Open Door Caveats

February 14, 2015

Listening 3If you are like most professionals, your company has an “open door” policy. This is one of the most commonly employed HR strategies to ensure individuals are not trapped under an ogre of a supervisor with no way to communicate their frustration.

Unfortunately, the strategy is often dysfunctional, and it can actually do more harm than good. Let’s put the “open door” policy under the microscope and see what makes it dangerous, then suggest an antidote that can help.

The Open door policy sounds so inherently right, few employees question it until they are embroiled in a problem and have to try to get the intended benefits.

It reminds me of an insurance policy. You think you are protected until you have a claim, then you find out what the fine print was all about.

Likewise many managers hide behind the open door as a kind of cure-all for organizational low trust. Both symptoms mask an underlying malaise that must be rooted out and destroyed.

On the surface, the open door leads to greater transparency and fairness, but in the real world there are several reasons it does not work that way.

1. The “Open Door” policy can be a sham – If an employee wants to use the open door policy it is usually because of some kind of rift with his or her immediate supervisor. There is something bad going on according to the employee’s interpretation, and the supervisor is unwilling or incapable of dealing with the situation.

During these times, trust between the individual and level-one supervision is at an all time low. Since talking it out with level one will only bring additional grief, the employee uses the open door and tries to clear the air by talking to level-two.

The level-two manager is not fully familiar with the issue, so the only recourse is to listen politely to the employee and then have a chat with the level-one supervisor.

In the process, the level-one supervisor immediately becomes aware that he or she has been “blown in” to the boss. Regardless of how professional both leaders are, this series of discussions usually results in a further reduction of trust between the three levels and the individuals involved.

Since trust was compromised to begin with, the poor employee is now under an even more ominous cloud.

2. The “Open Door” leads to games – I recall a discussion with my boss. He wanted to use the open door policy correctly and not jeopardize the employee, who was working for me.

So my boss told me one of my employees had complained that I was not treating the person fairly (he was careful to keep the discussion gender neutral to make it harder for me to guess who might have the issue).

I had taken over a new area, and the trust in me had not yet been fully established. My boss would not tell me who the individual was, or the specific area involved. He would only tell me that there was someone out there that did not trust me to treat him or her fairly.

He would not share the specific area of concern nor give me enough data to have a clue for how to fix it. This discussion served to put me on notice, but it caused me to start second guessing every interface or action attempting to uncover the problem.

In the end, I never did figure out who the person was or what the issue was. For months I went around like Sherlock Holmes trying to figure out what incorrect signals this one individual had been getting.

Meanwhile, the rest of the population, who were not concerned with my fairness, thought I was acting a little weird.

3. “Open Door” has a bad reputation on the shop floor – In many organizations employees are fully aware that the open door policy is something that makes management feel good and looks good in the employee handbook, but it is a poor vehicle to use if there is an actual issue on the shop floor.

If the symptom leading to the need for an open door conversation is low trust, then how can escalating the issue to the next higher level be helpful?

There are also folk tails of the poor soul who got so upset with a situation that he actually did use the open door and lived to regret it every day thereafter until he finally quit the organization.

Far better to suffer the current injustice than call in the big guns and ensure more pain.

4. “Open Door” failures lead to Ombudsmen – When the open door gets a reputation for causing additional grief and not resolving problems, organizations often resort to a third party grievance resolution mechanism called an Ombudsman.

Again, from an HR or legal perspective this practice seems reasonable and fair. It really can resolve some issues, but it is also fraught with cloak and dagger nonsense that usually further undermines trust as the clueless Ombudsman seeks to understand what is really going on without upsetting people.

Meanwhile the employee is on tenterhooks hoping the desperate action to call in a third party will not backfire.

Once again, since the root cause of the problem can be traced to a lack of trust, the Ombudsman approach is at best a last resort effort to save utter collapse.

5. What if the level-two manager is a jerk too? – If an employee has a problem with the integrity of the level-one supervisor, then the level-two supervisor is often in question as well.

From a shop floor perspective, all management is painted with the same brush.

Actually, there are situations where there is a bad apple in the middle and employees really do trust the second level more than the first level.

More often, all management is suspect if there are weak links. After all, if the big boss tolerates a bully in the supervisory ranks, then that manager is not doing his or her job either.

Why would employees feel high trust for that person? They more likely picture the big boss as a well intended but clueless manager who has no idea how miserable things are two levels below.

These are five very real symptoms of problems with the open door policy.

I am not saying it is a bad thing to have or that it never works. What I am suggesting is that there is a better way.

What if we taught managers at all levels to reinforce candor? Employees would learn that is not a career threatening opportunity to bring an issue to the immediate boss.

In fact, when they bring up scary stuff or perceived inequities, they are rewarded in some way. This would be regardless of the level. It would mean that the need for escalation would be significantly reduced in the first place, and for those few situations where a higher level discussion would be useful, then the employee is still reinforced.

Imagine the poor Ombudsman with less work than the Maytag Repairman.

Imagine an entire workforce concentrating on the mission of and vision of the organization instead of constantly negotiating their way through minefields of bureaucratic protectionism.

Imagine running an organization based on trust instead of fear. It is possible if we simply teach leaders to reinforce candor.


Stretched Too Thin?

July 22, 2012

We hear that the only sure things in life are death and taxes. If you are a manager, one sure thing is that people will tell you there are not enough employees to do the job. I have yet to find an organization where the workers do not feel stretched beyond their ability.

Productivity makes an interesting study, because most behavioral scientists agree that in any organization the actual productivity is a small fraction of the capability inherent in the people. Research reported by the Gallup Organization in 2010 indicates that for average organizations, only 33% of the workers are engaged, 49% of them are not engaged, and 18% are actively disengaged. This low productivity is usually not the fault of the workers, but the result of a poor culture established by top leaders.

The paradox here is that while there is a perpetual outcry for more people in most organizations, the human resources that are available are grossly underutilized. By establishing a culture of higher trust, managers can change the equation dramatically.

We do not need more people; we need better utilization of the people we already have. How do we solve the age-old mystery of getting higher levels of effort and engagement on the part of people? The irony is that when managers look to improve productivity, they often focus on numerous other things and forget that true productivity lies with the motivation of people.

For example, I read an interesting article on productivity in the Encyclopedia of Management 2006, which gives 17 ways to improve productivity in an organization. They are:

1. capital investments in production
2. capital investments in technology
3. capital investments in equipment
4. capital investments in facilities
5. economies of scale
6. workforce training and experience
7. technological changes
8. work methods
9. procedures
10. systems
11. quality of products
12. quality of processes
13. quality of management
14. legislative and regulatory environment
15. general levels of education
16. social environment
17. geographic factors

Notice the amazing lack of motivational aspects in this list. The only factor in the whole list that has much to do with motivation is item 13, quality of management. True, we can improve productivity with capital investments or systems, but the real gold is changing the morale of the people doing the work. That takes an investment of a different kind. My thesis is that the missing ingredient in productivity is trust.

The Trust Across America Organization has gathered some compelling data over the past decade that shows corporations with high trust achieve 500-600% greater returns than the S&P 500. So productivity, and the resulting profits, are available if we can only educate leaders on how to build and maintain higher trust. That revelation means we can stop whining about not enough people and start focusing more effort on the skills needed to grow trust.

Improving the level of trust in an organization starts at the very top. The most senior managers must recognize it is their behaviors and the signals they send that set the tone for everything that happens in their organization. There are several groups and consultants, including myself, who specialize in helping organizations understand the pathways to higher trust.

I recommend that all top managers have a key thrust to change their behavior patterns so that trust begins to grow from the highest levels. Once started, the improvement in trust will naturally flow down through the entire organization, and the first thing you know, the outcry for more people will become muted. The employees are there just waiting to put their shoulder into the work once they are treated the right way.


The role of HR in Mergers

June 19, 2011

In any merger or acquisition, one of the most taxed groups is the Human Resources Department. The success of the venture and the health of the resulting merged organization in the future are highly dependent on the skill and dedication of the combined HR unit. It would be tempting to downsize the HR function early in the merger process, since duplicate staff functions are generally trimmed as a result of any merger. That would be a big mistake.

HR has so many different and critical roles during the integration, having to perform them all flawlessly during an extended transition with reduced staff would result in high jeopardy for the business. Let’s look at a sampling of new roles to be played by HR during a merger. These are over and above the normal listing of roles that keep all HR staff hopping in steady state times.

Advocating for the people process during all negotiations

The process leading up to a merger can take many months or even years. During that time, both organizations are expected to run normally, with top performance, because each one is being scrutinized for valuation purposes. The HR staff must keep all elements of the planned merger under wraps for legal reasons while simultaneously analyzing the potential impact of the merger.

Creating uniform policies

HR policies and procedures need to be shaped to the new reality. This involves working with key stakeholders in both units to sort out a steady stream of issues, like flex work plans, vacation plans, salary rationalization, benefits alignment, movement of people, communication systems, and numerous other critical operational decisions. In these decisions, the HR role is that of a pivot player with management and the workforce.

Working to blend the cultures

Historically, when mergers fail to produce expected results, it is often due to the inability of the cultures to blend into a homogeneous hybrid culture. A classic case example of this was the Daimler Chrysler merger where the two cultures never did merge. The more formal style of the Daimler culture and the more free-flowing style of Chrysler made an integration impossible. HR must take the lead at bringing in the appropriate resources (such as teambuilding experts or leadership improvement consultants) early in the integration to keep the two old cultures from becoming calcified and rigid. It is during the integration process that all kinds of dysfunctional and even childish behaviors may become evident at all levels.

Sorting through downsizings

Inherent in most mergers is the ability to trim back on redundant functions in the staff areas and even in production groups. This is a critical issue for any merger process. HR must ensure that any downsizing activity is done fairly and with the appropriate sensitivity to the welfare of impacted individuals. When reductions do occur, it is often the people staying who feel like the true losers, because they need to survive in a working world that sometimes seems untenable. Usually HR is involved in trying to prop up sagging morale before, during, and after downsizing efforts.

Advocating for transparency

Information dissemination during a merger process is a critical element, and HR is usually at least partly involved in the roll out of information. The ultimate level of trust in the merged group will be closely linked to the level of transparency people witness during the various phases. The conundrum between what must be kept under wraps and what can be shared at any point in time is like a giant jigsaw puzzle. Eventually all the pieces fit into place and the big picture can be viewed, but along the way it really does matter which piece is played at any point in time. HR takes on many roles from advisor to top management, to conduit for information, to designing communication processes and being a sounding board for feedback.

Training Integration

The Learning Management Systems (LMS) of the two entities are likely to be different. Each group will want to hang onto their familiar way of scheduling and tracking the training activities of their people. Major battles can erupt over the work required to convert from one LMS to a different one. The “victor” is perceived to have “won” over the group that needs to retool. Hard feelings over this issue can last for years. Sometimes a blending of the two systems works well where both groups are called upon to modify their past patterns.

Minimizing distractions

What is the name of the merged unit? If both names of the separate units are in the new name, which one comes first? Which CEO is perceived to be the top dog and which one has to get used to being second in command or needs to leave? What will the logo look like? Who gets to reside in the prime real estate? What outside training group is selected? On and on, the issues seem endless, and what appear to be rather straight forward decisions quickly become emotionally charged.

It is common in a merger to have both parties feel beleaguered and put out by the other party. It is hard to maintain objectivity and the perception of fairness when groups feel they are under attack. What might seem like a fair split of the pain to top managers may feel incredibly lopsided to both groups on the shop floor.
The workload of HR during the entire process from first inkling to full integration is many times what will occur in a steady state operation. That is why it is important to not downsize any seemingly redundant HR resources until full integration and stability have been achieved.


Getting Millennials To Drink the Kool-Aid

June 5, 2011

It is no secret that there are tensions between the four (soon to be five) different generations in the workplace. It is the topic of hundreds of articles and books. Several consultants make their living helping organizations understand and cope with generational differences. In this article, I want to focus on the Millennials and provide some tips on how Baby Boomers and Generation X groups can be more effective at engaging them. I am using the following age groupings in this article based on the writing date of 2011.

Generation Name    Birth Year    Age 2011 
Traditionalists           1925-1945       66-86
Baby Boomers           1946-1964      47-65
Generation X            1965-1980       31-46
Millennials (Y)          1981-1995       16-30
Generation Z            1996- on          LT -16

In an excellent article in HR Magazine entitled “Mixing it Up,” Adrienne Fox pointed to several research studies that indicate intergenerational stress which leads to habitual problems having different groups get along. For example, she cited a study of 3200 US employers by Leigh Branham that showed a correlation between low employee engagement and highly mixed general populations in organizations.

One huge caveat when discussing any diversity issue is that one must communicate in generalities or stereotypes. There are always specific individuals within any segment who do not conform to the typical pattern. When one says something like “Gen X individuals are typically frustrated and cynical and tend to be aloof in their management style,” that is a sweeping generalization that will not hold true for all individuals.

The area of greatest challenge seems to be how to get the Millennials to respond more positively to the Boomers in charge and especially to the Gen X coworkers or managers. Here are some ideas that may allow more fruitful relationships when the older generations attempt to lead Millennials.

Recognize their comfort with Technology

Rather than discourage Gen Y people from openly using the tools they were brought up with, embrace their knowledge and skill with the hardware and software that let them communicate with each other as effortlessly as the older generations brush their teeth. Tap into their knowledge, and have them teach others how to succeed with the tools of today. I personally know several excellent Gen Y professionals who are seeking to change jobs because they are forbidden to openly use social networking at work. To them the concept is anathema, and it will not be tolerated long term.

Get to know them on a personal level

Everyone has a story to tell about dreams and aspirations. While Gen X individuals might tend to hide true feelings in order to concentrate on the work at hand, Gen Y workers are more willing to open up when asked. Knowledge of a person’s ambitions allows a leader to tap in at a gut level, which greatly improves understanding. With understanding comes empathy and respect in both directions.

Praise quickly and with specific information

Positive reinforcement is welcomed by all generations, but it is more powerful for Millennials than Gen Xers. Reason: The Millennials generally have less experience and are more easily shaped by positive reinforcement if it is sincere, specific, and done well. Gen X workers have heard it all before and would be more likely to think the feedback was disingenuous or manipulative.

Make expectations clear

Millennials like to be told they are on the right path as opposed to Gen X workers, who are more independent and focused on tasks. Since the younger workers tend to think holistically about how work integrates with their life, it helps to think in these terms when giving the rationale for specific procedures or sequencing of tasks. For example, a millennial would respond better to an explanation of the “comp time” policies than a Gen X worker would. Knowing the reason why the policy was set up would help the Millennial put it in the perspective of his or her life view and accept the rule, while a typical Gen X person would comply begrudgingly and try to “play the system” if possible.

Be as flexible as possible

In establishing policies for time off from work, show as much flexibility as possible to keep the younger generation engaged. For example, they find stiff and antiquated rules about how quickly after starting a job they can take vacation to be annoying and insensitive. Sometimes this leads Millennials to be tagged with the name “the lazy generation.” It is not so much that they are anti-work; they just want to be offered the option to fit work more seamlessly into their life and be able to take advantage of interesting opportunities when they arise.

Be patient with reluctance to use e-mail

Millennials would rather text or use social media than communicate to other people via e-mail. I know many young people who say they rarely use e-mail at all. This has a backlash effect at work because Millennials are often less responsive to e-mail requests than Gen Xers. The business world is still e-mail based, since the asynchronous nature of e-mail lends itself well to the meeting-centered professional schedule.

Millennials sit in meetings and keep up to date with events in real time, where the Gen X and Boomers tend to be less distracted in meetings but get their data through an endless stream of e-mail messages outside the meeting environment. When you do observe people in a meeting environment using PDA devices while multitasking, chances are the Boomers and Gen X individuals are reading and answering e-mails while the Millennials will be mostly texting or tweeting. The best advice here is to compromise and allow Millennials to text, but also set the expectation that they will respond to important e-mails promptly.

I read one rather telling statistic the other day. The use of e-mail by seniors increased by 28% between 2009 and 2010. During that same period, e-mail usage decreased by 59% among teens. As these teens move on through school and into the working world, this will cause the difference in communication patterns to become more of a schism. Perhaps some hybrid technology is out there that can bridge the gap to make the younger generations more receptive to e-mail. This would be good, as the more durable historical trail in e-mail is often useful in a business environment. Likely it will be the other way around. The senior workers are going to be encouraged to use more texting and social networking for daily communications, and e-mail will become less dominant.

Generational differences do lead to stress in the workplace, and the habits and life view of Millennials creates a dynamic that is frustrating for older generations. To help vent the pressure, follow the ideas above and continually seek pragmatic ways to integrate younger workers into the fabric of daily organizational life.