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Where open-door policies fail.

"If anyone in the company is free to call you, then you'll get more truth...." This is a

direct quote from a CEO who maintains a phone extension for employees only - and he doesn't screen the calls. So if someone wants to talk directly to the chief executive, without going through the chain of command, he can.

It's part of an open-door policy, a popular management practice today. I suspect almost every organization that has a policies and procedures manual has such a policy. After all, you can't very well have a closed-door policy. "At XYZ Corp., management subscribes to the notion that silence is golden. Employees are encouraged to keep their ideas to themselves. The next time you feel the need to give management your two cents, consider this: If you're so smart, why aren't you in charge?"

Given that we exist in the age of employee empowerment, how can anybody criticize an open-door policy? Actually, I can't criticize the idea of encouraging employees to go to their supervisors with their questions, suggestions and concerns. But I do criticize the idea of encouraging employees to circumvent the chain of command and talk to the CEO or some other member of top management.

Why do companies implement open-door policies? Purportedly, top management will learn what is "really" going on with the company, and employees will feel good knowing the firm cares about their opinions. It reminds me of a presidential candidate moving among the public to find out what is going on in America. After listening to Joe Everyman complain about taxes and potholes, the candidate nods his head vigorously as if he understands perfectly. When he's back on the plane, he asks his staff members if they ever heard such dumb questions. "The education crisis is worse than I thought."


I've worked very closely with several CEOs who go out among the masses and say things like, "I'm very interested in what you have to say. I certainly don't have all the answers." Then they chuckle to themselves in a self-effacing way. But the cold, hard reality is many business leaders aren't that interested in their employees' thoughts.

The absolute best example of this is the CEO of a relative's company after it was acquired. The chief executive was gung ho on open-door management. He set up all kinds of programs to reach out to the staff and solicit its input on everything. My personal favorite was "Doughnuts with Dave," a weekly staff meeting open to anyone in the company who wanted face time with the CEO. Employees were excited about the change. Some even spent many hours off the clock researching and preparing presentations for the company's new direction. The only problem was Dave wasn't truly interested in anything they had to say. He was mostly interested in squeezing every dollar he could from the company's coffers until the company spiraled down the slippery slope to bankruptcy. He didn't implement a single idea - except to buy more chocolate doughnuts.

The majority of times I've asked a CEO about how his employees might react to a particular plan he has, the head guy has a standard comeback that loosely translates into, "The heck with them." I have heard it so much I figure it must be something they all learn in CEO school. Of course, no CEO would ever own up to that, but it's the truth. So my first criticism is that an open-door policy is just window dressing.

Second, the notion that the rank and file always "tell it like it is" - or they are the only ones who "tell it like it is" - is ludicrous. I know there are exceptions, but I believe most business executives, including the CEO, want to hear the truth from their direct reports. They expect to hear the truth and, in fact, do hear the truth. The executive who says he would get more truth with an open phone line implies that only Joe Everyman will be straight with him. Believe me, Joe is worrying primarily about potholes in his neighborhood. And I doubt the executive vice president is calling the CEO on the hot line. "Mary, why on earth are you calling me on this line? You were just in my office five minutes ago. This is for people who don't get to talk to me on a regular basis and for employees who speak only the truth." "I thought you might like my ideas better if you thought I was a receptionist."

Third - and most important - encouraging employees to avoid using the chain of command is demoralizing to supervisors. Sure, actually talking to the CEO or some other member of senior management may make the employee low down on the ladder feel good, but how does the supervisor of that employee feel? Isn't he an employee, too?

I have worked in organizations in which employees were encouraged to speak to the CEO about anything on their minds. I have also worked in organizations in which the CEO (and most of the executive group) was strictly off limits - and everyone knew it.

I prefer the latter. In an off-limits environment, I know that when I make a decision, it is final, not always subject to second-guessing or being overturned. Plus, I have a strong distaste for being blind-sided in the boss's office. Other executives who have had such an experience echo my feelings. You feel like a kid who gets caught making his little brother cry. "You should never hit your brother! Don't say you didn't. After all, he's crying." "I didn't hit him. He's crying because I took the lighter fluid away from him. He was going to barbecue the goldfish."

Bart Starr was the quarterback of the Green Bay Packers during the Vince Lombardi era. Early in his career, the coach chastised him in front of the team. Starr informed Lombardi that if he wanted him to lead the team to never do that again. Lombardi didn't, and the Packers went on to dominate professional football in the 1960s.


I certainly recognize there needs to be a place for employees to go with their concerns. The recent scandals in the military, in which sergeants abused their authority, are evidence of that. In business, that place is called the human resources department. Finally, we've found something for the human resources people to do. The great thing about this setup is that human resources experts love to listen to employees gripe about their supervisors or company policies or the rising price of heating oil. They live for it. If you ever want to make the director of human resources your buddy for life, go to his office and ask him how to handle a tough human relations issue. "Charlie, I just don't know how to motivate my junior accounting staff. Can you help?" or "Charlotte, I think Ben, the vice president of operations, is sexually harrassing his employees. I don't want the company to get in trouble. What should I do?"

Besides the need to have a place for employees to take their concerns, there is also the very real problem that information often doesn't flow up the organizational structure as it should. The CEO with the special phone line wouldn't feel the need for that line if organizational information flowed smoothly up the chain. However, I argue that the solutions to the problem are initiatives like having staff meetings where the information flows both ways, encouraging supervisors to learn the art of management by walking around and conducting meaningful performance reviews.

I further argue that if a supervisor can't (or won't) effectively communicate his staff's concerns up the chain, then that supervisor should be retrained or replaced. The ability to listen should be a prerequisite for any supervisory role - because open minds, not open doors, are the keys to effective communication.

Mr. Robert R. Falconi is CFO of a defense contractor in northern Virginia. You can reach him at (703) 448-4223 or by email at
COPYRIGHT 1997 Financial Executives International
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Copyright 1997, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:organizational communication
Author:Falconi, Robert R.
Publication:Financial Executive
Date:Sep 1, 1997
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