and email communication is permissible in lieu of an in-person meeting. This lowers the threshold for contact in employees' minds and might make for an unmanageable rise in correspondence. By setting an expectation that an in-person meeting is the sole available venue to discuss an issue, you maintain a threshold that respects the perception and integrity of the system that also respects your time.

3. Coordinate with your managers. To preserve the credibility and the effectiveness of middle managers, you must incorporate your managers as an important piece of the policy. This can be a communication between you and your managers so as not to lessen the lower employees' perception, but a clear chain of command still needs to be established. Make sure that employees know their managers are available for correspondence. This lends the the policy credibility in the eyes of employees while making middle managers feel valued and authoritative.

4. Prepare for possible conflict. When one of your middle managers fails to thoughtfully consider or respond to an employee's entreaties, you may become actively involved in an issue. Even in the face of open employee-manager conflict, you should not move directly from an open door meeting to hands-on involvement. Determine first whether the employee has discussed the issue directly with his or her manager. If such an interaction took place without bringing resolution, you should lead a second meeting between the employee and the manager in question.

Conflicts between employees can set off a train of consequences, especially if you have to get involved. It's important to make sure that the disagreeing parties are heard from to their satisfaction and that the situation is resolved in a way that benefits either the short-term or the long-term position of the firm while showing respect for your employee and manager, even if they cannot work together anymore.

Rob Carey is an NCMM contributor and a features writer who has focused on the business-to-business niche since 1992. He spent his first 15 years at Nielsen Business Media, rising from editorial intern to editorial director. Since then, he has been the principal of New York-based Meetings & Hospitality Insight, working with large hospitality brands in addition to various media outlets.