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What Are the Unwritten Rules of Your Workplace?

You're a new hire who seems to be settling nicely into your new workplace. Good for you! That is, until one day when you break one of the company's unwritten rules and discover what NOT to do at work. Ugh.

It's a fact of workplace life that a well-managed workplace will lay out its processes and procedures for a new hire from the very beginning. Do this, do that, make sure this goes there, put that over there.

However, each workplace also has a set of unwritten workplace rules. Never do this, never do that, make sure this never goes there, and don't you dare put that over there!

Oops, now we've done it. We've broken an unwritten rule at work! Like a sad, frustrated wedding singer, it sure would have been nice to know about these unwritten rules yesterday.

Unfortunately, it takes time on the job to read an employer's unwritten rules, because they are just that: unwritten. Meanwhile, new Gallup research reveals many employees do not have a clear idea of what's expected of them on the job, which points to a lack of effective managerial communication.

Now imagine being a brand-new hire trying to square this circle. Perhaps it's not surprising that a good number of employees will step on a company "third rail" at some point in their careers and proceed to suffer the shocking consequences. The list of unwritten workplace rules can be long.

We didn't realize that the manager's spouse wields significant influence in business decisions and makes the office's social business his or her business. And he or she doesn't even work for the company!

We didn't realize when we handed the project off to Timmy that nobody ever -- and I mean ever! -- gives this particular project to Timmy after he messed it up that one time. (Three years ago, ahem.)

We didn't realize that a senior colleague we keep addressing by his first name should be addressed as Mr.

We didn't realize when we sat down for lunch with a group of new co-workers that this table is a "by invitation only" table. What is this, Mean Girls?

We didn't realize that this is how it's always been done. Always.

We didn't realize that this is a peanut-free workplace because our co-worker, who also happens to be the founder's favorite nephew, has a peanut allergy.

We didn't realize that the "free" snacks in the break room cabinet actually belong to somebody.

We didn't realize while complaining about our new boss that our co-worker-turned-confidant is the boss's long-time best friend/significant other outside of work.

We didn't realize that we should never ride the elevator with a certain senior manager, or dare to wear unfashionable mocks at work when she's in residence.

So little time, so much to remember! For better or worse, starting a new job requires as much EQ as IQ to spot the potential pitfalls. Here are five tips for reading the unwritten rules of your new workplace:

1. Find the hierarchy. Oh, your workplace bills itself as a "flat," or manager-free, workplace? The rules are the same for everyone? Hah -- that's a good one! Seriously, don't believe it. There's an unspoken hierarchy there, somewhere. Your job is to find it. Who really runs this department, and how does it run? Spotting the underlying currents can help you avoid problems.

2. Observe, and listen. Think of each office as its own ecosystem. Some are cold, some are warm, and sometimes it's just a jungle out there! How is this workplace different from your previous places of employment in terms of office dynamics? Observe how employees communicate and use body language. Look for patterns in the workflow. Most of all, listen to your instincts. They won't fail you.

3. Never make assumptions. You assumed it's okay to try the "free" break room snacks, and now you've been labeled as The Office Snack Stealer. Talk about biting off more than you can chew! As a new hire, never assume anything. Ever. On that note...

4. Ask a lot of questions... Your colleagues may feel annoyed that you're asking so many questions, but you're a brand-new hire who's trying to get it right! You have a good excuse. Even if it's a relatively easy job task, this company might just have a different way of handling it. As a new hire, it's generally easier to ask permission than forgiveness. (But here is some great advice for offering an apology at work, if necessary.)

5. ...But be careful what you say. While you would love to share your thoughts on the job with a new work peer a few days into the job, it's wise to withhold your frustrations until you have a better sense of the office politics and general office dynamics. For now, just do your best work, even if office processes could use some streamlining, cough. Good things come to those who wait (to complain).

Did you make a mistake reading this blog post? Maybe, but at least we're thinking about the unwritten rules of the workplace. And you can write that one down.


  1. Learning?.....second nature for me. I am driven to learn so thank you for the workplace tips!

    1. Thank you, I hope the tips were useful. Thanks for taking the time to post a comment!


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