There’s a classic scene in the movie, A League of Their Own when manager Tom Hanks sees one of his outfielders approaching the dugout, and she’s crying. He says (actually, yells), “Crying?! There’s no crying in baseball!”
Hmmm … now, where would that be in the player’s policy manual? It’s not. Our outfielder has been hit with one of the deal breakers of the workplace-the unwritten rules. How was she to know that there was no crying unless someone told her about it?
The unwritten rules reveal the real culture of a workplace. It’s how people treat each other, work with each other, play games, good and not-so-good, with each other.
It’s the one hundred plus unwritten rules that can destroy your working relationships and your work environment.
In one healthcare environment, one of the unwritten rules was that if you have to see Sister, don’t wear red! Truth be told, the good Sister has taken quite a disliking to the color. If you want/need something from her, don’t go wearing red. If she sees it, you are discounted and almost become invisible. It’s that simple.
You may think that it’s no big deal, but for Sister it is. And, if you had any savvy, you would have done your homework and known that it was a button-pusher for her. It’s her unwritten rule. Don’t wear red.
Unwritten Rules Are Everywhere
What other button pushers do you know about? Have you even been in a situation that you thought or said, “Why didn’t someone tell me about that?”
Every workplace has them. Sometimes there are different rules depending on status, the length of employment, even who you are aligned with! Some seem silly-avoid red; some seem petty-don’t use Bertha’s pen; some seem like commonsense – if you use the last one, replace it.
Think of your workplace. Do you work solo or with others? Do you have a kitchen or a coffee room? Is there a break room? What about people -who else do you interact with? How do people communicate with each other or with clients/customers? Do meetings start on time? Do people routinely come in late or leave early? Who reorders stuff and how do they know? Are there certain vendors to use (or to avoid)? Is there someone everyone should avoid? Do people dress a certain way? How do you interact with your boss or his superior? Is there a type of caste system where you work? What about coworkers who have kids – do they get special time off for events? Do people favor (or avoid) certain colors/themes/topics, etc.?
A common unwritten could be that the first person in makes the first pot and the person who takes the last cup of coffee make a new pot. Another could be if someone switches from regular to legal size paper in the copier, switch back to regular for the next person or if someone uses fuchsia paper for a flyer, switch back to white.
People who smoke get more breaks (and they don’t count the time toward a break until they get outside and light up).
Don’t sit in George’s chair or use Phil’s parking space. These are what I call pew rules. Think of a place of worship – have you ever noticed that the same people sit in the same spot week after week? Workplaces are loaded with pew-type rules. Parking places, pens, mugs, chairs at a meeting, space usage.
Coworkers with kids have rules – more personal phone calls are often allowed, time off for events, not working on holidays. And guess what, it bugs those without kids – they may have someone at home who is not a child and they are responsible for that needs communicating with.
Finding Your Unwritten Rules
Set aside 15 to 30 minutes over the next few days, and just ponder scenarios in your workplace. Identify the different individuals you work with, those in management or supervisory positions and those in senior management, including your CEO. Next, list the women and men you work with directly.
As you identify coworkers, describe their tasks, their personalities, and the interactions you have with them. Does your manager have any idiosyncrasies, mandates, or dictums? Do you have rules regarding days off, break time, interactions, or housekeeping? Are there dos and don’ts by which everyone seems to abide? No matter how minor anything looks, note it.
Ask yourself, “What things do you know not to do, and to do, just because you know it?” How did you learn it? By observing? By someone cluing you in?
Many unwritten rules seem commonsensical, but when the unwritten rules are not followed, they seed discontent. Some rules are sacred cows. Some rules have everyone scratching their heads on why they are in place. A single incident may not seem significant, but over a period of time, many small infractions can make life a monstrous hassle. It’s not the written rules (show up, do your job), it’s the unwritten rules that can make or break you in your workplace.
Finally, as you learn the unwritten rules, share them. Wouldn’t it be so much easier if there was a list of what and what not to do to keep everyone out of the hot water?
© 2009, All Rights Reserved. The Briles Group, Inc.
Judith Briles, Ph.D. is a speaker and award-winning author of over 20 books.
Her latest book is Sabotage! How to Deal with the Pit Bulls, Skunks, Snakes, Scorpions & Slugs in the Health Care Workplace. She can be reached at 303-627-9179 and emailed at Judith@Briles.com. Her website is