Tuesday 24 August 2010

An Open Door and A Bleeding Heart

One of the issues that I have had intense debate with other colleagues over is the issue of an open office door policy where a teenage resident can just walk in to the staff office uninvited to seek support, guidance or more often than not complain or make an unreasonable demand or hurl abuse at you if the mood takes them. The other day one of my colleagues, Nicola, decided to rebuke me for the fact that the office door was closed upon her arrival as this was injurious to her working philosophy of the bleeding heart. She also complained because I demand that the young people knock and wait to be invited in to the office. A diplomatic yet heated debate ensued.

"Winston, why do you close the office door and ask the young people to knock? We have an open door policy here so that the young people can feel they can talk to us about anything at anytime and we don't believe in barriers here."

"Well Nicola, I've talked to Jim, the manager and he said its up to the discretion of the staff and when Im lone working it will be closed. The reason that I am opposed to an open door policy is that it doesn't actually help the young person in that in the real world you have to queue for assistance in banks, shops, benefit offices, job interviews and so on. It also teaches the young person to practice patience which is a virtue in itself and it also teaches them that they are not the centre of the universe, just a part of it. Above all though, it fosters respect in the young person for other people who are taking time and effort to assist them. So, what you on the surface describe as me putting up a barrier is in fact imbued with values that I believe help develop functional young adults with respect, not deference, for their fellow citizens."

"Well, I think its authoritarian and this project is their home and they should be able to go in to whatever room they like and at the end of the day you are here to assist them not hide away in the office."

"Authoritarian? Are you equating my belief that people should knock on a door and wait to be invited in with the Third Reich or Franco's Spain? Perhaps you are right and trying to cultivate good manners is the thin end of a wedge that could lead to a modern day Auschwitz or Guernika. Sarcasm aside, I have spoken to all of our residents and informed them that when I am on shift that they can come and see me at anytime with any problem or with relation to any advice they need related to benefits or education. As they are used to being able to just walk in I have explained why I close the door, but that I am still available should they need me. Only two or three out of the fifteen of them seem to have a problem with this. The rest are fine with it. It seems to be you Nicola that are most opposed to my working practice and not the residents. We will just have to agree to disagree on this."

I saw no further point in talking to Nicola on this topic as I think her mind was well and truly made up. So, just what have been the fruits of the open door policy as practised by Nicola who also espouses a working philosophy of anti-authoritarianism, non-judgmentalism and an opossition to so called barriers? Well, upon coming to work one morning lately there was nowhere to sit for me as the office was full of teenage girls dressed in skimpy and revealing nightwear. Nicola saw nothing wrong with this until I objected and asked the girls to leave. When she is working the office is full of residents and ex residents and other waifs and strays from the neighbourhood, many of them stoned out of their mind and stinking of skunk weed. She allows them to take office materials such as pens, paper, sellotape, envelopes and to use the phone for personal calls. Instead of supporting our young people to do things for themselves, like fill in benefit forms or make their own enquiries to benefit or employment agencies, she will do it for them thus robbing them of the opportunity to learn to become independent. She never makes them wait for anything, including her time, and constantly reinforces in them what their benefit and state entitlements are. She rarely says no and has helped foster a belligerent, demanding, state dependent, instant gratification mindset in several current residents and many more of our ex-residents who still turn up looking for her 'help'. The likes of Nicola are very common across the state dependency sector. With so called support like this is it any wonder that so many youngsters leave supported housing even more entrenched in the value system of an excessive welfare state? The ironic thing is that we exist to help break this cycle and whilst we do have some success, in the majority of instances we are just making matters worse and perpetuating the existence of an underclass.


the fly in the web said...

What is Nicola's background?

phatboy said...

This is probably a stupid point, but "open-door policy" doesn't literally mean that the door must be open at all times. We have an open door policy at my office, meaning if you want advice or help you are free to pop into someone's office and ask for it.

Everyone knocks even though few wait to be asked in.

I think you're right Winston, teaching them some manners will do a lot more good in the long run.

Anonymous said...

Another brilliant post Winston. I have recently undertaken an unpaid work placement working with 16-19 year olds as I am unemployed right now. I thought this was a good way of keeping my CV current and also utilising my skills. The current placement I am at is run by two ex Army types and the cirriculum is a mix of physical education (football, basketball, timed mile and a half run every week) and modules in useful topics such as team building, working with others, numeracy, literacy, IT, etc etc. The youths there also have to clean up after themselves and have to compile their own CV's, we then finish them off and polish them up but its important that they learn how to at least make an attempt. They are streets ahead from their counterparts from the so called Skills centre that I was referred to there from. There the kids get no phys ed, CV's are written for them, jobs applied for by Staff while the "clients" sit on Facebook all day pausing only to swear and insult the staff if asked to take their feet off the chair. This particular post struck a chord with me, discipline and bringing the reality of the world into sharp focus DOES undoubtedly work. My current placement states the rules, how things work and basically how its going to be. They are told that they can have all the help, advice and guidance they want but they have to play by the rules and put in the effort. Otherwise they are out the door and one from the waiting list gets a bite at the cherry. It works. However watching them puff with pride at actually achieving something like improving a run time or completing a module is immensely satisfying. In my limited experience I have found your tack spot on, this molly coddling and offering up of excuses for every action is a recipie for disaster.

You should run for PM mate, I would vot for you !!

Oscar said...

The youngsters should collaborate on building their own support, and not just supporting on it to be supported by it.

That is, self education and all of that.

Seeking Sir said...

Spot on.

It saddens me that people are so unaware that this misguided (and no doubt well intentioned)pandering is actively harming those which it supposedly seeks to protect.

As you may imagine, it also exists in teaching. Obviously both sectors must do everything possible to meet the very real needs of the young people for which they exist but we do such youngsters NO favours by treating them like incompetent puppies.

The Nicolas of this world, I have come to suspect, are driven more by the need to 'feel good' about themselves and their pseudo 'helping others' role than they are to actual create any meaningful improvement in young people's lives.

Ayak said...

In my days in residential care there was always at least one Nicola. To argue the point with her is trying to reason with the unreasonable. I know because I've tried it many times. But I also practised a "closed door...please knock" policy when I was running a residential unit, and I'm totally with you on the reasons why this is the only way to encourage respect. I too was totally in favour of encouraging our residents to stand on their own two feet. To do otherwise does them no favours whatsoever.

Anonymous said...

Winston, your Nicola is just as dysfunctional as the kids. She won't ever help them to straighten out. That isn't what she wants. She actually wants them to stay just as they are now.

Julie said...

It sounds a bit as if Nicola actually gets off a bit on being 'needed'. It must be lovely for her ego to feel she has so many 'friends' who want her help, but she is really doing them no favours. I hope she takes them all home with her to live when their time is up there, because she certainly has not readied them in any way for the real world.

Red Biro said...

Simple question: Nicola, if I want to enter your room do I have to knock?

Nelly said...

When working in supported housing I encountered a few 'Nicolas'. In my opinion their ethos promoted favouritism, as some of the clients would 'hang out' in the office and this deterred others from availing themselves of the support to which they were equally entitled.

Anonymous said...

"It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his job depends on not understanding it"

The entire social care system depends on having a large supply of utterly dependent 'customers' to justify its existence, which seems contrary to their assumed goal of teaching these people independence and so on.

Is this ever acknowledged at an official or staff level?

WinstonSmith33 said...

@Anonymous above,

A manager and friend of mine in Supported Housing once said to me "we must be one of the only professions that if we do our job correctly we will do ourselves out of a job."

WinstonSmith33 said...


In the project that inspired this piece the open door policy was literally a wide open office door. I refused to practice this and the manager was ok with this but I explained it to the young people that I was there to talk to them and help them but they just had to knock and wait to be invited in like in all other spheres of life.

Anonymous said...

Nicola should be a senior police officer. She has all the right philosophies.

Anonymous said...

It's been said before but,...

"Its amazing how people who want you to listen to their opinion, rarely want to listen to yours".

Sounds like your Nicola is one of these, and extends that metaphor to personal behaviour.

Stealth Jew said...

I don't understand why authority is a bad thing. Perhaps it is different with teenagers. With younger children, establishing and maintaining authority is very important.

Nicola seems to think that respect acts as an impediment to developing a meaningful relationship. Surely we all have had relationships with our teachers that give lie to such a philosophy. Excellent teachers whom I respected, whom I have gone to recently for advice (I am in my twenties and have children of my own), were people whose offices I would never walk in to without first ascertaining that they had time, and knocking when I arrived.

Really, "don't wander into offices" is a life skill.

Neil80 said...

Poor Nicola, I'm feeling sorry for her, will anyone stick up for her? She does have some points after all about removing barriers between service users and providers. After all isn't that what the voluntary sector is supposed to be good at; being able to deal with hard-to-reach groups as it is unencumbered by the divide which separates state officials from those they deal with.

I must say though that you present a compelling argument and I'm inclined to agree with your point that policies like the open door do foster a climate of disrespect, poor behaviour, and entitlement.

I've said this before Winston, but it seems to me that there is a 'battle-of-the-sexes' going on here. Now, I worked in adult services for five years. It was typically for Social Care a very, very female environment. In fact Social Care is from its Victorian roots, like nursing, a 'female' profession. This impacts on the outlook and philosophies of the field; more pastoral, less disciplinarian, that kind of thing.

I won't get carried away, but suffice to say these are of course negotiated, contested and change over time but, still there is a distinction between masculine institutions (the forces, police, prisons) and feminine ones (social services, or even parts of institutions;- so mental health nursing may be masculine wheras nursing is generally feminine.

I mean, I went to a boys school and the place positively exuded masculinity, it was a 9am jog round a frozen field in February with rugby shirt sleeves rolled up kind of place.

Anyway the interesting thing I note from your posts and the comments such as that by 'anonymous' above is that there seems to be a view that your area, supported housing and/or society in general have become, or are, too feminine (not surprisingly so as supported housing falls more or less under the social care banner)and that what is needed, what gets results is a masculine approach.

Please don't feel I'm in some way being sexist here. I'm not society is! Walk onto a building site, what do do you see, men... go into a social services office.. women...

Perhaps this is why boys used to do better than girls in school, but now fall behind, the talk of Primary education being 'feminised'

My basic point through all this rambling is that there are distinct masculine/ feminine philosophies at play in institutions. We need to recognise this and the problems it creates on both sides.

Just in case anyone still thinks I'm sexist ultimately the solution to this is to have complete gender equality across society.

Matthew Kalman said...

Anyone know whether empirical research has been done on whether 'bleeding heart'/non-judgmental approaches (compared to more authoritative ones) tend to keep people stuck in a more impulsive, hedonistic, irresponsible mindset?

Research in adult psychological development seems to show that people will tend to move from being more egocentric/impulsive to more conventional and then (in some people) to more post-conventional and autonomous ways of thinking.

Someone, somewhere, must have researched the impact that romantic liberal vs more traditional approaches have on health adult development?

Any thoughts – or clues – anyone?

Matthew K

WinstonSmith33 said...

@Matthew Kalman,

Personally, I believe that it is a mix of both liberal social policy and conservative policy that works depending on the issue.

However, with regards to criminal and antisocial behaviour the liberal approach is primarily used in Britain with young offenders yet the reoffending rate is roughly around 65-70 percent so this clearly doesnt work.

Lesley said...

I assume that as a man you must leave your door open when you have a visitor (of either sex) as they could complain of some sexual inappropriate behaviour on your part.

These days I suppose that the women have to keep their office doors 'open' as well.

But, I'm with you, closed door and knock, then enter when invited has to be good. A lock/keypad if away from YOUR office.

son of ranjit said...

Wow! You have an office. So hot-officing never mind hot-desking has not reached you yet! Well, that's what's happening in the world of education. The newest schools have "agile" spaces to do everything in: teach; mark; plan; have meetings; interview parents; talk to outside agencies; eat; spend your "supposed non-contact time". The list goes on. Just be grateful you have a door that means you have either privacy or a chance to shut out the problems of the day for 5 minutes. Luxury! When I was a lad ....etc

Anonymous said...

An office with a door! What luxury. Secondary education in some authorities has gone much further. We now have "agile" spaces. Not only do you have to teach in a vast warehouse with children wandering everywhere but you have to plan, mark, talk to colleagues, talk to parents and talk to visitors while everyone listens and watches. There is no privacy. There is no quiet place to think. There are a few small office rooms but you need to book them in advance and when you get there you find someone else there for an 'emergency' meeting. Sounds like this is where you are going.

rielouise said...

Does having an 'open door' policy apply when it comes to staff walking into the residents' rooms?

And someone should explain the concept of metaphor to this 'Nicola'. An 'open door' policy does not literally meant that the door should be constantly open. It usually means that the staff are always available to them whenever necessary (provided they knock the door, of course.)

Nicola sounds like an enabler. By doing everything for her clients she is deskilling them. She is setting them up for failure. IIn the long term she is killing them with kindness.

Suede Oasis said...

Love reading your stuff, Winnie - reminds me of some of my colleagues out here in the Sandpit.

I hope you haven't gone away though - just on hols?

Anonymous said...

Has Nicola read this blog?