Unwritten Workplace Rules

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Workplaces have both written and unwritten rules that govern how people work together and how things really get done. The unwritten rules co-exist alongside the stated intentions that any employer or workplace puts forth in its vision and values, its processes and standard operating procedures and its codes of conduct and policies.

The unwritten or unstated code emanates largely from organizational culture and is shaped by the collective assumptions that are held and upheld through shared beliefs passed on by workers and workplace legends and stories from the employers past. Sometimes the unwritten code is simply a reflection of the owner’s or boss’s preferences that have been accurately or inaccurately passed down. 

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Often the employer’s written rules clash with how things really work. Many a workplace has set hours for staff for example 9 to 5pm yet the unwritten code may inform employees that if you want to get ahead it is frowned upon to leave before 5:30pm. In another example, formal policy may state that all promotions will be based on merit but the unwritten code and past practice clearly shows that you have to “pay your dues” before your qualifications, knowledge and training will get you promoted.  Good to know.

Navigating the unwritten rules can be tricky especially for newcomers to a workplace. Given that these rules are largely unstated, newcomers to the workforce, to the country or to a specific employer are bound to make mistakes. Often those mistakes come from assuming the nuances of your past experience still apply with a new employer, in a new department or with a new boss. 

 I am reminded of a younger colleague who came from a workplace where new hires were encouraged to waltz into the company founder’s office at any time and chat about current challenges or ask her out for coffee (as younger workers who pay less attention to corporate hierarchies are known to do). When that person then went to work in a more traditional environment and repeated the behaviour in the executive suite they were promptly corrected and sternly told that was simply not done. Both employers boasted an “open door policy” in their employee handbook but interpreted it very differently. 

Clearly most people would like to avoid the “I wish I’d known that” moments that come with figuring out the code through trial and error as the errors can be in the least embarrassing and at worst career limiting. As the recently departed and highly quotable baseball hall of famer Yogi Berra famously said, “you can observe a lot just by watching” so being a keen student of behaviour is paramount. I believe the fast track to understanding such nuances come from latching on to some who get it. Unfortunately, just because someone has been around doesn’t necessarily mean they can sort through the subtleties of their employer’s culture so pick your advisors wisely. Look for those can easily read between the lines or who understand the shades of grey in a workplace as opposed to those who see things in black and white.

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Lastly it should be mentioned that breaking the unwritten code deliberately or otherwise can lead to breakthroughs. Calling out the disconnects between what an employer actually does and what they say can be helpful. When a colleague recently changed departments and noticed a significant discrepancy between how people accounted for personal appointments and overtime he consciously went against the longstanding (unwritten) practice and did what he felt was the right thing for the sake of fairness. The bold move was well received.

Drawing attention to how a culture actually behaves in relation to how it says it wants to behave is an act of leadership that enables organizations to progress. So when the organization claims a culture of innovation or collaboration or customer service and its unwritten code does not follow, consider going against the unwritten rules and draw attention to it for everyone’s sake.     

This article was originally published on Pierre Battah’s blog on May 22, 2017.