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When you join a new company or team or group of people then there are unwritten office rules which everyone knows. But since you are new, it takes you some time to understand those.

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    Do you mean unwritten social rules? Or more technical process rules that aren't documented, but are followed by convention? – HorusKol Nov 22 at 1:54
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    I mean everything: unwritten social rules, unwritten promotion rules, unwritten office rules, unwritten best performance rules, etc. I have seen unwritten technical rules are very easy to uncover but other are very tricky. – mystic Nov 22 at 8:08
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Unwritten rules are learned in a few different ways.

  • By experience. All workplaces are different but they some share culture, domain, and socio-economic commonalities. If you've worked in one finance firm, others will likely be similar. If you've worked in one laboratory, others will be similar. If you've worked in one factory... you get the idea.

  • By having someone tell you. In healthy workplaces you'll develop working relationships with others who have been there longer than you. If there's trust and psychological safety in the relationship, it's OK for the mentor to warn you about rules which you may not know about. You're also able to ask hypothetical questions without fear of being "downvoted" stackexchange-style-- there's no wrong question if the relationship has trust.

  • By breaking the rules. This is the best way to learn and even the most experienced and savvy people do it. Breaking rules is inevitable. Most of the time the transgressions of unwritten rules are minor things that are easily forgiven. As long as you don't break the same rule over and over, there should be no problem if you're gracious and not aggressive about the transgression. This is why behavioral interview questions focus so much on conflict, they're trying to gauge what you're like when things don't go smoothly (eg when an unwritten rule is broken). Are you self-aware and able to absorb criticism and judgement with grace? Can you learn from mistakes and not hold a grudge? If yes, then you can handle breaking some unwritten rules (and tolerate it when others do the same).

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    No “by observation?” – mxyzplk - SE stop being evil Nov 21 at 19:33
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    @mxyzplk-SEstopbeingevil, yes, I could have included that, but it's more or less conflated with experience. The more places you've experienced the more observations you have to draw upon. Observation takes time. That's why it's tied with experience. – teego1967 Nov 21 at 22:22
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    Before March 2020, I would have put "coffee" at number 1. Of course, that's not an option at the moment. – Jörg W Mittag Nov 22 at 11:35
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    Coffee is just an opportunity for #2. :) – chepner Nov 22 at 14:11
  • Thanks for the answer. It really helped me structure my approach. – mystic Nov 23 at 12:10
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By observation:

Do some googling, get an understanding of what unwritten rules are out there in the world, then see which of them fit with what you see of your new workplace/co-workers.


By asking:

In a 1-on-1 setting, at an appropriate point in your conversation/whatever you're doing, ask the person you're with "Hey, since I'm new, is there anything I should be aware of? Particular ways we do and don't do things? Anybody I should befriend or avoid? Any particular rules that tend to catch out new people?". Do that with several people and you'll very quickly get a good idea of what's going on.

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  • Is there a book or resource for "unwritten rules in software industry or corporate setups"? I would love to go through it. – mystic Nov 21 at 14:28
  • I like your questions for 1-on-1. – mystic Nov 21 at 14:28
  • @mystic Probably, but I'm sure you can google "Unwritten rules of [whatever]" and get a lot of possibilities very quickly. – Kaz Nov 21 at 14:53
  • "Anybody I should befriend or avoid": that's a very dangerous question, except if you know very well the person you are talking with and really trust them. – WoJ Nov 22 at 10:53
  • @WoJ It's dangerous to offer any opinion yourself, certainly. But innocently asking and seeing what response (if any) you get will tell you a lot of useful information. – Kaz Nov 22 at 12:21
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By mingling (knowing the new colleagues, speaking with them more and more, being nice with them and developing professional association), you can understand the unwritten rules.

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    Will you please extend your answer, explaining what you understand by "mingling" and why that helps? – virolino Nov 21 at 13:34
  • Not my downvote. The answer is actually good, but needs expansion. – virolino Nov 21 at 13:40
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    It's a very basic question, and this is an excellent answer to suich a question. (Word meanings can be instantly checked in any online dictionary these days.) – Fattie Nov 21 at 13:42
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    This is very slow and time consuming process. I think that I am looking for resources which can help speed up learning. There is chances that a very senior people will be fired before he get to understand the rules. – mystic Nov 21 at 14:30
  • @mystic Considering the cost of selecting and hiring a "very senior person" it is unlikely the company would fire them when the cause was simply ignorance of some local unwritten rules. – alephzero Nov 22 at 3:23
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The easy way to learn anything is to ask nicely. You will get a lot of information.

However, you have to be very careful when considering un-written anything - there might be very good reasons why it is not written. And the usual reason why rules are not written is that they are either immoral, unethical, or downright illegal. So it is very likely that nobody will tell you bout them.

So the best way is to always be cautious and politically correct. You might still hit an invisible rule occasionally and get hurt, but the chances are smaller if you are careful.

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    "And the usual reason why rules are not written is that they are either immoral, unethical, or downright illegal." I don't think this is true. In the cases I see rules are not written down, because the people who have the power to make rules (management) do not know what rules make sense, and the people who know what would be good rules (experienced developers) do not have the power to make them official. Furthermore there is a tendency to not make rules official, if they might be controversial and putting it into writing will invite discussions while making it inofficial will work too. – Helena Nov 21 at 13:54
  • Tricky part of these situation is when rules are "either immoral, unethical, or downright illegal". Nobody will tell you these rules because they don't want to be bad actors. I want to know if there is better way than trial and error. Things get become more tricky with remote setup during Covid pandemic when team cultures are not ready for remote. – mystic Nov 21 at 14:26
  • Thanks for the answer. It really helped me structure my approach. – mystic Nov 23 at 12:10

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