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The company's open door policy is meant to give employees a venue to address problems with their coworkers and managers. In addition to reading the open door policy, managers at this company have the following responsibilities to help ensure the successful resolution of employee problems via the open door policy.

Reasons employees use the open door policy

Employees have a number of reasons to use the open door policy. These typically involve:

  • Needing a sounding board to discuss something that concerns them. They may want nothing more than someone to listen to them. You may not need to take immediate action, but these conversations may sometimes increase your need to watch the dynamics on your team.
  • Help solving a conflict with another employee. Sometimes they'll want an objective view of the matter, investigation on your part, and strategies to deal with the problem. They may also ask you to intervene.
  • Concerns about performance reviews/advancement. In these cases, you may need to invite the next level of management or an objective peer in for review.
  • To make a formal discrimination or harassment complaint, either because they've been harassed or discriminated against, or have witnessed that happening to someone else. In cases of legally defined harassment, you're obligated to bring these complaints to HR immediately.
  • To share information about potential violations of or concerns about our policies and guidelines.

Your responsibilities in an open-door conversation

Management and resolution of the problem

We believe that managers play an important part in helping every employee have the support, coaching, and confidence to address problems in the workplace.

While it's appropriate to coach employees toward dealing with problems on their own, you must be ready to take responsibility for the resolution of issues they bring to you through the open door policy. It's important to remember that issues of power and hierarchy often complicate an employee's ability to effectively address their concern independently.

There are two particular areas where you can have the most impact as a manager.

When the employee is in conflict with another employee

Employees may want to solve a problem with someone else by directly addressing it with the other person. Given empathetic listening and a sense of your support, they'll probably make this desire known once they've brought an issue to you.

If they don't tell you they'd like to handle the situation themselves or if they tell you they don't feel they can solve the problem that way, don't prod them into a confrontation: Offer to take the matter up with the person they're in conflict with.

If you aren't able to resolve the conflict by coaching the employees or intervening in the situation, the HR team is ready to provide mediators. An employee who brings a conflict to you for resolution isn't expected to participate in mediation.

When the employee believes there is discriminatory behavior that doesn't rise to the level of harassment

Employees may come to you with a problem they believe is being caused by discrimination of some kind. This can take several forms and doesn't always involve obvious slurs or easy-to-spot behavior.

For instance, they may report that a teammate is routinely ignoring their ideas or disagreeing with them until another colleague expresses a similar idea, or they may report that colleagues are routinely getting into their personal space or touching them in uncomfortable or mock-aggressive ways. They may note that a colleague is paying closer attention to their work than that of other employees, causing them to feel over-scrutinized or spied on. They may also report aggression on the part of others due to interpersonal style or behavior.

These are all seemingly small things that can add up over time. By the time an employee has brought these things to you, they may be feeling very alienated from the rest of the team and they may have given up on addressing the issue at all.

Strategies for addressing these behaviors include:

  • Taking control of meeting facilitation to ensure fairness, and actively stopping people from interrupting each other.
  • Ensuring equal opportunity to speak.
  • Directly addressing other behaviors as they arise, either with a quick and non-dramatic "that's not okay," or in a 1:1 venue where you're the only person who has to deal with attempts to deflect or downplay the behavior.

There are many other subtle behaviors that can be hard to address with these strategies. It's often hard to know how to proceed when someone's behavior is causing another employee distress, but you can't see it yourself. It can also be a challenge when behavior that you might find acceptable in another context is causing problems when it's being done by a particular person in a particular setting.

If an employee tells you that a given behavior is a problem for them and you can't see it for yourself, or don't know how to address it, you should seek help from others. Your own manager may have dealt with similar situations in the past. The company's HR partners can also help with coaching and insight. Setting limits on subtle but problematic behavior can be challenging, and conversations like this can offer strategies you may not have considered.

The best opportunity for resolution comes through honest feedback to someone who's the subject of a complaint, then providing them a chance to change their behavior. The venue and channel for that kind of feedback can vary a lot, depending on the situation. Every situation will require its own strategy. If you're not sure how to proceed or need some help deciding on a strategy to pursue, HR partners are available to help.

Confidentiality and discretion

When people decide to bring a problem to their manager, they're often concerned about how others will perceive them. When an employee raises a concern to you, you're expected to treat the conversation as confidential, and you're expected to keep the employee informed of any additional conversations you may need to have about the matter.

You and anyone you may have to talk to are obligated to limit the circle of people involved to a "need-to-know" basis. You may need to ask discrete questions of other employees, and you're expected to show sensitivity toward everyone's privacy while you're gathering information.

For instance, consider the kinds of questions you're asking in order to limit the amount of information you're sharing about your employee's issue:

Not: "Hey, Adam; Betty says that Charlie has been singling her out unfairly during team meetings. Is that true?"

But: "Hey, Adam; how have you felt things have been on the team? I've picked up on a little tension between some folks, and I’d like to get other perspectives."

Knowledge of any further escalation or sharing

You're obligated to let your employee know if you need to bring the situation to someone else's attention, whether that's escalating to your own manager, talking to someone in another department, or taking the matter to the HR team. You should always let the employee know whom you plan to talk to in case they have concerns you should know about.

Compassionate communication

When you're discussing a problem with an employee, it's appropriate to ask questions about the situation. It's better, however, to make listening your primary goal during that first meeting.

You may want to ask questions about who they've spoken to already, or if they've already addressed the issue with the person they're having a problem with. If you do ask questions like that, it's important to make clear up front that you're asking to better understand the situation.

Make sure the employee understands that you're not asking them to defend the validity of their concern. They should also understand that you aren't asking so you can judge how they've handled the situation, or to discourage them from discussing their problem with others, or to create an expectation that they're to handle the matter themselves.

A planned follow-up

Before you finish an open-door conversation, you should schedule a follow-up meeting to discuss next steps, or to learn whether the issue you're helping with has improved. Please don't leave this to a check-in at their desk or in the hallway, but rather plan time for a private conversation and be proactive about making sure it happens. Don't leave it to the employee to schedule.

During the follow-up, plan to include:

Information about action that has been taken

You may not always be able to discuss actions you've taken, but you can let employees know that you've addressed their problem.

  • It's okay to discuss informal conversations you have had with anyone involved.
  • For situations where you've had to take some kind of formal action, such as a behavioral contract or a letter of reprimand, you're not permitted to discuss the exact action, but can say you've taken specific performance or behavioral management action you believe will improve the situation.

Your honest assessment of the situation

You and your employee may not agree on the situation you're addressing or the effectiveness of the action you've taken. You're expected to be honest with your employee about any disagreements you have with them and whether or not you plan to take any further action if they report that the problem remains.

This information is important for employees to hear, because it helps them decide whether further escalation is required.

Perspective

You may have a role to play in helping your employee reflect on their own behavior in the situation, or to articulate the many sides an issue may have. When you're offering this insight, make very sure you've thoroughly acknowledged and reviewed their concern first. It can take a lot for someone to bring a matter to you, and it can too easily be perceived that you're making excuses for someone they're having a problem with, trying to mitigate or explain away problematic behavior, or that you simply don't believe them.

An invitation to talk to someone else if needed

At this company, we support the right of every employee to address their concerns throughout each level of the organization, up to and including the CEO. We believe that it's more important — out of both fairness and legal responsibility — to exhaust every avenue when an employee is having a problem.

Even if you strongly disagree with your employee's perception of an issue, you're expected to encourage and facilitate escalation beyond you if they still consider the situation unresolved.

That escalation can involve scheduling a meeting between you, the employee, and your own manager to discuss unresolved differences. It can also involve offering to set up a meeting with a different resource — whether that's your own manager, another manager, or an HR partner — without any further involvement from you.

No matter which way you choose to invite further discussion, our goal as a company is to make sure the matter goes through as many levels as required to reach resolution.

When do I have to bring things straight to HR?

There are several situations where you must bring a situation to HR right away.

Discrimination or Harassment

Company policy defines harassment as discrimination or distinctively disparate and/or poor treatment of another person based on legally protected characteristics of individuals in the workplace. These include:

  • Race
  • Gender
  • Age
  • Religion
  • Sexual orientation
  • Gender identity
  • Disability status
  • Veteran status

It won't always be clear to you if a situation is really related to one of these characteristics, but claims like this require you to bring the matter to HR right away. Further, if an employee believes discrimination or harassment is happening, regardless of your own assessment, you're required to bring the situation to HR. The company is legally obligated to investigate and respond to these situations, usually in partnership with legal counsel.

Violence or threats to physical safety

Any time you've learned of an employee assaulting another employee or otherwise threatening their physical safety, you need to bring the matter to HR right away.

Violation of our Ethics Policies and Guidelines

See section 1 of our policies and guidelines related to ethical conduct for examples of behavior you must bring to HR right away.

Do my employees need to talk to me first?

No.

We ask employees to start with you if they can. Sometimes, though, they won't consider that a good option.

If you learn that one of your employees has decided to talk to another manager or an HR partner first, the company non-retaliation policy applies. You're obligated to let the matter run its course without intervention of any sort, including asking the employee about their decision. In most cases involving this kind of escalation, HR will offer feedback to the manager concerned as part of the issue's resolution. If you aren't offered that feedback, you're encouraged to seek it out.

When should employees go to human resources first?

Human resources partners are trained to deal with open-door issues and are meant to help employees connect with the right resources to resolve problems. In some cases, if your employee doesn't feel comfortable talking to you, an HR partner may be their first stop. HR partners are expected to listen to employees' concerns and either give them the encouragement they need to take the matter to you, or help them find someone who can help them resolve the issue.

Meetings with HR partners are considered confidential, and don't require your permission. If you learn that one of your employees has scheduled such a meeting, you're expected to honor the confidentiality of the meeting and you're expected to treat the contents of that meeting as confidential between your employee and the HR partner.

When should employees talk to another manager or company leader?

It may be that your employee is still trying to understand the problem and doesn't even know if they want to raise a formal concern. A manager in another department can lend some perspective without taking any particular action, and may be able to help them determine next steps.

When should employees "jump the chain" and talk to their manager's manager?

Your employee may think you're part of the problem, or they may have tried to address the issue with you and feel they didn't get adequate help. If you're traveling or on PTO, you may not be available to them. In these cases, they're encouraged to take the matter to your manager or HR.

As hard as it may be, never express disappointment or challenge an employee's decision to use the open door policy with someone besides you: That will undermine their confidence that you'll be a good partner the next time they have a problem. Instead, bring any feelings of disappointment or anger you may have with them into a private conversation with your HR partner. They'll provide feedback and coaching if needed, and you'll be in a better place to treat your employee in a neutral manner.

In all cases, the company non-retaliation policy applies.

When an employee from another team asks for help

When someone from another team asks for help, you have the same obligations to them that you would if they were someone on your team:

  • Confidentiality and discretion
  • Respectful communication
  • Knowledge of any further escalation
  • A planned follow-up

Do I need to tell their manager?

No. Unless they explicitly agree that you may talk to their manager on their behalf, you're expected to keep the conversation confidential. You may need to talk to their manager to help the employee resolve their problem. In those cases, you must negotiate those plans with the employee.

... then who can I talk to?

Once you've discussed the matter with the employee, there are a few likely courses of action:

  • The employee may have spoken to you for encouragement, or to help them decide to raise the matter with their manager. In that case, your responsibility is over. You must respect the confidentiality of the conversation. Don't send the other manager a "heads up" or anything of the kind, even if the employee tells you they're going to take the matter up with the other manager.
  • The employee may agree for you to bring the matter to someone else— their own manager, that manager's manager, or an HR partner. In those cases, approach the person under consideration and nobody else.
  • You're obligated to notify HR any time you'd be obligated to do so for a situation on your own team.

How can managers improve if these conversations are kept confidential?

Our policies are written to lessen the friction of reporting a problem and to speed resolution. Not every person under your management will have an easy time deciding to escalate an issue to a manager's attention, and they'll have reasonable fears about how they're judged for doing so.

In order to make sure employees feel able to discuss their problems without prejudice or reprisal, we stress confidentiality throughout the process. Similarly, you as a manager can expect confidential feedback on any situation that involves your employees, either as part of the problem's resolution or afterward.