Just like In-N-Out or Starbucks, offices have a secret menu—a way of doing things that’s only made known to a select and chosen few. Those who know the code always seem to have dibs on all the great projects, front row seats in the important meetings, and opportunities to advance into positions that no one else even knew existed.
But for those of us who don’t know the secret handshake, cracking the code can be an intimidating task. After all, the rules of advancement and success at your company are not official written rules you’ll find in your company handbook, and simply asking someone for the password won’t get you into the club, either.
So, what’s a new recruit to do? You know you need to learn the unwritten rules of your office, but you can’t ask, and no one seems to be talking. Fortunately for you, I’ve seen Fight Club about a thousand times and have frequented Starbucks and In-N-Out nearly as often, and unlike your tight-lipped colleagues, I’m more than happy to talk about how to get into this club.
The Secret: Find the Keymaster
Every office has one—that one person who’s always the first to know the biggest news and who always has the ear of the boss. The one who’s typically involved in a little bit of everything—and always the big stuff—whether or not it’s actually his or her job. Maybe it’s the CEOs executive assistant, maybe it’s a director-level employee who’s family friends with the VP, maybe it’s someone in HR who knows everyone. Whoever it is in your office, this person is the keymaster, and he or she usually holds all of those uncovered office secrets.
This person is also someone you really need to get to know. You may think getting to know your boss is more important, but trust me, ignore the keymaster at your peril. Take one of my old colleagues, for example. When he first started, he never bothered to get to know the woman who was at the center of everything, wrongly assuming his seniority in title meant she couldn’t possibly offer him anything he couldn’t get on his own. Unfortunately, he never figured out his mistake and spent several years suffering the consequences—missing opportunities, being left out of the loop, and in general just not being part of the club.
On the flip side, my boss made it a point to stay in the good graces of the woman at the center of our little universe. (And yes, even bosses answer to a keymaster.) As a result, he was always the first to know when something big was about to go down, and he always had the senior partners’ ears when he had an idea. All because he’d taken the time to understand who was really running things behind the scenes.
In short, your first step is to figure out who’s the heart and soul of your office. Take the time to get to know this person (this does not mean sucking up, however), and for Pete’s sake, don’t get on his or her bad side! Do this right, and in time, you’ll start to see a few of your office secrets revealed.
Once you’ve found and endeared yourself to your keymaster, all the secrets of the office are now tantalizingly close to becoming common knowledge for you. But don’t just wait for those juicy tidbits to come your way—it’s important to learn yourself, usually by the power of keen observation.
Take the keymaster from one of my jobs years ago. We worked in a large office and shared a kitchen with several other departments. Just about everyone frowned on re-heating leftover fish in the microwave, but popcorn seemed pretty innocent, right? Apparently not. After an unfortunate incident with an unattended bag of popcorn, the snack had been unofficially excommunicated from the office. By watching how my keymaster quietly grumbled and rolled her eyes at her desk after the few popcorn incidents we had over the first year we’d worked together, I quickly realized the microwave treat was not a good choice for my career.
And, it wasn’t just popcorn that proved useful for me. I paid close attention to how my keymaster and those closest to her handled just about every situation—from what time to show up for a team meeting, to what to order (or not) when out to lunch with clients—and tried to apply the same principles to my own work. Before long, I was learning more and more office secrets, just by following in the footsteps of my keymaster.
A Word of Caution
This is important. Once you’ve finally learned the rules, remember that they are unwritten rules for a reason: Everyone who knows them had to earn that knowledge. We all know the first rule of Fight Club, and the same applies here.
And trust me, just because you’re in the club now, doesn’t mean your membership can’t be revoked. One of my colleagues, and good friends, a few years back, made the fatal mistake of sharing all the office secrets to a new hire, well before he’d earned his way into the inner office circle. When word got around she’d spilled all our inside information, he was promptly cut out of the loop. Suddenly, he was the last to know all the office news, and literally, the last to the party on numerous occasions.
But of course, every club needs new members, eventually, and just because you now hold the secrets to the universe, doesn’t mean you should keep all that knowledge to yourself. For example, if you see a new hire struggling to figure things out, give him a hint to point him in the right direction. You don’t have to say, “Go talk to Jane, she’s the keymaster,” but you can say, “Jane’s an expert on the firm, so if you have questions about the company, she’s a great person to ask.” Then, don’t forget to tell Jane you’re sending a new recruit her way. Your keymaster will appreciate the heads up (and the fact that you’re trying to discretely keep the tradition going).
Just like any other secret, uncovering your office’s unwritten rules will take some time and patience—and if you’ve got a bit of Sherlock in you, that won’t hurt. But do it right, and you’ll have the keys to the kingdom, not to mention you can always order off the menu.