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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Changing Jobs

The 6 Unwritten Company Rules You Won't Find in the Employee Handbook

When you begin a role at a new organization, you may feel a warm, welcoming vibe as you’re introduced to your colleagues via a company-wide email and taken out to lunch by your boss.

In these early days, you’ll get info on how to file your expense report, order your customer print job, or book your business travel. You’ll learn what the official rules of the workplace are, what policies must be complied with, and what is expected of you in the role you were hired for. Along with an explanation of the company’s values, goals, and mission, your orientation may include info on cool company perks such as being able to bring your dog to work.

There’s another category of new workplace rules though that’s not written down anywhere. Not only do they govern the way things actually get done, regardless of anything else you may have heard, but they also define the culture of the organization. “They pick up,” writes Frances Frei and Anne Morris in Harvard Business Review “where the employee handbook leaves off.”

“Culture,” Frei and Morris explain, “Tells us what to do when the CEO isn’t in the room, which is, of course, most of the time.” Though they aren’t documented, they are certainly observable in the workplace. And in the immortal words of Yogi Berra,
“You can observe a lot just by watching.”

Here are six things you should observe about the rules you won’t find in your employee handbook.

1. What Flex Time Really Means

You love the idea of flex time, and why shouldn’t you? You took the job, in part, because you liked the idea of calling the shots about when you log on and what time you get to the office. Perfect, you thought, as you signed on the dotted line: No more fretting that your boss is timing how long your dentist appointment has you away from your desk.

But, take note. Does your workplace really embrace the flexible arrangement it boasts? Or does it seem like most of your colleagues are at their desks by 8 AM and rarely out the door before 6 PM? Does anyone ever leave midday for a bank run, to go to the pharmacy, or even to squeeze in a haircut—or are those suspiciously comfy office chairs occupied all day long?

Understanding the reality of the workday and what’s expected of you—no matter what the hiring manager told you in the interview—will keep you from tripping up and help you schedule your extracurricular activities accordingly.

2. When the Work Day Actually Ends

Charlotte, a woman I worked with, started her second post-college job with huge enthusiasm, a pay raise, and a sparkling brand on her resume. Then she quickly realized she had a problem that was totally going to cramp her happy hour style: No one left the office until the boss did. And the boss didn’t leave until 8 PM.

Being the first to depart in a situation like that can be stressful. If you came in early, it’s likely that no one saw you arrive. If you leave early, everybody knows it. Regardless of how productive your day was, if you regularly jet hours before the majority of your co-workers, you may get inaccurately labeled as lazy or lacking drive.

The most important thing, of course, is that you get your work done, and that your boss knows you got it done. If the pressure to stay late never lets up, or if your performance is deemed lacking as a result, this might not be the right culture for you.

3. The Open Door Policy

You may find a gem of a company that will tell you the CEO’s door is always open! Come and share your best ideas! We want to hear from you!

The reality may be quite different. You see, it turns out that your manager does not love the idea of you marching into the executive suite and spilling all your brilliance.

Moreover, as lovely as an open door idea is, it may not always be practical. The CEO may never be around, or may rarely have a minute of time to spend with you, or any employee for that matter.

If your company says it has this policy, watch to see if anyone actually uses it (and what happens when they do). Best to be informed before you invite yourself in to share your big ideas with the head honcho.

4. When You’re Expected to Respond to Email

Your manager loves to fire off detailed project emails late at night. No need to respond she says, she just needs to get it off of her mind. But the next day, when you notice that your colleagues are talking about the email exchange that happened while you were fast asleep, you feel out of the loop and uninformed.

Knowing when, and how, you’re expected to participate is important. So take a cue from your colleagues. Even if you’re not inclined to change your bedtime just so you can respond within minutes of your supervisor’s message, you can take a look in the morning and get yourself up to speed with anything you may have missed overnight.

5. How to Dress

You wore your finest interview attire when you were called in to meet with the hiring manager and your future team members, but do you need to replicate that look on a daily basis?

As you walk through your new workplace, note whether your co-workers are dressed in jeans and flip-flops or business-casual attire. Depending on your role, you may be able to rock the T-shirt and sneakers—or you might not. But no matter what, remember that your attire plays a role in how confident, creative, and competent you feel. And it certainly plays a part in how you’re perceived by the group as a whole, so dress accordingly.

Oh, and be sure to check out how the team handles tattoos and piercings. Some organizations or managers will be more open to these accessories than others. Observe what your department is doing, and follow suit.

6. When to Take Vacation

It’s been well documented that Millennials don’t want to be chained to the workplace. But every company defines the concept of work-life balance a bit differently. The stated vacation policy will tell you how much time you get to take off. The culture will tell you whether or not people actually pay attention to that policy.

Are you seeing lots of vacation days scheduled and taken by others? Or are the office absences few and far between? Even in companies that offer unlimited vacation time, employees may be reluctant to take much time off. Observing the behavior in your organization will give you a sense of what that vacation policy really looks like, and how much freedom you’ll have for all the adventure travel you’ve been saving up for.

The bottom line is that no matter what you receive in your orientation materials, so much of what you need to know in your new job isn’t going to be found on paper. By utilizing the powers of observation, you can get up to speed quickly. And so that you don’t commit any office faux pas—or worse, put your work ethic in question—you’d do well to figure out the unwritten rules as soon as you’ve memorized where the coffee cups are kept.

Photo of man working at a startup courtesy of Shutterstock.