There are plenty of benefits to staying in touch with what your employees are thinking and feeling.
When managers are easily accessible to the people they manage, they can better identify problems that can affect productivity and employee retention. They can also learn about the best opportunities and ideas for improvement — all from the people who are doing the job firsthand.
For that reason, many managers adopt what they call an “open-door policy” in the workplace.
The term “open door policy” can mean different things to different managers, but it generally refers to being open to feedback from any level of employee at any time — even if the employee is not in their direct chain of command, and even if the manager is a busy executive with many other things on their plate.
Other managers may simply use the term “open door policy” to mean that they’re “always open” in a figurative sense to employee feedback, both positive and negative.
Although professing that you personally ascribe to an open-door policy can be a good first step, a truly effective open-door policy requires a little bit more structure and clarity from management. To be effective, it also requires a manager with certain skills and resources.
Here’s more about what managers need to do to pave the way for a successful open-door policy.
Work on Establishing Trusting Relationships
No matter how many doors are allegedly “open” to employees, they’re probably only going to feel comfortable approaching managers who they already feel that they can trust.
If employees sense that their feedback will be ignored, met with contempt, or otherwise received awkwardly, they certainly won’t bother giving it in the first place.
Managers need to pave the way for welcoming candid feedback by working throughout the year to establish trusting relationships with the people they work with.
When employees have enjoyed casual chats with their manager near the water cooler or at the company picnic, they might feel more comfortable with the idea of approaching them in their office. Similarly, it helps if employees have felt listened to with respect when they have made other requests in the past.
If their only interactions with a manager in the past have been transactional, cold, or unpleasant, they aren’t going to be as likely to take advantage of an open-door policy.
Establishing trusting relationships might look different for different employees and across different offices. However, good managers generally participate in the same activities that their employees do, and make an effort to check in with employees personally from time to time.
Always Keep a Record of Notable Employee Interactions
As we just mentioned, when people feel like giving feedback is as simple as happening to chat with a manager when they run into them in the break room, that’s a pretty good sign that people feel trusting and that good relationships are in place.
However, managers also need to understand that those kinds of interactions might need to be documented in some way. That’s especially important if the employee wants to discuss any kind of serious issue — or something that could develop into a serious problem later on.
For example, complaints about their feeling being excluded, discriminated against, or harassed — or witnessing someone else who has been — definitely merit a more formal sit-down meeting. The same goes for any concerns about safety or compliance issues.
Managers may feel satisfied after having a meaningful conversation with employees about how they’re feeling about these issues and even feel like they’ve come up with a good solution.
But if there’s no record to document the conversation — and, importantly, no record of what action was taken to follow up on the issues that were discussed — it can lay the groundwork for a legal case against an employer.
Use Systems to Eliminate Confusion
Keeping records of employee feedback isn’t just helpful for legal purposes. It’s also good from a managerial standpoint. After all, you can’t make good use of the feedback you’ve received if you forget about it or fail to follow up on it.
And although more casual and spontaneous interactions have their place, it’s easy to lose track of employee feedback when you don’t have any written record of that feedback. Using an official procedure or tool to track and follow up on employee feedback is a great way to make sure action is taken.
Along the same lines, although managers are free to advertise a more casual open-door policy, there should also be a more formal feedback system in place.
If the approach to feedback gets too informal or if too many people get involved, the risk is even higher of complaints falling through the cracks — or of employees approaching people with their problems who aren’t qualified to address them.
In SHRM, Miami employment lawyer Kevin Vance suggests “a streamlined approach where employees know they can go to a certain set of people, of managers, who are well trained in how to process complaints and who do so consistently.”
Make Sure All “Complaint Handlers” are Properly Trained
Making employees feel comfortable enough to approach managers with feedback is just the first step. If managers aren’t prepared to handle complaints properly, the open-door policy will not succeed.
Handling complaints properly requires several things from managers.
- Appropriate time and attention – If managers don’t manage their time and energy in such a way that allows them to give employees their undivided attention, something has to change about their priorities.
- Good listening skills and empathy – Managers need to be aware of how both verbal and nonverbal cues come across to employees. Saying the right words won’t make up for behavior like looking down at a phone during a conversation or deep sighs or eye rolls.
- Knowledge of workplace policies and legal workplace issues – Managers should know the ins and outs of the company’s official open-door policy and how the policy meets both employer expectations and legal requirements.
- Practice responding to a variety of complaints – There are many, many reasons why employees might need to speak with their managers. More serious issues such as harassment or discrimination are the ones we think of first, but there are also less serious issues like complaints about new policies or disagreements between coworkers. Managers should have practice responding to each type of problem so they’re more likely to handle the issues appropriately when they do come up.
- What to do with the feedback after it’s received – In some cases, keeping a record of the feedback and putting it into the system you’ve established may be enough. In other cases, managers may have to share the feedback with their own higher-ups, with other colleagues, or with the HR department.
If you’re ready to team up with professionals who can help each leader at your company solicit and respond to employee feedback in a healthy way, please reach out to us at ELI. Our Civil Treatment Workplace program for Leaders was designed to help build more inclusive, productive, and compliant workplaces. To find out more, request a demo today.