Gini Dietrich

The Horrible Case of Unwritten Rules

By: Gini Dietrich | March 31, 2015 | 
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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, the lead blogger at Spin Sucks, and the host of Spin Sucks the podcast. She also is co-author of Marketing in the Round, co-host of Inside PR, and co-host of The Agency Leadership podcast.

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