Can your employees talk to you?

My client looked at me in exasperation. “Can they really feel as though they can’t talk to me?” I could understand his frustration. The owner of a small business with a “flat” structure, he is a genuinely nice guy who tries to be fair and thinks of himself as accessible. Why wouldn’t his employees feel like they could talk to him?

If you’re the boss and suspect that your employees may not feel comfortable approaching you, here are some things to consider:

Privacy. Is your office relatively private or can conversations be easily overheard? Some will resist approaching you if they feel the conversation might become known to others. (And it doesn’t matter how much you trust your assistant at the next desk or behind the partition. It doesn’t follow that others will necessarily feel the same way.)

Workplace Geography. Is your office set apart from the general workspace, such that it would be impossible to approach it without being seen by everyone else? People – for all kinds of different reasons – may not want to be seen “talking to the boss.”

Past history. In the past when employees have spoken with you, how have things gone? Even if it seemed the conversations went well, could you have somehow given the message that you didn’t appreciate being disturbed? If the main reason you speak with employees is to deliver reprimands, people may be reluctant to seek you out.

Do you talk to them? Maybe you’re not a “people” person. Maybe you’re more comfortable with equipment or bits of code than with conversation. If you’re uncomfortable speaking with employees, some will pick up on this and avoid talking to you, if only to spare you possible discomfort. If you suspect that you may have acquired such a reputation, the best way to counter it is to take the initiative and initiate conversation with others. You don’t have to make drastic changes. Make an attempt to have a short conversation with a different person each day. Once people see that they can have a conversation with you about matters unrelated to work, they may feel more comfortable coming to you with more sensitive topics.

You’re still the boss. No matter how great of a person you are and how approachable you make yourself, some people will always find it hard to talk to you.