Unwritten Codes of Conduct: Five Rules You Won’t Find in the Employee Manual

“Custom, that Unwritten Law/By which the People keep even Kings in awe.” – Sir William Davenant, British poet.

Every workplace has written policies and procedures but the more impactful rules are the ones unwritten. These informal codes of conduct reflect the harsh realities some have faced: work isn’t a meritocracy after all, or that teamwork is important, but no one acts like it. In any workplace, you’ll almost certainly find some things people take for granted but don’t directly talk about—like these five common unwritten rules.

  1. When people are wearing earphones, they don’t want anyone to bother them. This one’s simple enough, these people are clearly trying to escape the outside world. This may be their way of blocking out distractions so they can focus on their work. Disturb them if you have no choice but if you’ve come by just to chat, keep on walking. If you need to talk on a non-urgent basis, send a meeting invitation instead of interrupting.

  2. Some benefits are just for show. Just because it’s company policy doesn’t mean it’s company culture. Some companies offer half days off on Fridays; if you work nine hours a day Monday through Thursday, you can leave at noon on Friday. While some managers don’t mind the policy, others actively discourage it and call those who use it “slackers.” If you find yourself working for a boss who invents reasons for you to stay until COB on Fridays, you’ll know which one you work for. Similarly, many companies offering “unlimited PTO” frown upon those who take advantage of it. So, before you get excited about a great policy, check to see if people actually use it.

  3. Titles don’t always indicate power. Just because people occupy certain spots on the organization chart doesn’t mean they make decisions unilaterally. Long-term employees, those who run their own little fiefdoms within the company, relatives of the owner, and others can influence decisions and their implementation more than you might expect. Find out where the real power players reside.

  4. Don’t burn too brightly at the beginning. I hate to say this, but I will, because I’ve seen this strategy backfire. If you start out pushing yourself too hard to do well at your new job, several things may happen. One, you may burn out quickly. Two, your co-workers may resent you for grandstanding. And three, when you decide to work a normal week instead of 70 hours, you may be seen as slacking off. Even though you’re working no less than everyone else, you’re clearly not trying as hard as you once did. Observe, aim to be a slightly-above-ordinary employee at the beginning, and then build your reputation as you go.

  5. Network and build relationships. Connect with everyone in the organization you can and stay friendly with them. Accept others’ idiosyncrasies, and don’t hide your own. Close relationships are especially important within your work team, and good relationships with people in other teams and departments have their payoffs. You can use these relationships to build working relationships between teams, smooth over misunderstandings, and learn about new positions to help you advance in your career. Some of these relationships may even turn into lifelong friendships.

You Better Work, Work, Work

Working isn’t just about doing your job well; it’s also about fitting into your team and helping others do their jobs well. A positive attitude and work ethic are great beginnings, but to really thrive, seek out and internalize your company’s unwritten rules and code of conduct. Keep your eyes and your mind wide open.

About Laura Stack, your next keynote speaker:

Laura Stack, MBA, CSP, CPAE is an award-winning keynote speaker, bestselling author, and noted authority on productivity and performance. Funny, engaging, and full of real life strategies that work, Laura will change mindsets and attitudes so your people can maximize productivity, strengthen performance, and get the job done right. Her presentations at corporate events, sales kick-off meetings, and association conferences help audiences improve output, increase speed in execution, and save time in the office. Stack has authored seven books, including her newest work, Doing the Right Things Right: How the Effective Executive Spends Time (Jan. 2016). To have Laura Stack speak at your next event, call 303-471-7401, email Christine@TheProductivityPro.com, or CONTACT US.

Here’s what others are saying:

“Laura Stack’s session with a group of our seasoned operations managers was eye-opening. We all learned new ways to be more productive with the tools we already have. I’ve never seen each of our seasoned, experienced operations managers so engaged in a session. Many of our senior and mid-level leaders were wowed by what they learned and have already begun using the new techniques with their teams.”
—Mary Pawlowski, Learning Design, Piedmont Natural Gas

“What I enjoyed most about your presentation was that it was not only engaging but also practical in application. I’ve read everything from Covey’s system to “Getting Things Done,” and you presented time management in a way that is the easiest I’ve seen to digest and apply. Thank you for helping our system today!”
—John-Reed McDonald, SVP, Field Operations, Pridestaff

“Laura is an incredible speaker who takes practical information to improve productivity and efficiency and makes it interesting and fun! She has a great sense of humor and completely engaged our corporate and sales team. Laura motivated everyone to take steps to make their lives more productive and efficient.
—Molly Johnson, Vice President Domestic Sales, Episciences, Inc.

“Ms. Laura Stack’s program received the highest scores in the 13-year history of the Institute for Management Studies (IMS) in Cleveland! From the 83 participants, the workshop received a perfect 7.0 for “Effectiveness of the Speaker” and 6.8 for “Value of the Content.” Managers especially valued learning about task management, how to minimize interruptions, organizing with Outlook, prioritizing, effectively saying ‘no,’ how to set boundaries, and recognizing self-imposed challenges to time management.”
—Don Gorning, Chair, Institute for Management Studies Cleveland



  1. Karen Rich says:

    Hi Laura,
    When you’re running your own business, you may start off like the house in on fire. Unfortunately, keeping up this pace may mean that something else is suffering in your life. And of course, “slow and steady wins the race”.

  2. Joshua Armstrong says:

    I have to admit that I am at a loss on how to network. While I’ve always maintained good relationships with everyone I’ve ever worked with, and have always helped others, I have in turn never asked anyone for help. Every job I’ve had in my long and varied career was obtained via a cold approach, that is applying to advertised positions on various job boards, or newspaper ads.

    For me getting a job via networking is a complete mystery. How do people do it? The few networking events I did go to were a complete and utter waste of time. I never talked to anyone nor did anyone try to talk to me.

    Everyone seems to rave about the power of networking but it has never worked for me, ever.