In higher education, we often discuss the “hidden syllabus”: The norms students need to know and understand in order to thrive on a college campus beyond the published syllabi and student handbook. Similarly, new employees are normally introduced to a hefty policy and procedure manual for their institution as well as individual departmental standard operating procedures (“The Rules”). It’s easy to live by the rules when we see them in print. A bigger challenge, however, is learning and living the unwritten and unspoken rules of the workplace (“The Rules”). Leaders (and peers!) have a responsibility to share the The Rules with all employees to help them thrive in the professional environment.
Last year, one of my supervising VPs hired a new assistant. During her first week of employment, I returned to my office after a meeting sometime after 5:30, and she was still at her desk. Typically, the work day for her position ends at 4:30 or 5. I saw that the VP’s door was still open and the lights were on, so I assumed that the assistant felt she should still be at her desk. I let her know that we don’t function that way; just because we’re still in the office, we don’t expect everyone else to stay until we leave. She should finish her work at her scheduled time and depart for the day, regardless of whether or not “the boss” is still in the office. This type of explicit conversation clarifies expectations and helps our colleagues feel confident in the parameters of their roles.
Time is typically a big sticking point in an organization. What, for example, does “flex time” really mean in your organization? If you know, for example, that your institution says that flex time is at the employee’s discretion but that someone who comes in late after working late the night before will be subject to a raised eyebrow by a superior, share that information with a new employee. Often what is described in theory during an interview or meeting with HR is not the actual lived experience of those within the organization. It’s essential to share these norms with new employees as explicitly as possible.
Frequently, with all good intentions, new employees will be encouraged by senior staff to drop by anytime: “I have an open door policy!” The reality, however, is that your president and cabinet members are busy. A new employee who routinely drops by will not be viewed in a positive light in many organizations, so again, it’s important to be explicit: “When she says ‘open door policy,’ what she really means is that she’s happy to hear your ideas via email or a scheduled appointments. If you have a problem or issue, though, be sure to use the appropriate institutional channels/chain of command.” Sharing that information will save a new employee the embarrassment of becoming someone who followed the wrong set of rules.
Sharing The Rules with new team members and with colleagues who unknowingly violate them establishes a thriving culture where people can meet their full potential. We can certainly argue that perhaps The Rules shouldn’t even exist, but the fact is that any organization will develop unspoken cultural norms. Our choice, then, should be to articulate the unspoken standards and expectations for the sake of our collective success.