Business psychology services

Business psychology services

When you start work at a new company, it is normal to receive a job description, staff manual and induction training which outline expectations. However, are there unwritten office rules which are not covered and yet everyone expects you to follow them? In this article, I’m exploring the challenges of workplace etiquette.

That’s My Mug! & Other Unwritten Rules

On your first day at work you are shown where the kitchen is. A little later, it’s your turn to take a tea break, so you head to the kitchen and make a drink. A colleague walks in looks at you horrified and exclaims, “That’s my mug!”. You haven’t been told to bring a mug, so you just grabbed one from the cupboard. Now someone has taken offence and views you as disrespectful. It’s not a great start to your new role.

So, what other traps await you because you are unfamiliar with the company culture and the way things are done? It can feel like a minefield. Will it take weeks of observance and a friendly colleague to work out the embedded routines that form workplace etiquette?

The challenge of unwritten office rules is even greater for neurodivergent colleagues. They typically find it harder to read social signals and to retain information shared, unless it is reinforced or written down.

Understanding Vague Terms

There are plenty of vague terms which can lead to misunderstanding for new recruits and neurodivergent employees. As an example, what is meant by the dress code ‘casual wear’? Are jeans acceptable and what about a onesie? 

When told “We take it in turns to collect the post” someone might assume that they are being informed that their colleagues have it covered, rather than this being an instruction. If you want new recruits to take their turn, it is better to specifically tell them, “We would like you to collect the post on Tuesday mornings, I will show you how to open the mailbox.”

Here are a few other vague turns of phrase:

·       “We have a new project launching tomorrow, so I’d like everyone to come in early.” Is that 5 minutes early or 5 hours?

·       “There’s no need to write too much in that report summary.” Does that mean a sentence, a paragraph or a page?

·       “See what you can find out about this new digital tool.” Clarity on what you want to know will help them find out what is relevant and useful.

These phrases are commonplace, yet they are open to misinterpretation. As a result someone might not do what you expected. As a result, you might perceive them as useless or get frustrated and it is awkward for them too. So, let’s consider ways to avoid this.

Managing Expectations with an Etiquette Policy

Tensions in a team are detrimental to productivity and job satisfaction. As a business psychologist, I have been called in to help resolve conflicts within teams on more than one occasion!

Part of the problem often lies in a mismatch of expectations. An individual is perceived as not playing their part or doing what others anticipated and this has grown into an issue. Do you recognise this as something that has occurred in your team?

The question is whether the person is aware of the expectations. Have the unwritten rules been explained to them? Are their actions laziness, intentional defiance or is it simply that they don’t know or understand how things operate?

Clarify Unwritten Office Rules in an Etiquette Policy

One way to prevent workplace misunderstandings is to write an Etiquette Policy.

Firstly, ask the team involved in listing the things that happen to keep things running smoothly and what riles people if it isn’t done. I’ll get you started with a few suggestions:

 – Don’t leave dirty mugs in the sink

 – Switching cameras on for remote meetings

 – Reordering supplies if items are running low. 

Now, it’s over to you; list your office unwritten rules and be specific.

Secondly, consider if there are exceptions to the rule. Are there occasions when the camera can be left off? Or, is there any excuse for not washing up your mug? Thirdly, what is the impact or consequences if the rule isn’t followed? 

This process can highlight codes of conduct that are outdated or a bit ridiculous. We all go for drinks on a Friday after work – surely this is optional. However, not everyone can afford to, will enjoy it or has the time to take part. In the same way, does it really matter if someone doesn’t shake your hand? You can use the insight gathered from this discussion to form the basis of your Office Etiquette Policy.

Present the Policy as a video, a visual or a written document, which can be accessed and referenced by every team member. It will help them follow the rules. Furthermore, team leaders can use it to address behaviours or actions which are out of line with the agreed code of conduct.

What’s Normal Etiquette?

Finally, I’d like to raise is that things we might consider normal aren’t the same for everyone. For example, in some countries, eye contact with senior managers is avoided. To illustrate the disparities, take a look at advice given to people coming to work in the UK* as this gives insight into UK-specific behaviours. Consider how you would feel if you were posted to a global office, misread a situation and got something wrong. When your actions are unintentional, you don’t want to be judged or scorned and nor do your employees.

By clarifying the unwritten office rules, we help all employees to understand and match expectations. This saves them from embarrassment and helps to maintain healthy working relationships. In turn, this encourages a positive work environment, collaboration and productivity. Now, that makes good business sense!

* https://www.aetnainternational.com/en/individuals/destination-guides/expat-guide-to-uk/business-etiquette.

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