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What Is an Open Door Policy?

By C. Mitchell
Updated Feb 27, 2024
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In international trade, an open door policy is an agreement that a country will open trade equally to foreign governments. This can come either as open ports or as a commitment to a level playing field for foreign businesses. An open door policy means something slightly different in the business world. When organizations implement open door policies, the idea is that the office doors of managers, supervisors, or other authority figures will actually remain open. This serves as an invitation to employees to freely voice questions or concerns at any time.

The metaphor of the door has long been a popular one when discussing trade. An open door policy in a country’s trade arrangements essentially means that the country’s ports and opportunities are available to anyone. No keys or special permissions are needed.

One of the best-known uses of the open door imagery in trade negotiations is the 1889 Open Door Agreement that the United States pioneered in order to keep China’s ports open for equal foreign trade. The policy was designed to be an agreement between the major traders of the day — Japan, Russia, France, Germany, Italy, and the United Kingdom — stipulating that none would take predatory power over China. Stability in China was part of the policy's goal, but so was China's continued openness to U.S. trade. The United States did not want to lose China as a trading partner and orchestrated the policy in part to ensure that no other country closed the U.S. out. This Open Door Policy remained in effect until the dawn of the Second World War.

An open door policy can also be an aspect of national trading policy. In this context, a government declares that it has an open door to foreign trade, usually in the form of businesses looking to relocate. These sorts of open door policies are often paired with favorable tax requirements and other perks in order to incentivize economic growth.

In the corporate world, the phrase “open door policy” has a much more literal meaning. An open door policy in this setting is a policy, whether ad hoc or actually memorialized, stipulating that employees may ask questions or raise grievances with their managers or supervisors at any time. The managers must keep their doors open, which makes them more accessible to their employees.

Open door policies are also common in academia. A professor might adopt an open door policy, for instance, which would give his students the right to ask questions or meet with him whenever they find him in his office, whether or not they have made an appointment. School open door policies sometimes also relate to the openness of classrooms. Students in an open door system may be able to freely sit in on lectures in courses for which they are not enrolled, or parents may be able to observe their child’s classroom without prior notice.

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Discussion Comments
By Rotergirl — On Sep 06, 2014

@Pippinwhite -- That sounds familiar. It never ceases to amaze me how managers, who mostly got where they are by a lot of hard work, so easily dismiss their employees who are lower down on the ladder. It's like unless someone is on the same management level as they are, they don't want to hear anything.

If supervisors could only realize how important a real open door policy is to employees and how it could help them lower turnover rates and improve morale, they might be a little more amenable to the idea. Well, they would if you could show them how much money they would save by doing it. I guess I'm a cynic.

By Pippinwhite — On Sep 05, 2014

If only "open door" in the corporate world really meant "open door." My immediate supervisor has this policy, and he means it. In general, we can go to him with questions or concerns at any time, and he will listen to us and address the issues with us.

The general manager, however, keeps his door open, but it's primarily so he can hear what the employees might be saying about him. Unless it's to tell him how much we appreciate him, he's not very interested in anything his employees have to say. Even if we're trying to raise an issue for the good of the company, we have to make him think it was his idea or it's a no-go. Sigh. People in charge can just be unnecessarily difficult.

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