Four Common Open Door Policy Pitfalls to Avoid at Your Small Business

By Jeanette Coleman, SPHR & SHRM-SCP on Dec 27, 2023
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Implementing an open door policy in your small business can be transformative, but it's crucial to navigate its potential pitfalls effectively. This policy, aimed at fostering open communication and trust, can sometimes lead to unintended challenges. 

We'll explore four common pitfalls that small business owners often encounter when establishing an open door policy and provide practical strategies to avoid them. From ensuring clear guidelines to maintaining consistent application, these insights will help you create a more open, inclusive, and productive workplace."

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What Is an Open Door Policy?

An open door policy is a communication policy in which a company's managers, CEOs, or leaders keep their office doors open to encourage openness and transparency with their employees. This policy is intended to foster an environment where employees feel comfortable discussing any matter—be it a concern, suggestion, or idea—with their superiors without fear of backlash.

Open door policies can be great for engaging employees in solving problems and “owning” work projects. However, an open door policy is not: 

  • A substitute for employee training and mentoring 
  • Effective in addressing major workplace problems, like bullying or harassment (although it can help to surface such issues) 
  • Designed to make employees too dependent on managers or afraid to make appropriate decisions 

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Four Open Door Policy Pitfalls

To experience all of the good an open door policy can provide, avoid these four pitfalls:

Pitfall #1: Masking authenticity

Employees who are micromanaged or work in a culture of suspicion will be more interested in protecting themselves than in transparent dialogue. Recently, LinkedIn reported that 85% of employees have on at least one occasion felt unable to express a concern with their manager.

The absence of a safe environment to share, fear of retaliation and consistently being shut down by management all foster self-preservation. The result? The open door policy is ‘open’ in name only. Real, truthful information does not make its way to management. Instead, employees only share what they think management wants to hear. 

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Pitfall #2: Excessively relying on management 

While an open door policy at work encourages employees to ask for help when they hit roadblocks, empowered employee decision-making comes to a halt if the scale tips too far and employees start asking their managers for a decision or direction at every turn.

For an open door policy to work, managers must know when to encourage employees to find solutions on their own and when to provide input that delivers genuine benefit. 

Pitfall #3: Declining productivity 

Productivity will drop if employees believe the policy gives them the freedom to regularly interrupt their managers with one “quick question” after another, especially when “Do you have a minute?” turns into 15 to 30 minutes of conversation.

An open door policy has to come with boundaries that prevent big chunks of a manager’s time from being consumed with interruptions each day.  

Pitfall #4: Bypassing chain of command 

Even when organizations establish an open door policy, a chain of command remains important in the workplace structure. Overuse of the policy is evident when employees begin bypassing their managers to seek counsel or express concerns to more senior leaders. Manager credibility erodes and senior leader focus can be sidetracked if an open-door policy is allowed to erase the chain of command.  

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Four Open Door Policy Strategies to Ensure Success

These pitfalls highlight how a well-intentioned open-door policy in the workplace can go awry. However, four steps can help everyone in the organization understand the true meaning of the open door policy, maximizing candid communication and productivity. 

  • Set “open-door” hours

    Everyone, regardless of title or role in the organization, needs blocks of time to get work done. By setting specific open-door hours, managers can allow dedicated time to answer team member questions and discuss issues. If managers can’t keep the same office hours from week to week, a Monday morning email can be a quick way to alert the team of the manager’s availability for the week. 

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  • Create a safe environment

    The manager must listen to employee concerns and ideas, even if those concerns don’t align with the manager’s perspectives. Retaliation or instantly dismissing an employee’s point of view will kill an open-door policy. 

Leading with empathy and questions to fully understand the employee’s concerns, managers should also ask for thoughts on solutions to any issues the employee raises. A manager may sometimes need to gently help the employee understand another viewpoint or to recognize facts the employee hadn’t considered. An open-door policy relies on trust, which can only be built when employees believe they have been heard and there’s a respectful give-and-take conversation. 

  • Ask, don’t tell

    Managers have likely held some or all of the roles their team members now hold and may have more experience with the tasks the team is performing. When employees come with questions, managers’ expertise and experience can tempt them to eagerly provide a solution. 

Instead, managers should coach and train their team members by asking questions. What actions are employees considering? What are the pros and cons of the proposed solution? What contingency plans may be important? Who else in the organization may need to weigh in on the decision? By guiding the dialogue rather than providing the answer, managers will empower their team members to solve more issues effectively and independently in the future. 

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  • Conduct skip-level meetings

    Senior leaders often want to be approachable so that all employees are comfortable communicating with them. A good way to achieve that goal without undermining mid-level managers is to conduct skip-level meetings. In these meetings, team members meet with the person to whom their manager reports and senior leaders can foster open dialogue on a scheduled basis. Senior leaders should make it clear in these meetings that day-to-day questions and concerns should be addressed with employees’ immediate supervisors.  

Open-door policies have been a part of business organizations for decades. When small businesses use them correctly, they can avoid the potential pitfalls and take advantage of a practice that fosters a workplace culture of transparency, trust and communication. 

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Empower Your Open Door Policy with Axcet HR Solutions

As you've seen, creating and maintaining an effective open door policy involves navigating complex challenges and striking a delicate balance. Whether you're in the process of establishing a new policy or refining an existing one, expert guidance can make all the difference.

Axcet HR Solutions, a certified professional employer organization (CPEO) based in Kansas City since 1988, offers the expertise and experience you need. With a deep understanding of the nuances of workplace communication and employee relations, our team at Axcet is well-equipped to assist you in crafting a policy that truly opens doors to better communication, enhanced trust and a more engaged workforce.

Don't let the common pitfalls of open door policies hinder your business growth. Contact Axcet HR Solutions today for expert HR guidance tailored to your unique business needs. Whether you're creating an open door policy from scratch or seeking solutions to improve your current policy, we're here to help pave the way for a more open, inclusive and productive workplace.

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