Establishing Equitable Expectations: Writing the Unwritten Rules of the Workplace

By Anonymous (Follow us on LinkedIn)

Picture it. You started your new job a week ago, and your first staff meeting starts in five minutes. You make your way to the conference room, only to find that everyone else is already there and the meeting is underway. You quickly sit down and surreptitiously check the clock—no, you aren’t late. A little discombobulated, you try to figure out what is being discussed. The director then says, “The next item on the agenda is the proposed revisions to our collection development policy. Did everyone review them?” Wait, what? There’s an agenda? And what collection development policy? Not wanting to draw attention to yourself, you don’t say anything. After the meeting, you ask the person in the cubicle next to you about where to find the agenda and collection development policy. Apparently, the meeting agendas are circulated through Microsoft Teams—whatever that is! — and the collection development policy is on a shared network drive no one told you about.

Unfortunately, due to “unwritten rules” that exist in every workplace, the above scenario is not uncommon. According to Cambridge Dictionary, “An unwritten rule is one that does not exist officially, but which people generally accept and obey.” In the workplace, nonconformity to unwritten rules can negatively affect the reputation and success of an employee. One of the key problems with this situation is that unwritten rules are rarely explicitly conveyed. This can be particularly problematic for new hires and individuals who struggle to interpret social cues.

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Inequity is inevitable when only some employees know the rules. For the success of individual employees and for the efficient functioning of the team as a whole, it is important to convey any unwritten rules to (1) set clear expectations for all employees and (2) provide a more equitable environment for success. This may also result in the additional benefits of inspiring more trust in leadership and more cooperation among team members. 

Reasons for Unwritten Rules

There are various reasons a rule could be unwritten, ranging from innocuous to harmful. At the innocuous end of the spectrum, there are unimportant rules that do not need to be formally conveyed. For example, everyone “just knows” they need to be early to the breakroom on donut day if they want a blueberry one. While this would be nice information to pass along to a new hire, it is not essential to succeeding at the job. 

However, problems arise when rules that affect the performance and therefore success of an employee are unwritten. Three categories of these problematic unwritten rules include those that are intentionally inequitable, those that contradict formal policies, and those that are overlooked and ingrained habits.

Intentionally Inequitable

Arguably, the most harmful unwritten rules are those that are intentionally inequitable; to paraphrase George Orwell’s Animal Farm, some are more “unequal” than others. These rules favor certain employees over others and can include preferential treatment when it comes to assignments, vacation requests, working from home, and more. 

For these types of “rules,” the only responsible course of action for management interested in creating a level playing field for all employees is to eliminate them.

Contradictions to Formal Policies

At times, rules may be unwritten because they contradict formal policies. This could happen in larger organizations in which certain departments create different expectations from the institution’s guiding documents. For example, the company policy might be for a 40-hour work week, but certain departments might have the unwritten expectation for the employee to be available after hours or on weekends. 

In these situations, it is important for leadership to recognize the contradictions and be fully aware of the impact they have on employee morale and retention. If the department or team has permission to do things differently from formal written policies, then those exceptions should also be in writing. If the department or team does not have permission to do things differently, there may be consequences later.

Alternatively, the organization might be contradicting itself. For example, the organization may have an official policy allowing the accrual of comp time, yet at the same time not permit employees to accrue it. These situations could mislead potential employees into accepting a job they otherwise would not, and the discrepancies between written and unwritten rules would likely create an atmosphere of mistrust. There may even be legal repercussions in jurisdictions where employee handbooks are viewed as contracts. Again, this has negative consequences for both employee morale and retention.

Ingrained Habits

Frequently, unwritten expectations become so ingrained over time that it does not occur to leadership or longtime employees that these need to be communicated effectively to new hires. Unfortunately, this can put the new hires at a disadvantage in many situations, as well as giving the impression that they are not living up to expectations.

One example of this is when staff members are expected to show up for a library reference shift five minutes before their scheduled time. If this information is not explicitly conveyed to a new hire, they may be viewed as characteristically late and not respectful of others’ time. The new employee is starting out with a disadvantage that could easily have been prevented with proper communication of expectations and adequate training.

Other examples of ingrained habits in the workplace include:

  • “Optional” staff meetings and events that are considered required by leadership. A new employee who is unaware of this expectation may be labeled as “not a team player” if they do not show up to such an event. Additionally, the absent employee may miss hearing important information related to their job.
  • There is an unofficial “open door” policy for employees in offices. An employee who closes their door frequently could be viewed as unapproachable. As a result, others may be less likely to include them in office activities and opportunities. This unofficial policy might also be harmful to neurodivergent individuals who need a quieter environment to perform their work.

Although it will take time and effort to identify these types of expectations, they are the only ones that departments and teams can equitably turn into written rules. Accordingly, these “ingrained habits” are the focus of the remainder of this article.

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Writing the Unwritten Rules

Any attempt to write the unwritten rules should be a joint process between leadership and employees, and it should include consultation with Human Resources (HR). There are three basic steps in this process: (1) identify important unwritten rules; (2) articulate and convey those rules to employees, both existing and new, and (3) revise and update the unwritten rules.

Step 1: Identify Important Unwritten Rules

The first step in writing the unwritten rules is to identify the ones that would have an effect (positive or negative) on an employee’s performance and success in their position. Another way to think of this is, what expectations do leadership and coworkers have of an employee that are not already conveyed formally, such as through written policies or new employee orientation?

In addition to the examples above, other ingrained habits that are critical for an employee’s success may include:

  • Time management expectations, including whether volunteer work for professional organizations is permitted or even encouraged during work hours;
  • Professional development requirements, including what needs to be tracked throughout the year;
  • Standard and preferred methods of communicating with colleagues and supervisors; and,
  • Formal and informal feedback procedures.

Once these expectations have been identified, the next consideration for each is to determine why it has not been explicitly conveyed in the past and whether there are any concerns about putting it in writing. Any such concern would be a good indication that the expectation in question may not be reasonable or fair to everyone, and the team may need to consider eliminating it entirely. This would require a shift in organizational thinking, as well as strong and demonstrative leadership. 

For any expectation the team decides to put in writing, it would be a good idea to consult with HR to ensure that there are no organizational-level issues with doing so. If HR does identify issues, then further discussions would be warranted to determine if those issues could be rectified and how. If the issues cannot be resolved, then it once again would be time to consider a shift in priorities and expectations.

Step 2: Articulate & Convey Important Unwritten Rules

When actually writing the unwritten rules, leadership should consider involving employees to the extent they want to be, as people are generally more invested in the success of a project if their participation is welcomed and encouraged.

If not involved in the actual writing, current employees should be invited to provide feedback on the drafts. It is important to allow for different methods of feedback, so that employees can proceed in the way most comfortable for them. For instance, leadership could offer one-on-one meetings or the opportunity to provide written comments, either through email or via an anonymous method. Leadership should be willing to follow up on written comments that need further explanation, either individually or in a group setting. After incorporating feedback from employees, leadership should submit any final written product to HR for review before disseminating the information to new hires.

Ideally, leadership should convey these rules both verbally and in writing for future reference. Additionally, it might be a good idea to assign a coworker-mentor to each new hire, so they have a designated person to go to with procedural questions.

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Step 3: Revise and Update Important Unwritten Rules

After presenting the newly written rules to new hires as part of the onboarding process, leadership should ask for feedback at designated intervals throughout their employment, specifically asking if they have any additional suggestions of expectations that were not fully conveyed during the onboarding process. 

Finally, all onboarding materials, including the formerly unwritten rules, should be reviewed and updated after any leadership or organizational changes. This may mean repeating the process entirely, as a new leader might have completely different expectations from the previous one. 


Notes Between Us (NBU) is a blog about conversations and topics of interest to the writers. The writers are expressing their personal opinions solely. The essays represent their personal beliefs and not those of their workplaces or any organization they are associated with.