HR Management & Compliance

Open-Door Policy: What Does It Mean for You?

Does your organization have an “open door” policy? What does that mean in your organization?

For most organizations, an open-door policy is one that expresses to employees that the door is always open (literally or figuratively) for communication and complaints. It is meant to let employees know that they have an avenue for all issues to be addressed, and they should never feel as though they don’t have anyone to turn to. In fact, some open-door policies specifically outline to whom an employee can turn with any type of issue.

An open-door policy is often broad—it encompasses employee topics, including:

  • Complaints
  • Questions
  • Suggestions
  • Concerns with management
  • Safety concerns
  • Feedback (both to provide it to the employer and to ask for it from the employer)
  • Reporting problems with other employees

The policy is typically designed with the intent of creating an environment in which employees feel they are able to express any question or concern without fear. It can also signal to the employees that the company wants to be transparent in its operations. Employers hope to keep employee morale high by ensuring employees their voices will be heard. Employers also benefit from open-door policies because it often means the employer will hear of issues before the issues escalate. You’d rather hear from an employee than from a lawyer.

Typical Components of an Open-Door Policy

A typical open-door policy will include:

  • An explanation of the rationale behind the policy, usually outlining many of the benefits we noted above.
  • To whom the employee should turn, such as the direct supervisor, before taking advantage of the open-door policy.
  • To whom the employee should turn next if the first person:
    • Is unavailable,
    • Is part of the discussion, or
    • Didn’t resolve the issue to the employee’s satisfaction
  • A note that the employee has a responsibility to utilize the open-door policy for any concerns

Risks with Open-Door Policies

Unfortunately, despite the best of intentions, open-door policies don’t always result in employees feeling they can be open and express any and all concerns. Part of the reason for this is the receptiveness of individuals who hear employee concerns. If a manager or HR professional does not take employee issues seriously, that will discourage employees—regardless of what any policy in the handbook says. This highlights the important point that a policy is only as good as the people who carry it out. If your organization has an open-door policy, it’s important to ensure that all supervisors and HR personnel (and anyone an employee might turn to) understand their role in upholding this aspect of the organizational culture.

Another concern with open-door policies is that they may encourage employees to skip intermediate steps in dispute resolution and go straight to higher management to resolve any issue. While this may occasionally be necessary, such as when the direct supervisor is part of the complaint, it can also be a bottleneck for dispute resolution if the wrong resources are being tied up for matters that could have been resolved more simply. It can also mean the employees and managers alike do not get the opportunity to solve problems on their own. Once a pattern is established of going to the highest level first, this pattern can be tough to break. The key here is for all levels to know when it is (and when it is not) appropriate to redirect a concern back down the chain of command.

What has been your experience with an open-door policy? Have you seen any of these risks come to light? Or, has it fostered better communication and dispute resolution for everyone?


About Bridget Miller:

Bridget Miller is a business consultant with a specialized MBA in International Economics and Management, which provides a unique perspective on business challenges. She’s been working in the corporate world for over 15 years, with experience across multiple diverse departments including HR, sales, marketing, IT, commercial development, and training.