A Behavioral Definition of the Open Door Policy Is Important

Bart Castle SPHR
June 21, 2007 — 2,762 views  
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Conflict Resolution Part II: A Behavioral Definition of the “Open Door” Policy Is Important A common assertion How many organizations proudly proclaim, “We have a closed door policy?” How many tell employees, or potential employment candidates, “We are interested in having you join our organization. However, if you ever encounter a problem or disagree with the decisions of upper management you’ll need to leave – we don’t do disagreements here at Acme Organization.” On the contrary, many organization branding pieces, recruiting flyers, organization web-sites, interview and virtually every Employee Handbook include assertions regarding the presence of an “Open Door” policy. While most organizations tout the presence of the Open Door, few effectively articulate for leaders and employees what such a “Door” actually looks like behaviorally. When confronted about this missing element, organizations typically respond with such statements as, “Employees are adults, we shouldn’t have to spell things out,” or “The words ‘Open Door’ policy are self-evident and thus no need exists for further explanation.” If statements such as these were true, wouldn’t employment litigation be dramatically decreased? For that matter, would it ever have escalated to its present state? The statements above actually contribute to potentially increased conflict rather than reduced conflict for a number of reasons, including, though certainly not limited to: • The relative nature of language; • A false conclusion regarding adulthood; • False conclusions regarding professional experience; and • False conclusions regarding the behavioral nature of Open Door policies if they are to work effectively. Let us briefly examine each of the items above to discover their relevance to conflict reduction and an effectively explained “Open Door” policy. A false conclusion regarding the nature of language If two people of equal education, experience, skill and upbringing are each asked to visualize the ideal car, do they see the same picture? In virtually all instances the answer is no. Yet, our use of the much less concrete, and in fact metaphorical phrase, “Open Door,” policy without behavioral definition for our organization, suggests we believe some magic element of language is present in that phrase. Words, even commonly used ones, mean different things to different people; in an increasingly diverse, global work force - very different things. Language even with people who are quite similar is relative. Thus, even with the best of intent an “Open Door” policy regarding differences to a leader and an Open Door policy to her subordinates regarding differences may look quite different behaviorally. Which definition is correct? Candidly, it does not matter. If the definitions differ, and because of the relative nature of language the potential for conflict is increased. A false conclusion regarding adulthood When do individuals mature? Does it automatically occur at eighteen? Twenty? When one becomes employed? The idea that adults do not need key concepts explained in behavioral terms because of their age is simply false. First, as noted, individuals mature at different ages. The fact that an employee is older than eighteen does not inherently tell us anything about his or her definition of this key concept (Open Door), nor is his or her ability to use whatever definition of the term possessed to reduce the likelihood of conflict. Second, even if one’s eighteenth birthday provided some mystical definition of the concept, humans tend to revise their definitions of concepts based upon a variety of factors over time. This is increasingly true in a “Values Neutral” world. Third, organizations sometimes create policies and practices which defy what would appear to be common sense or logic. In such scenarios, it is likely that no matter how one defines, “Adult” clashes will potentially occur. False conclusions regarding professional experience In addition to false conclusions regarding language and adulthood, we tend to share critical false conclusions regarding professional experience, including; “He or she is strong technically therefore his or her interpersonal skills must be strong,” and “The individual has worked other places so he or she seen “Open Door” policies and needs no further explanation.” In addition, equating the fact that a person has previous professional experience with an effective definition of this concept, assumes that the definition of an Open Door policy is universally shared. All experience is not good experience. Good experience is good experience. Ineffective experience likely means an individual brings his or her poor experience regarding an Open Door into our organization unless we take some specific action to reduce the likelihood of such a carry over. False conclusions regarding the behavioral nature of Open Door polices Wow, have I heard a lot of leaders comment with frustration, “We have an Open Door policy and no one came to me, therefore this issue must be false.” In a small number of instances this conclusion is accurate. Quite frequently however, such a comment suggests a misunderstanding or an ignorance regarding where the credibility, vitality and benefit of a policy comes from. Why do attorneys depose individuals when a controversy exists? If the policy is what the policy is, why not simply send the opposing counsel the written policy and have the matter decided? Why do government agencies (e.g. EEOC, DOL, OSHA, etc.) interview witnesses when an issue is contested? If the policy is what the policy is, why don’t they simply read the policy and make a decision? In both cases the answer is the same. There often exists a significant gap between what an organization says it expects in writing and what it allows to occur day-to-day in the life of the organization. Behaviors are policies Because words are relative, maturity and experience do vary and people do change, organizations serious about conflict reduction as something other than lip service or potentially weak defense strategy will think carefully and discuss openly what behaviors are behind the organization’s “Open Door” policy. Such thought and discussion will likely produce clear behavioral definition of the term. Once the policy is clear in behavioral terms, what it looks like in action can be outlined for leaders and employees alike. This behavioral definition of the concept will produce several concrete results, which reduce conflict including; consistent expectation, application and execution, more rapid identification of potential problems and increased employee trust. Behavioral definition does not mean every single eye movement is agreed upon and dictated. Judgment will always be a key component of effective leadership. No amount of documentation or legal threat will change that. However, attributes and behaviors such as a willingness to allow an employee to appeal to a higher level without fear of retaliation, the detrimental impact of becoming defensive, key elements of open non-verbal behavior, prioritizing conflict reduction, etc., when clearly contribute to a climate where problems are actually less frequent. When issue resolution begins as issues arise rather than after they fester for sometime below the surface trust is increased, communication and confidence are enhanced and even significant challenges tend to be resolved more collaboratively (“how can we win”) than competitively (“how can I make sure you lose”). Conclusion Open Door policies, which are common and appropriate, are most effective at helping to decrease employment conflicts if several specific false conclusions are discarded and the behavioral nature of such policies outlined. If such policies are assumed to be understood, they may unintentionally produce or enhance some of the very conflicts they were designed to prevent.

Bart Castle SPHR


Bart W. Castle, of the Sapio Group, LP, has been involved in virtually all facets of human resource management over the past two decades.