In my 28 years as a manager, I have found an open-door policy to be an indispensable tool. I have also found it to be an ongoing challenge. Like a surgeon's scalpel, it can work wonders when handled properly and cause untold damage when it is not. On the one hand, you want to be responsive to the concerns of all your employees. On the other hand, you can't let a situation develop to the point where you undermine the effectiveness and morale of your managers by letting staff members go over their heads. That, of course, is the greatest risk, but it can be overcome with sensitivity and care.

If you can successfully balance these two considerations -- and there are techniques to accomplish that -- the benefits of an open-door policy are many. By making yourself available to all of your employees, you get an early warning signal when trouble is brewing in the lower ranks. The alarm is sounded early, loud, and clear and is neither muffled nor redirected by going through normal channels. The policy is also a useful reminder to managers that if they are not fair, their people do have recourse. Perhaps the greatest benefit is that people throughout the company feel they have an ally at the top. Even if complaints aren't resolved in their favor, they know they'll be able to have a fair hearing without putting their jobs on the line.

Some complaints, of course, are more routine than others. Employees who have a problem with a fellow worker usually take it to their manager first. In my experience, those who bring the problem to me are people who have been with the company for years and for that reason feel more comfortable talking with me. Even then, it's easy enough to convince them to take their complaint back to their manager, or at least agree to include him or her in the discussion. The other sort of routine complaint arises from inadequate or unclear policies, procedures, or even from the structure of our organization. Since these are my responsibilities, I can clarify or change the policy and then explain the change at one of our regular management meetings. To avoid ruffling any manager's feathers, I don't say that it was brought to my attention by an employee.

Obviously, the most difficult complaints to handle are from employees who are not getting along with their managers. Your goal, when that happens, is to sit down with the manager and the employee and find a mutually satisfactory solution. That's easier said than done, but I've developed a technique over the years that works pretty well. One of my recent encounters is a good example of the routine I try to follow whenever I'm faced with the sticky problem of an employee who isn't seeing eye-to-eye with his manager.

I was approached by an employee -- let's call him Clyde -- who was complaining that his manager had overcommitted his department, which put everybody under too much pressure. Clyde went on about the long hours, the low morale, and his frustration at still not being able to meet his manager's expectations.

I asked Clyde if he had broached the subject with his manager.He hand't, and he didn't want to, despite my suggesting that was the place to start. When I asked if we could have his manager present when we discussed the problem, he didn't want to do that, either. This took me back a bit, because it is unusual for an employee to be unwilling to have his manager involved in a discussion as long as I'm there, too. When that is the case, I often find myself with an ineffective manager on my hands.

In order to calm Clyde (to say nothing of myself), I assured him our conversation would be strictly confidential and asked him to be completely open with me.He was, and I concentrated on listening, not talking. After I heard him out, I summarized the situation as I understood it. Many times, this is the end of the matter. Often a disgruntled employee neither expects nor wants me to do anything else, but only wants to let off some steam and to go on record with his position. But Clyde wanted to press on.

When I asked if any of his co-workers felt the same way, and if he minded my speaking with them, Clyde said although there were some who did share his feelings, he would not be comfortable with my going to them. If Clyde had been willing, I could have decided if his dissatisfaction was shared by others or if it was just something between Clyde and his manager. Since he wasn't willing, however, I told him that he had tied my hands and was asking me to settle a dispute without hearing his manager's side, which would not be fair. Not only did I have to assume his manager was innocent until proven guilty, but I felt I owed him the benefit of any doubt.

I also pointed out to Clyde that he was choosing a risky road. While I take a very strong stand that the organization will not sanction any display of hard feelings or signs of retribution by managers toward an employee who has come to me with a complaint, I can't control personal feelings. Specifically, I couldn't rule out the possibility that his manager would not take the criticism lightly. I also told him that a fact-finding investigation could reflect unfavorably on him and might raise questions about whether or not he was a misfit in the organization.

But Clyde held firm. He didn't want me to talk to his manager or to his fellow workers, either. So I asked him what he did want me to do or what he would do if he were sitting in my chair. He said he didn't know, but the situation was intolerable. This gave me an opportunity to ask a couple of attention-getting questions. First, I asked him if he wanted me to fire his boss. His startled response was, "No, not really." (I remember one employee who answered, "You're damned right, I'd like to see him fired!" Fortunately, I was able to assign him to a different manager.) I then asked the hard question: "Clyde, if you and your manager have an intolerable situation, and you do not want me to fire him, have you considered leaving the company?" I'm not a mind reader, but I'm certain that Clyde realized then and there that if someone had to leave, it probably would not be his manager. And simply assigning him to another manager was not an option. The burden was now on him to back off or compromise his position; to learn to get along with his manager; or to leave the organization.

Clyde had the message by now, and he agreed to meet with me and his manager. Otherwise, I would have told him I needed some time to think through the situation and expected him to do likewise. If he had then decided against going to his manager, or still didn't want me to do so, I would have ended the matter right there. His options would have been to work things out or leave the organization.

Before the three of us met, I went to Clyde's manager and explained what was going on. The manager had only recently been promoted from a technical job, and I strongly suspected Clyde's observations were accurate. I told his manager that the objective of the meeting was to resolve the issue, and I would not tolerate any hint of hard feelings toward Clyde in the meeting itself or in the future. Clyde's manager was obviously concerned, and he pledged his total cooperation. Even had he been a more seasoned manager, I would have gone to him before the meeting to make sure that he understood my position and the purpose of our getting together. As a general rule, because of their higher positions and longer tenure with the company, my managers have found that these meetings reaffirm, rather than weaken, their authority.

When Clyde, his manager, and I sat down, I explained that I was an interested third party who wanted to help, but I didn't intend to inject myself between them. I always make an extra effort in these meetings to keep things on a rational basis, however, because I'm often dealing with two highly charged people.

This particular meeting went extremely well, and Clyde's manager couldn't have been less hostile. He was quick to see the problem from Clyde's perspective, and he recognized that he was way over his head in his new job. He told me later that the meeting actually was a relief. His problems with scheduling were finally out in the open, and he also welcomed my offer to help him learn how to do a better job of planning.

The endings are not always as happy as this particular conflict suggests, but even when emotions run high and reconciliation takes a while, I have never questioned the value to my company of an open-door policy. And without doubt, trust, as with so many issues, is the key. When employees don't know where else to turn, they have to be confident that they can go to you without the slightest fear of being labeled a whistle-blower, being ostracized, or, worst of all, being fired. At the first sign that the policy can backfire on an employee, it will lose its usefulness. Your managers, if they are to be effective in their work, have to be confident that you will not undermine them and that they will be given a fair hearing, whatever the charge against them. All in all, an open-door policy is definitely a challenge, but one in which the payoffs can be immeasurable.