As you navigate your career, it’s often the “unknown unknowns” that can trip you up. Among them are the unwritten, unspoken rules of the road – the informal rules that are so steeped in the system that people don’t even talk about them.

I was coaching a client who was joining a new firm at a senior level and he wanted my help to make a smooth transition into this new role – to help him hit the ground running.

One of the first things we talked about was how to figure out the informal rules in the new organization.

That’s because when you’re new in a role or an organization, getting this right really matters. People will be looking at the way you navigate those unwritten rules as a way to figure you out, and answer questions such as:

  • From your seniors: Is she excellent? Is he a good fit with our culture? Can she lead effectively? Will he gain the respect of his peers?
  • From your peers: Is she “one of us”? Does he make the rest of us “look bad”? Do we like her? Do we trust him?
  • From your juniors: Can I learn from her? Will he advocate for me? Does top management respect her? Is he a good person to work for?

So, how do you figure out what those unwritten rules are and prevent mishaps from damaging your reputation?

While you can make some educated guesses, in the end, it’s about keen observation, a good dose of trial and error, asking questions, being a quick study, and hopefully finding a friendly person or two who can help you find your way.

To help you navigate successfully, here are two categories of “unwritten rules” that I’ve come across:

The Seemingly Insignificant

While these seem like “small” things, they nonetheless can have a big impact on how you are perceived and the reputation you develop. Some examples include:


  • Where you eat lunch – at your desk vs the cafeteria vs going out to eat
  • Going out for drinks after work – or not
  • Where you sit at the conference room table – is there a “head” of the table, and if so, is it in the middle or at one end? And do people always sit in the same place?


  • How you start your emails (“Dear Jane” vs “Jane” vs “Hi Jane”)
  • How you answer the phone (“This is Dave” vs “Dave Bannister” vs “Bannister” vs having your secretary answer your phone even when you’re at your desk)
  • How you refer to top management in public (“Have you met John?” vs “Have you met President Jones?” vs “Have you met Mr Jones?” vs “Have you met Jones-y?”)

Work Ethic

  • Arriving and leaving times
  • Going to the gym during the day – and sporting the “wet head” look – or not
  • Punctuality for meetings – is it “cool” to be fashionably late or are you expected to arrive on time?

The Clearly Important

While these are more obviously substantive, they are tricky to get right. And if you have the wrong person guiding you, you can end up worse off than having no guide at all. Examples of these include:

The Power Structure

  • What’s the real org chart – not the formal boxes and lines org chart, but the way things really work beyond formal reporting lines. Who has the real power and authority, and whose blessing do you need on your important initiatives?
  • How to escalate – or not – and to whom, and in what order. Who do you need to consult before the big announcement, who needs to be alerted, and who do you absolutely not want to tip off?
  • What are the pet projects of the people in power, and which ones don’t they value?

Getting Things Done

  • Who are the “go to” people and for which aspects?
  • What level of detail is expected in proposals, pitches and analyses?
  • What gets outsourced vs kept in-house?

Looking the Part

  • What’s the dress code for your level and one or two above? Is it okay to wear short-sleeved button down shirts for men or sleeveless tops for women?
  • Handling informal events – including those where partners/spouses are invited – and how casual is “casual attire”?
  • What’s the view on facial hair for men? Long hair up in a bun or down for women?

While it’s impossible to get everything right, it really does pay to ask questions, keep your eyes and ears open and become a student of the informal workings of your organization. This will smooth your path and reduce the amount of stress you experience as you strive for success.

Finally, not all informal rules are good for the business or for the people in the organization. As a leader, when you come across those, you can choose to set a new role model or otherwise challenge the status quo.

All of which reminds me of one of my favorite scenes from the movie “42” (the one about Jackie Robinson, the first African-American major league baseball player) where the Brooklyn Dodgers manager, Branch Rickey, and his team are talking about signing Jackie Robinson, and one of them says,

“You break a law and get away with it, some people think you're smart. You break an unwritten law, you'll be an outcast.”

While unwritten rules can and often should be broken, it’s best to do it consciously and deliberately – like Branch Rickey and Jackie Robinson. Otherwise, it can really backfire and you won’t be prepared for the fallout.

What are the unwritten rules in your organization? And what’s the best way for a new person to come in and get it right?