• Eve Arnold

The Unwritten Rule – 10 in the Workplace

An unwritten rule for every occasion.

Photo by Drew Beamer on Unsplash

Day one. Suited and booted. You have waited your entire life for this moment. All your education, late nights in the library have led up to this point and you are here. Ready to take the working world by storm.

When you start work everything is new. The first time you walk through the doors and think “I’m getting paid for this” is a pretty nice feeling. Regardless of where you start (and everyone starts somewhere) it’s a nice acknowledgement that you have entered the working world. The novelty soon wears off of course but in that very moment you feel like a fully-function adult.

It’s pretty exciting stuff.

However, quite quickly you realise that the working world has a number of unwritten rules. Rules that you are expected to just know, they aren’t detailed anywhere (trust me I’ve looked). You will get them wrong, I did, everyone does.

This article is written with hopes of passing the torch, to you, if you’ve just started work. Hopefully it will give you a list of things to look out for. A list to be at the very least, aware of.

1. Turning Up On Time — It’s 15 Minutes Before

Unwritten rule 1 is all about timing. When you first start work, you will undoubtedly have a certain time to arrive by. Workplaces differ but it’s pretty safe to say it’ll range between 8am-9am.

Don’t turn up at 9am on the dot.

The first thing is that if somewhere is new, you will get lost. It’s the way of the world that when you are trying to get anywhere on time, especially if it’s a new place, you will get lost. On top of that, if you need to meet someone or report to somewhere you need a chance to find them / that. That all takes time. So you need a 15 minute buffer regardless. So if your commute on Google takes 45 minutes, plan for it to take 1 hour.

The second bit to this is, when people say 9am, what they really mean is 8:45am. If you turn up at 9am on the dot, chances are, it’s considered late. One factor to consider here is clocks. For example my watch is 4 minutes slower than my car clock, which is 2 minutes faster than my phone. I have no idea why that is the case, I only realised yesterday. My point is that if your boss is looking at their phone and you‘ve been looking at your watch, you’re 2 minutes late.

Arrive early, it looks good. It gives the impression you can manage the new commute to work, you can find your way to wherever and you can do all that and still be early. So if your commute takes 45 minutes you need 15 minutes buffer time and you need to arrive 15 minutes early. So for a 9am start, set off at 7:45am. As you get used to the drive, feel more confident etc. you can set off at 8am even 8:15am if you’re feeling daring. However, for that first day or first few days, the early bird eats the worm.

2. First Impressions Do Count — Don’t Miss Them Up

The second unwritten rule is pretty much a given but just in case you are unsure, first impressions count. They count a lot. They matter when you are new because you don’t have your reputation to lean into. When you are new, all you have is your smile, your brains and your communication. Use them all.

Shake someone’s hand firmly — make them know you’re there. Not so hard it’s obvious you’ve been told to shake their hand firmly. But a handshake that says I’m serious about this. Be polite — manners matter. Listen thoroughly and think through what you’re trying to say. You don’t need to be uber confident or know everything but you can be polite, pleasant and intrigued.

Undoubtedly someone will ask the person who you’ve just met what you are like. You want that conversation to be a positive one.

3. Miscommunication — You Need to be Clear an Unwritten Rule

The third unwritten rule is about communication. Communicating is hard work. Understanding what someone is actually asking you, figuring out how they want something doing and when they want something is difficult. It’s especially difficult when you are lacking confidence and don’t want to sound stupid. It’s easy to feel completely lost when you first start because every word is new. Especially if you’ve moved into a technical field but work jargon exists in every workplace. And it’s hard to get your head round.

Make sure you are completely certain of what’s being asked of you. Don’t feel silly for asking twice, a lot of the time people are vague on purpose because they don’t know what they actually want. If that’s the case, then make sure you ask some key questions:

  1. What’s the deadline?

  2. What’s the expected format?

  3. Have you got an example of the type of thing you want?

  4. Who are the key people to get involved?

  5. What’s the ideal output for you?

If you ask these questions you might help the person requesting the work iron out what they want but also you get a clearer idea of what’s expected. If you don’t ask these sorts of questions you’ll end up delivering something completely off the mark in 4 weeks time.

4. Asking to go for a coffee / toilet

The fourth unwritten rule is about permission. When I first started work, after the whole “I’m getting paid for this” type realisation, I wandered up to my desk. After a little bit of time working out a few things, I thought I should do the most adult thing. Make myself a coffee. However, I didn’t know whether I could just wander off and get a coffee. So I asked my boss.

A sure fire way to look like a complete idiot.

Yes, you can go to the toilet. Yes, you can go for a coffee. Just don’t steal any milk for the communal fridge.

5. Make Sure You Write it Down

Unwritten rule 5/10 is about logging things. Write things down. When you are new to the working world it will feel like everything is flying past you at 100 miles an hour. We only have the capacity to take in so much information. When everything is new, it’s a challenge to remember where your desk is. It’s hard to filter out the important information from the vast quantity of information you are getting thrown at you.

Use your experience of writing / typing up notes in university to your advantage. Write the important things down. Don’t do what I did when I first started work and just write absolutely everything down. There is no point, it will detract you from building relationships. Write down the key bits and nothing more.

6. If You Think It’ll Take a Week, Add 40%

The sixth unwritten rule is about time management. When you are new you want to impress. That’s understandable. However, one of the quickest ways to have the opposite effect is to poorly manage expectations. If you think you can get something complete in a week, add in 40% contingency.

You’re likely to be quite ambitious when you first start work so your estimations of how long things take are going to be a little short. Added to that, you’ve not got much experience in the workplace, so you’re probably not great at understanding how long certain things take.

If you think something is going to take a week, add 40%. Try and use the mantra “under promise and over deliver” as a guide. If you are ambitious with timings, you are likely to do the opposite. Over promise and under deliver. Which will start you off on the wrong foot.

7. Ask Everyone if They Want a Drink – The Unwritten Rule

A simple unwritten rule, number seven is about being polite. It’s quite surprising how quickly you get in someone’s good book if you offer to make them a drink. The working world is pretty much solely fuelled by tea and coffee. If you get up and make just yourself a drink it’s likely that you will unfriend people before you’ve started.

Offering to make the team a round of drinks goes a long way. It’s also a good conversation starter. If you can remember how they like their tea or coffee you’ll most likely make a friend for life.

I’m not sure what it is with drink making and offices but it’s probably the quickest way to get someone on side.

8. Make Sure You Have it in Writing

Unwritten rule number 8 is about covering your back. People forget things. We are all only human, people can say one thing in a meeting completely forget what they’ve said and want something entirely different. It’s good to get into the habit of repeating what people want so everyone is absolutely crystal clear.

“So to be clear, we’ve agreed we want ‘x’, ‘y’ and ‘z’”

Give people the opportunity to shout up if it doesn’t make sense. Once everyone’s agreed, and this is the important bit, make sure you’ve got it in writing. It’s one thing verbally agreeing to it but if it’s followed up with an email you’ve got something to refer back to if there is any confusion. This isn’t to be taken lightly. It’s important that everyone is in agreement to make sure expectations are managed. One of the biggest frustrations in the workplace is when people think something has been agreed and it hasn’t.

9. Don’t Microwave Anything That Smells – A Unwritten Rule

Unwritten rule number 9 is about the microwave. Anything that smells kind of funky in Tupperware will smell really funky when microwaved. If you are adult enough to be preparing your own lunches and packing them into Tupperware then you are further along than me. However, if it stinks, don’t microwave it.

When microwaved, smelly food has a tendency to woft through the office and whilst you might like the smell of steamed fish but I can guarantee someone in your office won’t. You’ll be met with, at best, winching faces and at worst, someone fairly confrontational about your microwaving decisions.

General rule: if it smells, don’t microwave it

10. Being Loud Including Music, Conversations, Fill in the Blank

Finally, unwritten rule number 10 is about being loud. In the office, people are working. It’s not a library but I think it’s fair to assume that people need a little bit of quiet to concentrate. To get anything done that requires a decent level of concentration will be hard if you’ve got someone blaring out Spice Girls through their headphones. Especially considering the Spice Girls are rubbish.

Loud conversations, blaring music and anything else that makes a load of noise needs to be cut to a minimum. That’s not to say you can’t have conversations or you can’t listen to music, of course you can. You just need to be mindful that people are trying to work.

The working world is full of unwritten rules. No you can’t microwave your fishy lunch, no you can listen to music that the whole office can hear. Well, you can, but people won’t like you very much. If you are new to work, good luck, you’ll be great. Just remember there are a few things that are unwritten rules in the office. Try and stick to the rule book. You’ll make more friends that way.

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