5 Ways to Discover What’s Not in The Handbook: Unearthing Your Company’s Unwritten Rules

unwritten rulesIf you’ve “been around the block” for a while, you may have had to take Total Quality Management (TQM) courses. One of TQM’s tenets is that you should always feel free to make suggestions you think will profit the company. A colleague told me a story about raising his hand in a meeting and making a suggestion his previous company had profited from—and was soundly ignored. As it turned out, the department VP considered TQM a total waste of time. When he was ridiculed for making a suggestion to one of the department’s managers, it became clear those in power didn’t appreciate employee suggestions, no matter how logical. He stopped bothering.

Just about all of us have encountered unwritten rules that are in neither the job description nor the employee manual.

Some rules are essentially common sense, the kind of thing no one should have to tell you (don’t clip your fingernails in a meeting); many are not. Hs initial observation that the department leaders didn’t care for “advice on how to do their jobs” was learned, in a not-so-pleasant fashion. So how do you keep from getting unexpectedly gut-punched by your company’s unwritten rules? Keep these suggestions in mind:

1. Watch and learn. Does written policy match up with practical reality? If no one ever leaves the office until the boss does, even though COB is supposedly 5:30, you need to know it lest you leave at a reasonable hour and earn a “slacker” label. Does your company offer one of those chic new unlimited PTO policies? See if people actually feel free to take advantage of it—or if it’s just window-dressing.

2. Use your head. Don’t take advantage of liberal policies too soon after you start work. I’ve heard tales of people taking an unlimited PTO policy at face value, and taking vacations within a few months of starting new jobs. This earned them the censure not only of their supervisors—some of whom hired them knowing about their vacation plans in advance!—and their co-workers, who in one case left nasty responses to a lady’s Facebook vacation posts.

3. Shut up and listen. Don’t eavesdrop, but listen to how others talk about the unwritten rules during breaks, group lunches, gripe sessions, and the like. Some people are quite forthcoming in their criticism if they aren’t afraid of someone tattling on them. On the other hand, if no one ever complains despite an obvious underlying tension, that’s a good indication of an unhealthy work environment.

4. Ask your manager. He or she may appreciate your candor and make suggestions about what not to do. One manager told a colleague about the time he’d had his face practically chewed off by the company’s owner, because he’d published an article about his independent research. His transgression? Citing a case study the company had done—even though it was in the public domain! He never made that mistake again, and always warned people that although upper management claimed to encourage independent research, they didn’t really mean it.

5. Ask your co-workers. As you get to know your co-workers better, invite them to lunch and ask about any unwritten rules they can you advise you on. Don’t be too pushy if someone doesn’t want to talk about it, but see what you can glean from your conversations.

Unwritten, Not Secret

Let me emphasize that I’m talking about unwritten rules of behavior here, like “Only turn your IM on for an hour at a time, or you’ll be seen as unavailable,” rather than proprietary information or confidential projects. Those are compartmentalized for a reason. But there will always be some things you’re expected to know but aren’t spelled out—like the unwritten football rule that your team doesn’t crush a weaker opponent 70-0 just because you can. Whether it’s considered unsportsmanlike conduct or just a faux pas any newbie could make, breaking an unwritten rule may attract the wrong type of attention, landing you in hot water faster than many legitimate broken rules. So it’s always good to be aware and informed.


Laura Stack

Laura Stack

Laura Stack is America's premier expert in personal productivity. For over 20 years, her speeches and seminars have helped professionals, leaders, teams, and organizations improve output, execute efficiently, and save time at work. She's the author or coauthor of 10 books, most recently, What to Do When There's Too Much to Do. To invite Laura to speak at your next meeting or register for her free weekly newsletter, visit TheProductivityPro.com

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