You Can’t Fake an ‘Open Door’ Policy

Listen and Follow-Up

When Employees Come To You

Many employees complain that their supervisors fail to walk the talk when they boast of an ‘open door’ policy.

“Of course I have an open door policy,” the manager insists. “My employees know that they can come to me with a problem any time.” Most of them actually believe that what they’re saying is true.

When employees under that open door policy speak up, however, it’s a different story. It’s like organizations that assert loudly that they uphold the highest standards for quality, customer service, or safety. The absurdity of denying any of those standards makes them automatic – just as automatic as the presumed open door. No supervisor tells employees, “I have a closed door policy. I don’t want to talk with you.”

Policies alone don’t solve problems

Claiming to have an established and high standard doesn’t make it so. The words that describe any policy must be accompanied by a program that specifies, educates, reinforces, and reviews the results of that policy. Quality, customer service, and safety may be earnestly claimed attributes if we believe the brave signs and posters on the wall, but until the employees responsible for executing those policies take them to heart and carry out an action plan, they are wishes, dreams, and fantasies. Until a supervisor who claims an open door policy matches his or her actions to the rhetoric, the policy is a hurtful joke.

Describing an open door policy means setting times and expectations for that open door. For a supervisor to pretend that s/he can be available whenever needed isn’t realistic. Every supervisor has a workload to accomplish, and there are days that constant interruptions, unplanned ‘brush fires,’ and spewing communication sources completely bury any reasonable chance of getting scheduled work completed. When those challenges become overwhelming to the supervisor, an employee showing up for a little of that open-door attention is at considerable risk of being met by tense, annoyed, and decidedly unwelcoming body language, tone of voice, and overall attitude. Slam goes the open door.

So the first step in establishing a realistic open door policy is setting the when. Don’t set it for a time when natural work energy is in high gear. Know your biorhythms and preserve those peak hours for critical accomplishments. Choose a time when you can schedule work that can be reasonably interrupted, and let everybody know that time. Oh, there’ll be days you can’t keep that schedule because of the demands of the job – but it had better be a big problem to keep you separate from your employees. Don’t let piddling concerns outweigh your open door commitment. That’s the time you’ve given to your team, and it’s very important to them and to your relationship with them.

Tough love for frequent visitors

Some employees will come find you several times every day, often with a concern that they could solve on their own if they’d apply what they already know. They’ll try to interrupt you “just for a moment” to address their needs. Don’t permit the interruption. Make it clear that if the building is on fire or all productivity will cease because of this problem, then they may interrupt you outside of your open door hours. But if their concern isn’t truly urgent, send them away without a response, and with instructions to come back during your open door time and to bring a suggested solution with them. If you give in and answer the question because it will only take a moment – you will established your standard, and given yourself a sentence to endure thousands of those distracting moments for the rest of your career.

This ‘tough love’ concept will probably hurt their feelings, but it’s for their own good. Not only are you protecting your own productive time, but you’re also giving them an opportunity to find their own self-sufficiency. If they don’t find the ability to do their job without constant validation, it will significantly impede their development as an employee.

One way to communicate your open door hours is with a literal sign. Try putting sheet of green paper where it is visible when you’re in a position to welcome visitors – and another color when you need to communicate your need to focus on a task or meeting. Use any contrasting color but red – you aren’t telling them to ‘stop,’ just to plan their approach at another time. A cartoon in the middle of that sheet softens the message. This ‘don’t bother me right now’ sheet must be used with discretion and may not become a permanent fixture. Being available to your team is an important part of your job.

Be open behind your open door

When they do arrive, become a gracious host. A smile brightens your face. Greet them by name and invite them to take a seat. Make sure there’s a clear path between you and your visitor. If you’re across a desk from them, move all evidence of work to the side so that it isn’t an emotional barrier between you. Even better, move your chair around the desk to be next to them.

Your words and body language must be in agreement – remember that an unwelcoming posture, scowling face, and terse tone convey a closed door as much as an actual closed door.

When possible, begin conversations with a social opening – about their kid’s soccer match, their coming vacation, or the outcome of their favorite team’s latest game. It sends the message that you care about them, and aren’t just waiting to pull their work-related message from them. But don’t spend more than a few sentences on those social gambits – it’s important to keep your work area defined as a place you focus on work.

Prepare to summarize conversation

Be true listener. Many people have perfected the art of looking interested while secretly keeping their thoughts on a topic that has nothing to do with what the speaker is saying. If you’re unable to summarize a person’s point to their complete satisfaction, then you haven’t listened well enough. Form a habit of using your own words to reflect back what other people say to you until you get agreement that you have, indeed, gotten their message.

And having received the message, the next step is to do something with it. Let them know the outcome of their communication. If there was information, tell them how it was used. If there was an action request, tell them what was done. You won’t be able to use all information the way they’d prefer and agree to all requests for action, but if you can’t do what they want, you can tell them what you can do.

Each visit through the open door is more than communication. It’s an opportunity to build on a relationship! By listening with focus, responding with understanding, and following-up in a timely manner, you build trust and the desire to be part of your team.

Complain about problem – or solve it?

Some people burst through the open door with a full head of steam – they appear to have a problem that urgently needs a resolution. Unfortunately, they’ve been stuck on this problem for a long time, and this is just another episode in a long-established serial complaint. When this happens, ask a specific either-or question: “Do you just need a friend to vent with? Or do you want to find a solution to this problem?”

Notice that you put yourself in the role of the friend – they aren’t a combatant facing you to defeat your defense of the problem. You’re willing to be a friend and listen, if they need to get something off their chest. The win-win here is that they get to say what’s bothering them, but you know that as soon as they admit that they’re just there to vent, the steam starts escaping and the vent only has a few sentences remaining.

If they say they want to problem solve, then the rehearsed complaint goes out the window and we get paper and pen and start listing alternatives. Of course, since it’s their problem, they have to take the lead in solving it – you just set an example for how problems are solved. They must state the solution out loud, and when they do, you ask if they can do what they just suggested. Of course, they’ll say they can – it was the solution that came from their own mouth! Now they own the solution, and can stick to the task.

No matter how impatient you get for their problem-solving process, don’t give up and tell them the solution. If you do that, you own the solution – not them – and you must guarantee that it gets implemented.

Be flexible – solve their problem, not yours

The biggest challenge to an open door policy is not the door at all, but the mind of the person who sits behind that door and opens it a regular intervals to connect with and build relationships with the people on the outside of the door. That person, we’ve seen, must have excellent listening and coaching skills with an unwavering commitment to helping people succeed on their own problem solving ability.

Since we want the visitors to arrive at and carry out their own solution, the listening, supporting, coaching supervisor must keep remembering to be flexible. Don’t demand that they do things your way – help them see how to do things their way as long as they meet organizational needs

An open door policy without a supportive person on the other side of that door is a mean trick to play on your team. What makes an open door work is an open mind.


Article by Gregory Lay, editor, Accidental Career. For information, contact