navigating unwritten workplace rules: part 1

May 22, 2019

written by
Barbara O Stephenson

Adulting at work: Or how to become a professional and learn the unwritten rules of a working stiff

It never fails to amaze me how basic professionalism in a job seems to be a difficult task. From what you wear (impressions matter) to how you speak (would a ‘thank you’ make your tongue bleed?), there are a few basic rules that may appear to be unwritten- but should get you written up or fired if you break them.

Part 1. When in doubt, dress up. 

While we like to think that our performance at a job is all that matters, you don’t get the benefit of the doubt here. Uniforms for jobs are overrated and so is wearing a stained t-shirt to a client meeting. Until you prove yourself worthy, the only clear marker to judge you by is what you look like and how you comport yourself in the presence of others. So let’s start with the most loaded of topics, how you dress.

If you don’t have a dress code or if you’re not sure what to wear, ALWAYS go for more dressy. I’m not saying invest in a three-piece suit but don’t wear shorts on your first day at the job unless your hiring manager and HR person had on shorts during the interview. If a client comes into the office, dress up. If you know the client has a dress code at work, match that. So why does this matter?

Respect. Clients want to know they are spending their money on a company that cares about them and your appearance is an unspoken indicator of respect. If you dress well, the worst thing that happens is that people will think you care about how you look. If you misjudge the situation, you’ll be considered ignorant at best.

Details. It isn’t logical, but people who care about the details of their own personal appearance are also considered more detail-oriented at work. Seems strange that being detail-oriented in one aspect of your life would mean you are overall more careful of details at a global level but that’s the common assumption. We all know lots of people who have messy desks or messy closets but are fastidious chefs or completionist gamers. You may not think it matters but I promise you, it does. Just do it.

Effort. Once someone thinks you’re a slob, it is going to take twice as much effort to change their opinion of you. Maybe more depending on how badly you screwed up. Who needs that? Why make things harder for yourself? Being considered straight-laced is way easier to rectify because it’s a lot easier to go down than up. Trust me, you’d rather have the reputation of rarely screwing up than one of rarely getting things right.

Harassment. It is wrong to be judged by your outfit. It’s also wrong to drive 15 miles under the speed limit in the left lane on the freeway but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen. I’ve been hit on, dismissed, or simply ignored based on my outfit and outright told so. But this is the modern age and we’ve moved past that stuff, right? No matter how much we want it to be true, the sad truth is that #metoo is alive and well. Companies are responding by not allowing mixed-sex travel or social events any longer because that’s how they mitigate lawsuits regardless of ethics or stupidity. Yes, it sucks. But don’t ignore it, figure out how it fits into your beliefs & actions and own it.

So what’s next? part 2. behave yourself