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Work Advice: The unwritten workplace rules we wish someone had told us

Readers share issues they wish they’d known early in their career — and issues they want their incoming colleagues to be aware of

Advice by Karla L. Miller Columnist June 22, 2023 at 7:00 a.m. EDT


In response to a recent query about unwritten workplace rules, here are some of the best tips I received from new workers and the people who train them. “Dress conservatively until you know what is considered suitable. Regulate your language likewise.” — Susan Van Hemel, Fairfax, Va. After acing the button-down formality of the interview process, don’t get too comfortable too quickly in your attire or your attitude.

After four years of emailing and texting with professors almost as if they were peers, “I found myself being too informal when sending emails or speaking during client calls,” Cristina Sabia, a new employee of New York-based communications agency MikeWorldWide, said in an email. By observing and seeking advice from more experienced colleagues, Sabia has started using “positive neutral language” and a “collective tone of voice” with clients, saying “we,” “our” and “our team” instead of “I” and “my.”

Pay attention to whether your colleagues typically address clients with honorifics and surnames or just first names. And never presume to use a nickname unless your client or colleague uses it first in their signature or self-introduction.

“It’s okay to question management … [but] know that people don’t want criticism from day one.” — Erin Wilson, Lancaster, England

You may be bursting with ideas on better processes or new tools that your employer should adopt to be more efficient and productive. But learn the reason for the current approach before you offer what you assume are new solutions. “Remember, they may have been tried before and not worked out,” said Van Hemel of Fairfax in an email.

Later on, don’t assume prior experience applies to your current situation. “When I changed jobs in midcareer, I was careful to ask my supervisor, ‘In my old job, I would handle [a situation or personnel issue] this way. Is that how it's handled here?’” said Kathy Larson of Columbia, Md., in an email.

“Build up your professional capital early.” — Lauren Milligan, Chicago

In school, you may have grown accustomed to completing your assignments and collecting grades automatically, with no need to strive for extra credit. In most workplaces, that gets you a C at best.

While you want to avoid being taken advantage of or doing unpaid work, “there will be times when staying late or going beyond the job description can pay off well,” Lauren Milligan, career advancement coach and founder of ResuMAYDAY, said in an email.

And when your assignment is done, “never watch someone else work. Even if you don’t know how to help, ask,” Janet Gannon of Brunswick, Ga., advises her internship-bound students.

“I’d rather answer 10 clarification questions up front than [hear] ‘Oh, I wasn’t sure.’” — Kally Lavoie, Gainesville, Fla.

You might hate seeming as though you don’t know what you’re doing, but according to managers I heard from, even “dumb” questions are better than wrong guesses. Listen to the instructions, give it a shot — but then ask before you reach the point of no return.

“Provide good news fast and bad news faster.” — Tom Wells, Olney, Md.

Smart managers expect new hires to make mistakes, and to come clean when they do.

“I don't expect perfection,” says Jason O’Toole, a Boston-area poet and risk manager for an acute psychiatric hospital. “I do expect that mistakes will be made. I do expect you to ask questions and to be honest about poor outcomes. You should expect the same honesty from me. I want you to succeed, and it's my job to give you the tools to do so.”

“Be nice to people at all levels.” — Jody Carlson, Fairfax, Va.

Regardless of rank, titles or seeming niceness, treat everyone you meet as important and deserving of respect.

“Resist getting pulled into office gossip or inside jokes. Not knowing who the main players are, or everyone's history, you might end up getting on the wrong side of an Important Person,” Milligan said in an email. “A good way to deflect gossip is with a neutral, ‘I’m still getting the lay of the land.’”

D.C. paralegal Jody Carlson’s advice to summer associates and interns: “Word gets around as to who’s a jerk and who’s nice to work with.” That can determine whether they’re invited back full-time.

Annabelle Baugh, a senior content marketing specialist at Exposure Ninja in Britain, wishes someone had given her a heads-up on “avoiding multitasking, like checking your emails or doing other work” during virtual meetings. You may think you look busy; colleagues think you’re tuned out. “By maintaining eye contact with the camera, you are also showing respect and consideration for your colleagues in the meeting,” Baugh said via email.

“‘Always start as you mean to go on.’ That means being intentional early on based on the long game.” — Kamela Lupino, Minn.

Of course you want to make a good impression. Just make sure the expectations you’re setting are ones you’ll be able to fulfill.

“If you’re an introvert, don’t start as if you’re hyper-extroverted when that’s not going to be sustainable. If work/life balance is important to you, don’t work all hours out of the gate and think pulling back later won’t have ramifications,” said Kamela Lupino, director for the HR consulting firm Kincentric in Minneapolis.

All this mindfulness about how you’re dressing, speaking and behaving, not to mention staying vigilant for unwritten rules, can be exhausting. “Anticipate that you’ll be ‘drinking from the fire hose’ for at least three months,” Lupino said in an email. “Plan for self-care (eating well, exercising and plenty of rest) to maintain stamina, even if it means scaling back on some other less essential activities for a while.”

Reader query: Early in your career, what do you wish your established colleagues had done to help you adjust to a new job? What helpful gesture from a senior colleague made the transition easier for you? Let me know at



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