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HR Handled Right

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At first glance, having an open door policy is a no-brainer. Give employees easy access to a variety of listeners, handle grievances informally, and everyone will be happy. Unfortunately, organizational research, not to mention my own consulting experience, tells a different story. In fact, in some situations, open-door policies may cause what they are designed to prevent – perceptions of injustice and employee frustration.

Open Door Policies

Open-door policies typically draw on supervisory procedures whereby employees complain first to their immediate supervisors, they proceed up one or two hierarchical steps to resolve complaints. Unlike more formal grievance procedures, open door policies allow employees to go above their immediate supervisor and take as many steps as are necessary (in some cases up to CEOs) to resolve complaints. In addition, open door policies allow for more impromptu discussions and flexible time limits.

The Booby Trap Behind the Door

Unfortunately, in reality, open door policies often fail. In fact, one out of three employees who use them report feeling cynical or disillusioned about their organizations’ open-door policies, frequently observing that they were or are available “in theory but not in practice.”

More often than not, the employee is subjected to the deaf-ear syndrome, i.e., the lack of inaction that results when an employee steps through a manager’s door to complain. Preliminary research suggests that this deaf-ear syndrome results in substantial costs from litigation, decreased productivity, increased turnover and injustice perceptions.

Even when managers listen, they don’t always respond appropriately. Moreover, interpersonal skills play a critical role in informal systems because poorly specified protocols and low standardization allow individual idiosyncrasies in voice managers’ complaint– handling styles.For example, managers who deny or minimize an employee’s complaint, who retaliates against an employee who speaks out, or who protects favored employees regardless of the circumstances are turning what could be a positive chance to resolve a problem into something bigger.

When You Open the Door, You Raise the Bar

The mere presence of an open door policy increases employee expectations of remedial action. And, when it comes to handling sensitive issues, employees have high expectations. This is especially true when it comes to their managers’ communication skills.

Employees consistently say that safety (protection from retribution) and credibility (objectivity, neutrality) are the most important determinants of whether or not they are satisfied with how a complaint is handled. In fact, I think most employees would much rather deal with a complex grievance procedure, or one that took longer to get resolved, than deal with a simple systems that, despite quicker responses, may seem biased or unsafe.

In addition, during open-door exchanges, they want to feel heard, understood, and valued. They also want their managers to demonstrate their understanding through remedial action that could include ongoing monitoring of the situation, coaching through a problematic situation, or at least, providing an account to justify why remedial action would not be taken.

In fact, most employees believe effectively handled complaint procedures are part of their psychological contract with organizations. When these implicit promises to take complaints seriously are broken, bad feelings develop.

The Bottom Line

Many managers view complaints as personal affronts and, as a result, become defensive or deny the complaint’s legitimacy. Employers are rolling the dice when they place grievance procedures on managers who haven’t been trained in how to demonstrate empathy, actively listen, probe intelligently, and handle their own and others’ emotions effectively.

Employers need to take a realistic look at their open door policy and decide if they’re willing to invest in the time and effort to teach their managers how to do it right, or if they need to revert back to a more formal, restricted complaint procedure. The promise of improved morale and reduced litigation from informal voice systems will dissolve if these systems are, in practice, poorly designed or mismanaged. In other words, invest in your open door policy or get rid of it.

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