How to Learn a Company’s Unwritten Office Rules when There’s No Office

Not every workplace rule, tradition or general way of doing things appears in the employee handbook.

Newly hired employees often must figure out on their own how a company’s culture really operates, and how to maneuver within “unwritten rules” to move up in the organization. Now, with remote work that COVID-19 forced on so many businesses, that daunting transition from rookie worker to savvy employee has become even more challenging.

“At many businesses, new employees probably are not in the office very often, if at all, and much of their interactions with their new co-workers come through virtual meetings or email exchanges,” says Bob Slater, co-author with his son, Nick Slater, of Look Out Above! The Young Professional’s Guide to Success.

“Those spontaneous, one-on-one ‘water cooler’ chats with your new colleagues, where they can clue you in on a lot of things about the business and the bosses, just aren’t happening.”

All is not lost, though, say the Slaters.

Even when starting a new job remotely, there are ways to figure out a company’s unwritten rules and give yourself a better chance to succeed as a result. The Slaters offer a few tips for learning those unwritten rules and also avoiding any missteps in your early weeks as a remote employee:

  • Observe. As each workday unfolds, pay attention to how things get done, to where the power lies, and to the behaviors that lead to personal success for other employees. “For example, you may notice that the organizational chart says one thing about who needs to approve or support something for it to get done, but the reality may be something else,” Nick Slater says. “You also can begin to notice who people listen to and respect, and what the company will and won’t spend money on.” Meanwhile, also try to be aware of who the rising stars in the organization are and what they seem to be doing to get ahead. “Ask yourself what you can learn from them,” he says, “and what behaviors of theirs you could start doing.”
  • Ask. When in doubt about anything pertaining to the unwritten rules where you work, find someone you trust and have a candid conversation with them, Bob Slater says. “This could be a manager, a mentor, or a peer,” he says. “Someone just above you in the organizational chart could be a good choice. But you’re the only one who knows who the best person might be for the questions you have, and how candid you should be.” Beyond getting the answers to your questions, those conversations also can help you strengthen your relationships with others in the organization, he says.
  • Stay in communication. “You want to be visible, so do not hide,” Nick Slater says. Some managers establish standing meetings with the people who report to them, but if yours doesn’t, you may need to ask for regular Zoom meetings to touch base or get progress reports on how you are doing, he says. “At first, if given the opportunity, it’s better to meet too often instead of too little because that will help you discover more about those unwritten rules,” he says.
  • Contribute in meetings. Even with virtual meetings, it’s critical that you be prepared and ready to contribute, Bob Slater says. Put away your phone or anything else that might distract you. The fact you are distracted and trying to multitask could become evident, even if you are just one of multiple faces on a screen. “Don’t speak just to draw attention to yourself,” he says, “but do recognize that if you rarely contribute it will be noticed.”
  • Experiment. Depending on your personality, risk tolerance, and the matter at hand, you could simply act and see what happens, Nick Slater says. “Doing so may give you insight as to whether you acted in furtherance of – or in contradiction to – the unwritten rules where you work,” he says. “As the maxim goes, better to ask forgiveness than permission. Don’t ask, just do it. But of course, pick your spots carefully.”

“It’s worth remembering that regardless of what your new company’s unwritten rules are, your success ultimately depends on maximizing your contribution to the organization,” Bob Slater says. “In all but dysfunctional companies, expect rationality to ultimately prevail in terms of the right people being promoted. There may be times when meritocracy seems to be out of whack, but ultimately exceptional performers will be recognized.”

Bob Slater and Nick Slater are the co-authors of Look Out Above! The Young Professional’s Guide to Success. Bob Slater is a former trial lawyer and helped build two national real estate companies. He has taught undergraduate and MBA students for 15 years at the University of North Carolina’s Kenan-Flagler School of Business and Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business. Nick Slater, an attorney, entrepreneur, and writer, is a graduate of the University of Georgia and holds a law degree from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Nick currently lives in London with his wife and their English bulldogs.

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