Gini Dietrich

The Horrible Case of Unwritten Rules

By: Gini Dietrich | March 31, 2015 | 

The Horrible Case of Unwritten RulesBy Gini Dietrich

In the early days of Arment Dietrich,we had what we called the energy center—a group of cubicles in the middle of the room where all the interns sat.

It was called such because, well, there was a lot of energy in there.

They talked to one another all day long. They pulled pranks. They brainstormed. They laughed and asked out loud for help.

It was a really fun area of the office.

You had to walk right through the middle of it to go to the women’s restroom so I easily stopped through there eight to 10 times a day.

One day, I was in a hurry and I rushed through in between meetings.

One intern was on his cell phone, taking a personal call. Another was talking to friends on her personal Facebook wall. And yet another was painting her fingernails.

I. Was. Livid.

I called our managing director into my office, closed the door, and exploded.

She looked at me, smiled, and said in the way only she could, “Gini, you can’t expect them to know that’s not OK.”

What do you mean I can’t expect them to know that’s not OK?

It turns out, she was right (which still kind of irks me to this day).

Apparently you have to be VERY explicit around the rules of your business. You can’t expect anyone to know if you don’t tell them.

This was a very valuable lesson for me: Having unwritten rules is not OK.

The Unwritten Rules

Every organization tends to have unwritten rules about many things:

  • What time you should come to work…and what time it’s really OK to leave.
  • If the sick policy really allows you to take time off.
  • How many days in a row you can really take off, even if you have lots of time to take.
  • Whether you can show up a few minutes late to a meeting or not.
  • How long it should take you to respond to an email.
  • Whether you should return phone calls.
  • What your out of office replies should say.
  • How long a client should wait to hear from you when they need something.
  • What your social media response time is.
  • Whether you can take personal phone calls at work.
  • When it’s OK—or not—to manage your personal social networks.
  • Whether you can paint your fingernails during work hours.
  • How long is an acceptable lunch…or even if it’s cool that you take a lunch.
  • And more.

Just writing that list makes me realize we still have lots of unwritten rules. Sure, I lead by example, but that doesn’t mean everyone in the organization knows what is acceptable and what is not, particularly because we’re virtual.

Whether I acknowledge it or not, I am sending a message that some things are OK (managing personal social networks during work hours) while others are not (the same level of snark in out of office emails that I have).

These messages are heard loud and clear because it is how I behave.

Training Programs Also Need to Be Written Down

There also are some unwritten rules that make me crazy. I work out during lunch every day. This is because I start my day at 5 a.m. and, by lunchtime, have already put in seven or eight hours.

But it drives me crazy if someone who does the typical 8:30-5:30 job takes an hour or two in the middle of the day to exercise.

I never say anything—if the person is exceeding their goals—but it bugs the crap out of me anyway.

It’s not sane behavior. I know that. So I do a lot of self-talk: Gini, he is killing it every day. What difference does it make if he goes for an hour-long walk?

I always get past it, but it also makes me realize there are still way too many unwritten rules that have to be explained.

It is cool (even though I have to do a lot of self-talk) if you exercise at lunchtime, like I do, as long as you are exceeding your goals.

That’s not written down anywhere (well, now it is—surprise!), but it has created an opportunity to push us through a very painful and intense process to create a training program for our team.

Another thing that is unwritten, but expected, is how we do things. I expect everyone in this organization to work the process as I’ve defined it (hello, PESO model and real metrics), but there is nothing that teaches new hires how to do it.

Just like many of our organizational, but unwritten rules, I expect people to just pick it up by doing.

And, in some cases it works really well, but in others? Not so much.

Human beings, particularly adults, will perform really well if they like the work they’re doing, have a purpose, and know what is expected of them.

How many of you either lead organizations or work for one that has unwritten rules? What are some examples?

photo credit: Shutterstock

About Gini Dietrich

Gini Dietrich is the founder and CEO of Arment Dietrich, an integrated marketing communications firm. She is the author of Spin Sucks, co-author of Marketing in the Round, and co-host of Inside PR. She also is the lead blogger at Spin Sucks and is the founder of Spin Sucks Pro. Join the Spin Sucks   community!

  • Curious. Do you have any virtual employees?

  • chriscaval

    Great post. We face a similar challenge at a nonprofit. The delicate balance of living the values while getting the work done.

  • jasonkeath They’re all virtual. Which, I think, makes it doubly important to have written rules.

  • chriscaval Are your values written down, too? That’s another mistake I see leaders make: They expect everyone to live the values, but no one knows what they are.

  • They’re unwritten because if you write them all down, no one would work for that company. My husbands company has “unlimited PTO” and I’m watching him struggle with an employee who is taking that written rule too literally because she doesn’t see the unwritten rule of “within reason”.

  • chriscaval

    Our values are written down. But, we’ve drafted but haven’t finished identifying the behaviors tied to those values.  Without the specific behaviors of the values, then values are just a placard on the wall. 
    Our next step will be to measure the behaviors periodically because, as we all know, if we don’t measure or have accountability (org wide), they are just examples.

  • ginidietrich Wouldn’t they be virtual rules? 😉 jasonkeath

  • MichaelTLawhorn

    KristenDaukas That comment brings up some great points. Is PTO, “Personal Time Off”? The important point is that the company may have benefited from writing down “PTO within reason” and not “unlimited PTO”. Of course, the lawyers probably had a hand in that.

  • The thing with unwritten rules is that they’re usually part of a long-standing clique or mindset. People that know what’s good to go, and what’s not. Yet that also makes them unique to that set of people.
    As you mention in the post, this irritates you (as the proponent of the unwritten rule), yet also doesn’t leave much wiggle room for folks that don’t know about it.
    Perhaps we should leave unwritten rules as they are, put down exactly what you expect, and anything outside of that is fair game?

  • MichaelTLawhorn KristenDaukas We have unlimited PTO and had to be VERY clear about what it means. That is all written down in our policy manual. But it wasn’t until a year ago and we experienced the same thing the Rooster is.

  • chriscaval Love it! That’s exactly the right work. It’s not easy and it will change, but it’s a great start.

  • Danny Brown The problem with that, of course, is once you write something down, something else comes up. So you have to have TONS of written rules and they have to be fluid. They’re the expectations of working together. Everyone should have them.

  • ginidietrich Prioritize the Top 5 or 10 that absolutely must be adhered to, as part of the employee code of conduct. Anything else has wiggle room, but run it by your first.

  • ginidietrich Danny Brown I remember when “casual Fridays” just started happening and how an organization really goes down the rabbit hole when you start putting the rules in writing.

  • Danny Brown Yeah, that’s why we have an employee manual. For the important stuff. And the stuff that used to drive me crazy (flip-flops!) no longer bother me because #virtual!

  • RobBiesenbach Danny Brown I’m telling you…flip-flops drove me nuts. I’d be in a meeting or on a conference call and hear flop, flop, flop past my office all day long. But does it matter in getting work done? Not so much.

  • ginidietrich Now you just have to worry about crotchless leather thongs when the Skype camera is only above table view. Progress! 🙂 RobBiesenbach

  • KristenDaukas The thing is people forget about common sense. You understand the word “unlimited”, yet you should use your brain and filter what that means and if you´re not sure, you can ask a colleague or your boss BEFORE taking the time off.

  • Danny Brown RobBiesenbach Nah…our only rule is the camera must always be shoulders and above.

  • Corina Manea KristenDaukas You mean you can’t actually take the entire year off?

  • This is a really good post Gini! The thing with unwritten rules is that they leave the decision on how to behave or what to do to the employee. I am not saying this is a bad thing, but it´s not always understood as the manager wants.
    In my former job, the company´s head was afraid to write down some simple rules such as conduct code or dressing code in the customer care office. When I took over the customer care office I was shocked how people working with clients, entering our office understood to dress. It was like going out with friends on a hot summer day, if you know what I mean. I had to write down and implement the conduct code (how to talk with a client, how to answer the phone, etc) and a dressing code.
    Later on, I was to find out that each and every person has a different version on what free time means. And unless you state clearly what you expect from them, you might have surprises.

  • What a great topic — and even greater that you’re willing to write about it — because many orgs are happy to sweep it under the rug. Gotta think through what else I want to say but YAY for the topic. And isn’t it okay to paint your nails at the office as long as the shade is appropriate for the season?

  • ginidietrich Corina Manea KristenDaukas Of course you can, at any other company, except this one! 😉

  • Thank you for this ginidietrich. I’ve added some people to my team recently and the HR side of things is becoming more important. So far, I’ve been lucky but that may not always be the case so it’s a good idea to think about these types of issues and set some guidelines.

  • ginidietrich Danny Brown RobBiesenbach Is this thread heading down the NSFW rabbit hole?

  • biggreenpen See, that´s what I am struggling with too Paula. I mean a light shadow of pink looks good on any season.

  • EdenSpodek Danny Brown RobBiesenbach They almost always do, Eden.

  • Corina Manea It’s true. Expectations have to be VERY clear.

  • Corina Manea biggreenpen LOL! I love you guys.

  • EdenSpodek Ug. No. I tried to find something that we could customize, but we ended up just creating from scratch. If you want, I can send you the outline of what we use.

  • ginidietrich EdenSpodek Maybe you two are on to something that needs to be developed! 🙂 #MoreWork #JustWhatYouNeeded

  • Corina Manea ginidietrich They were at their annual RahRah meeting and the CEO stood up and proclaimed how forward thinking they were… you want to take the whole year off?! If your job is done – have at it!! Steve did a face palm.

  • Corina Manea biggreenpen and dark colors just SCREAM summer to me, no matter how many Punchy Pinks and Cab-Anas there are out there. SHEESH

  • Jen Palumbo

    I kind of feel trapped by coworkers who don’t take advantage of the perks that were offered to us when we were hired. I really value things like flex time, being able to work from home from time to time, working out on my lunch break, etc. But I often feel like others judge me if I take advantage of any of these things (which were all offered to me during my job interview as benefits of working for the company). Even though I get my work done and my boss has no issues with it. This makes me less likely to take advantage of these perks because I don’t want to seem like I’m not a team player. But then the culture becomes different than what I thought it was. 

    All the more reason to write guidelines down, even if it’s to keep all of the employees on the same page with each other.

  • KristenDaukas Corina Manea ginidietrich Awesome! I bet the CEO didn´t bother to talk to the middle management about how it affects the work in each department, what it means in terms of costs and so on. What if everyone takes the whole year off??? Hey, but they are a cool company!

  • Jen Palumbo I have experienced this as well. And with allowed “service time,” no less, which was time off we were given for pre-approved volunteer hours. Instead of dealing with the fall out, I used vacation time to volunteer.
    Some expectations are not fair. Having them is one thing, letting them then affect how you treat an employee or co-worker is another.

  • chriscaval

    EdenSpodek ginidietrich Danny Brown RobBiesenbach If so, I’ll need to cancel a few things this afternoon. #don’twanttomiss

  • Jen Palumbo You should speak with your boss about this. Remember him what he offered you in the beginning, ask if it´s still company policy and then talk to your team. Let them know you will be working from home the next Friday, for example and you can be reached from x to y time.
    If you don´t speak up, you will get frustrated, you won´t focus on your job, rather of what should have been and it will affect your work and in no time you´ll want to change jobs.
    This might also help your boss to realize he needs to write those guidelines. After all he wants a happy, efficient team.

  • ginidietrich Corina Manea I know this exact situation and have experienced it in multiple settings and workplaces. 
    I’m generally on the side of, “Exercise common sense and good judgment,” but have found that many people want very clear, hard-and-fast rules explicitly spelled out.

  • EdenSpodek ginidietrich Danny Brown Oh my …

  • RobBiesenbach ginidietrich Me too Rob. But I have also found that what common sense is for me, is not for others. Some have a sense of what they have to do, while others just want to be guided, because it´s easier this way. Management has an important role in this.

  • Corina Manea ginidietrich True! I’m just having a very specific flashback to a manager basically saying, “Hey, we can spell this all out for you. Just be aware that you might not like what you see!”

  • Kind of interesting post. I worked for a company that got ISO9001 certified. You had to write down all the work processes into a master manual of how to do everything. Except this did not include any of the unwritten rules. Irony for sure.

  • ginidietrich I’d love that. Thanks!

  • biggreenpen ginidietrich Sounds good to me. 😉

  • ginidietrich I’d love that. Thanks!

  • biggreenpen Corina Manea ginidietrich I used to work for someone who sat in the office next to mine and clipped her nails regularly. Ewww!

  • EdenSpodek biggreenpen Corina Manea ginidietrich GROSS

  • I promised to come back and write more, but it’s all swirling in my head so it probably needs to stay there. I saw an article recently which talked about the “unspoken power” in every office (the one that is separate and distinct from what the boxes on the org chart say). I almost sent it to my former supervisor, in a spirit of “I’ve been gone almost a year and promise I am calmly sharing this thought with you,” to say “this ‘unspoken power’ is one of the things I was trying to explain in my exit interview. BUT in 100% honestly, if I had had unspoken power (as opposed to feeling like I was on the wrong side of the org’s unspoken power), I am not sure I would have cared. // Unspoken power is not the same as unspoken rules but the two are cousins at least, IMO.

  • DrgnflyMktSci

    I love working out in the middle of the day; especially since my work building has a gym in it. It boost brain power and helps me reboot and stay on point for the end of day that I’d typically experience a tired slump. But, I’m certainly not working a full 8 hours before lunch! Our company has clear guidelines on work times. Allowing a workout mid-day is not spelled out, but standards on total hours worked per period is stated. Don’t see the harm if you are getting your “ish” done so to speak. 

    I think you, the generic you meaning employer, need to walk that line between clearly laying out the rules for a productive, collaborative, and successful work environment and micro-managing. Clear ground rules to ensure an equatable work environment, then I’m on board. Start looking over my shoulder to monitor every minute of my day or tell me what I should or shouldn’t do for my lunch…then I’d call deuces.  

    I’ve been lucky in employers/managers and have yet to encounter the dreaded micro-manger. It was a real adjustment at my current job when I had to use a clock in/out system online. I’ve never had to keep track of my time in a professional setting before (whatever category I was always in the non-overtime one. Still am actually, it’s just some weird co thing). Of course that’s better for me since this is now my first time in a while where I’ve actually worked close to the fabled 40 hour work week; mine always seem to go 50+. 🙂

  • AbbieF

    We are hiring an AC and an intern in the next 4 weeks — this is extremely timely!

  • AbbieF Set the expectations upfront!

  • DrgnflyMktSci You really are working only 40 hours a week!?!? I AM SO JEALOUS!

  • biggreenpen Talk to me more about unspoken power.

  • Howie Goldfarb There is a difference between process and those rules that everyone is supposed to know, but no one actually says them out loud. They don’t live in a manual anywhere. They’re like the telephone game. Every time you hear them, there is a different version.

  • Jen Palumbo When we started our unlimited PTO, people went from taking three weeks every year to nothing at all. I think it was for the very reason you describe here. No one wanted to seem like they were playing when everyone else was working their butts off. I had to force several vacations last year.

  • Jen Palumbo

    ginidietrich Jen Palumbo  Exactly! Makes me think of another unwritten rule that nobody really likes … coming into work when you’re sick, just long enough so that everyone knows you are really sick and then you can head home. I have worked with so many people who do that! haha! 🙂

  • ginidietrich biggreenpen Specifically, what comes to mind is this: When our ED called us in for 1:1 meetings to “really figure out how we were all doing” when an employee sent an anonymous letter to every member of the board complaining of various grievances (not a good move but certainly generated action on the ED’s part to have discussions with each of us), I asked if his assistant (who was much more than an assistant because by this time she had a Director title) read every email we sent him (and I know assistants do this but it seemed quite possible to me that some of my communications were being intercepted). He said no … but I went on to further explain that I didn’t find it funny that she had an “I’m in charge” sign on her door because although he was the ED and she was not, she controlled a LOT of the communication channels. And my reference to “if I had it I wouldn’t care” meant …. if I was on her good side and privy to/a part of the energy of her in-chargeness I wouldn’t have resented it. (She is also someone I used to supervise, full disclosure.) But as it was, it all felt like high school all over again. Or even middle school.

  • Oh, so it’s a ‘he, huh?’ I guess you’ve already identified the mid-day work out guy, huh? I guess it depends on their work ethic/results when they are present but that is just one of the many things you have to clarify or it will/can be abused. 

    I work out before work to keep my lunches free because it’s much easy to lure, er uh entice prospects to break bread w/ me as long as I am buying. I’m usually the first in the office in our sales building which is nice because I can get things done in peace and quiet. 

    The key in establishing the ‘written’ rules is determining which ones are zero tolerance and which ones you are flexible on because the culprit is your top performer.

  • I go back and forth on this a lot. Yes, there needs to be process and clear expectations, but a part of me feels like people are adults and professionals, and should act that way. There are things that are clearly taking advantage and showing that you don’t really care about the organization or the goals.  So if you need to “rule” your way into getting people to act like professionals, then are those really the right people to be working for the organization. 

    But that said….I say that working from my own framework. So what clearly seems like “taking advantage” or “not being professional” to me, might be completely innocent on the part of the culprit. It’s hard to have a neutral set point to work from..

    ….and so I chase myself in circles

  • Jen Palumbo ginidietrich Gini is a dictator when it comes to forcing you to take time off when you are sick…trust me, she can be scary!

  • aimeelwest

    Jen Palumbo ginidietrich I have never understood that logic. My husband works at a place like that. Fortunalty I can work from home so my boss is like call in and just work when your not drugged up on meds.

  • aimeelwest

    Interesting article. There are tons of unwritten rules in the alcohol industry.

  • aimeelwest Are there any openings?

  • I think the Google work model holds  a lot of merit,  clearly defined and measurable objectives set within a relaxed loosely  defined working atmosphere.  Rather than generate an unending list of concrete rules,  I think a set of policies for professionalism and a code of conduct  is  really all this is required.
    Great post!  Thanks G.D.

  • Digital_DRK But… there is always someone who takes advantage. We work with the same kinds of rules, but there is always someone. They don’t last long, typically, but every time someone takes advantage, we have to revisit goals and policy. I’ve been known to scream, “Why can’t people just be adults??”

  • bdorman264 Why don’t you ever lure me with free lunch?

  • LauraPetrolino Coming from my director of operations, I feel like you should be on the side of process. So get to it!

  • aimeelwest Such as?!


    Great article, Gini. Unspoken expectations can be troublesome for sure. Great book written by an amazing Vistage speaker, Chalmers Brothers, “Language and the Pursuit of Happiness.” It’s a fantastic read.

  • aimeelwest

    ginidietrich aimeelwest Drinking on the job is a big one. Sometimes I feel a little odd drinking during work – but someone has to taste it to write the article. LOL 

    Digital_DRK always 🙂 are you into craft beer?

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