Unwritten rules of the workplace: What every mentee should know By: Kim Wheeler
Every organization has procedures and policies, formal written rules that tell employees clearly what they should and should not do. However, every organization also has a second set of dos and don’ts—a list that few (if any) will tell you about, but that leaders and colleagues will expect you to know and follow.
Mentors can help their mentees avoid the discomfort of breaking these unwritten rules. Making mentees aware of the proper etiquette for their organization will help them create a positive impression, which, in turn, can help build a strong reputation and develop critical relationships that can lead to valuable opportunities.
Below are some of the most important—but not always intuitive—unwritten rules that you can share with your mentee.
Be aware of nonverbal cues. When someone doesn’t like what you’re doing or how you’re doing it, they will often tell you with their facial expressions and body language before they will tell you aloud (if, in fact, they ever do). Watching nonverbal cues can help you determine when you are breaking an unwritten rule.
Take "John,” for example, a great guy and a hard worker with an unwitting habit of standing too close for people’s comfort (even before social distancing) when he talks with them. People step back, lean away, and sometimes even hold items in their hands further out in front of them to create additional space. But John is oblivious to these efforts and simply moves closer. He is a nice person and a skilled professional, but this habit unnerves his coworkers and makes them eager to get away. People are too uncomfortable to talk to him about it, but if he paid attention, he would note others’ reactions and realize that they are telling him loud and clear with their body language.
Observe your colleagues carefully and watch their nonverbal cues not only to you, but to others as well. You can learn plenty about the unwritten by observing the unspoken.
Speak carefully. When you are eager to establish your credibility, build relationships, or contribute to a project, your first instinct may be to jump in wherever you can during conversations and meetings. But you must be cognizant of the way you talk, as this is often just as (or more) important than what you say.
Basic common courtesy and conversation skills are unwritten expectations in the workplace. Be polite and professional in every conversation. Don’t interrupt others or clearly demonstrate that you are waiting for them to finish so that you can jump in. Give the person who is talking your full attention—put down your phone or look away from your screen, make eye contact, listen to what they’re saying and, if the situation warrants, take notes. Speak clearly and loud enough to be heard, but make sure you aren’t too loud or forceful. Be aware of your tone and how you word things. For example, are you saying "I” when you could be saying "we”? In less formal conversation, avoid gossiping or complaining about coworkers and oversharing about your personal life.
Another important rule is to pay attention to names. Not only is it good to know who is speaking (especially when you are new and still learning who’s who in the room), but it can communicate a lack of care or professionalism if someone must tell you their name more than once. In this same vein, make sure you introduce yourself when appropriate and others when you bring someone to a meeting or stop to have a conversation in which other participants don’t know each other.
Show consideration for others. Working in an office means sharing space with other people, and when you share space with the same people for eight hours a day, you can get a little too comfortable. But no matter how well you get along with your coworkers, there are some considerations you should show daily as a matter of keeping things professional.
Be mindful of the people you work with. Keep your workstation clean and organized. Cleanliness shows courtesy to others in your workspace, and you never know who is going to walk by or stop at your desk—a dirty desk does not leave a clean impression. To avoid disturbing those around you, keep the volume on your computer low or use headphones, and keep conversations short and quiet in spaces where other people are trying to work. Keep your voice down when taking professional calls at your desk and make personal calls on your cell phone in the hall or other common areas.
Strong smells can be just as inconsiderate as loud sounds. Avoid heating or eating odorous food in your shared workspace. Likewise, don’t wear too much perfume or cologne—overpowering scents can be unpleasant and can make some people sick. Swish mouthwash or chew gum or mints after drinking coffee or eating lunch.
ASK A MENTOR
Talk to your mentor about the unwritten rules in your agency. Ask them to help you identify the dos and don’ts you need to be aware of to avoid offending others or making a poor impression.
- What are some of the most important unwritten rules in our organization?
- What should I do if I break an unwritten rule?
- Have you ever broken an unwritten rule? What happened?
- Have you observed me breaking any unwritten rules?
- What should I do if I observe a coworker breaking unwritten rules?
A note to mentors: Some mentors may feel hesitant to talk to their mentee about unwritten rules if they work in a different office, component, or location. But working in the same location is not a requirement for addressing this important topic with your mentee. Mentors can share unwritten rules they have learned and encourage mentees to look for them in their own office. This can also present a great opportunity to help your mentee connect with a situational mentor within their office who can help them navigate the hidden do’s and don’ts unique to their location.