The Open Door Policy: Hiding Behind Open Doors

March 21, 2018

The open door policy in the workplace offers an excellent example of what can go wrong when great ideas aren’t carefully executed.


I love working with my clients. On any given day, I have the privilege of working with diverse groups of professionals committed to enhancing both their workplace and team effectiveness.  Aside from running the actual training and coaching sessions, I love connecting with individuals afterwards. Just recently, I was talking to one participant who presented a complaint, “how come the open door policy at work doesn’t feel so open? Our CEO often speaks proudly about it, but the reality is that he is rarely here and often too busy to listen.” I can’t say I was surprised, because this is more common than you might think.

Most organizations claim to have an open door policy. The problem, however, is that this overused phrase has become meaningless.  Vague expressions of the leader’s ‘open door philosophy’ can therefore create a clash between solid theory and a reality that results in negative impact on team morale, employee engagement and overall performance.

Open door policies work, if done right

If executed well, an open door policy can deliver strong results. An effective open door policy allows for quality communication between leaders and their staff. It ensures lines of communication are clear and that the rules of engagement are well understood. This, in turn, means that everyone can be fully present and engaged, intellectually and emotionally. Regardless of where you sit in the company hierarchy, an open door policy should mean that conversations are encouraged and honesty is promoted. This is exactly the right context within which to achieve and sustain a high-performance team culture.

The issue, however, is that very often open door policies fall short of their intended purpose. Rather than bringing teams together, they can easily cause confusion and distrust.

What if no one can find the door?

You might consider yourself to be the most approachable boss in the world, and you may even be the nicest, most empathetic leader around, but if you’re not sitting in your office with the door open a few times a week, your approachability may be at far lower levels than you assume.

Many of today’s offices consist of revolving desks and geographically scattered team members. The boss may be on a business trip or at home, while other team members could be in the office, or at a coffee shop down the road. The possibilities are endless.  When staff approach company leadership via the open door, the matter is often personal and sensitive. Face to face connection is very difficult to replicate over email, via Skype, or on the phone.

Company leaders therefore need to pay careful attention to the reality of geography and accessibility in today’s modern workplace. Those who are not authentically accessible most of the time should be cautious about referring to their open door. This reference is bound to annoy team members rather than make them feel intellectually and emotionally engaged.

The door is open, but…

Alternatively, if no one knocks on an open door, that doesn’t necessarily mean the team is chugging along happily. There are many reasons staff may not use the open door and yet still feel uncomfortable about work life in general, or about a specific issue within the office.

First, there is the reality that an open office door is politically complex. An employee risks being perceived by peers and management as leapfrogging the established chain of command by knocking on that door. If this perception is in play, it is strategically inadvisable to use the door, no matter the magnitude of the issue. Second, some people simply struggle with face-to-face sit downs, and many will do anything to avoid them, even if they are facing significant challenges in their work.

Simply put, an open door policy doesn’t remove the need for senior staff to be present, visible and accessible in the workplace. If no one knocks on the open door, leaders need to make sure they proactively get out of their offices and interact with their team. Silence, in this case, is not golden.

Moving beyond nice ideas

To move from empty platitude to reality, leaders should avoid simply crafting and circulating what they believe constitutes a good open door policy. Rather, they should start at the beginning and seek to understand the human dynamics that underpin the individual needs of their team members.

Leaders have a responsibility to invite honest feedback and conversation from their employees. This outreach is what will kick-start effective relationships. The process can begin with a 360-assessment or a more personal approach. Either way, the lines of communication can begin to flow each way.

With a focus on genuine interpersonal connection, dialogue and active listening, leaders will achieve the results envisioned from an effective open door policy — a  solution that not only sounds good, but actually works.


Taly Fleischer is a Director with our Circle & Square practice of Farber. This group has three service offerings, corporate training, consulting, and leadership coaching. Taly leads the coaching offering, which utilizes her own frameworks and leverages the proprietary Circle & Square methodology. Taly can be reached at 416.496.3751 or tfleischer@farbergroup.com.