Humans are creatures of habit. There is no getting around it. Engineers tend to be more anal than the average human and therefore, Engineers are curators, cultivators, and consumers of routine. So when someone parks in my parking spot at work, I get upset. Today, when I got back from lunch, I became upset as my space was taken. Now it should be pointed out at this point in the story that there are no defined or reserved parking spaces at the company I work at and since the lot is only used for employees of this company, it is not like we will run out of spots or that whomever gets there first couldn’t pick any open space available. Still, someone was in my space. So what advice can I provide a new Engineer other than to simply stay out of my parking space that I don’t own or logically have any claim against? How about we step away for a breather for a few innings and find out?
Baseball is a game of rules, stats, and numbers. Baseball consists of mere seconds of action surrounded by long periods of staring, stretching, crotch adjustments, and stare downs. The “Official Baseball Rules” are contained in a 188 page document that is downloadable from the MLBs official website here. Setting aside the amazing, energetic, persuasive, and adrenaline-inducing intro that was just made a few sentences above – baseball is an amazing mental battle between opposing forces. Are you unsure as to how that conclusion was reached when all it looks like is a bunch of grown men throwing a ball around and trying to hit it with a stick?
The strategy of baseball is shown during every pitch, every hit ball, and every pitching change. Pitchers study opposing batters before a game to learn tendencies and pitches that a player might struggle with. Catchers and pitchers flash covert signals back a forth to determine and verify the type of pitch to throw. Hitters and coaches communicate through camouflaged signals to figure out where to try and hit the ball or whether to simply swing or stand there and watch the ball go whizzing by. There is a huge amount of mental consideration that goes into each and every action on a baseball field.
In between the official rules, the graphics on the scoreboard, the vendors slinging cracker-jacks in the crowd, and the secret communications networks bouncing around all of there players there is a hidden and tacit code being followed. The unwritten rules of baseball are universal, although enforcement can vary depending on the circumstances. These are not secret and hidden rules – there is even a wikipedia page (WPC Score: 5) calling out many of them.
The intent of these unwritten rules are intended to establish certain conduct expectations for sportsmanship. Some of them deal directly with sportsmanship and player behavior. Others attempt to define boundaries for strategic efforts and there are numerous unwritten rules that can only be defined as superstitious antics and expressions (or lack thereof) to attempt to make or prevent something from happening. Take a no-hitter for example. If you are not familiar with baseball, a no-hitter is an entire baseball game where a team is unable to get a single hit. It is a difficult feat to accomplish and, on average, only occurs about twice every year. There are unwritten rules about no-hitters. If you would happen to find yourself pitching a no-hitter then you might start to feel very lonely as the game progresses – there is an unwritten rule to not talk to a pitcher in the midst of a possible no-hitter so as to not jinx the effort. If you are a batter in a no-hitter it is very much against the unwritten rules to bunt just to prevent the no-hitter from reaching completion.
Setting baseball aside – what unwritten rules might exist in your workplace? Every place of business is different and we don’t have a big professional sports league spread across many cities to use as a unifying force for a general repository of unwritten workplace rules. Circumstances and situations, business practices and locations all create differences in what unwritten rules may exist. However – the one constant is that unwritten rules will exist wherever you work.
So what is an unwritten rule in the workplace? Let’s start with my parking space. Depending on the culture, location, and methods of the business you work for and your own personal habits – this may or may not be relevant to you. This may not even fall into the category of an unwritten rule. At the place I currently work it doesn’t pass the unwritten rule test. Let’s take a minute and define what that test it. This is important to determine if it is a personal peeve or irritation or if it is actually is a company, or department, or team-wide unwritten rule.
- Is the rule in your official Employee Handbook or other company documentation? If it is, then it isn’t an unwritten rule mainly due to the fact that it has been written down and called out. Therefore, the rule cannot be in any official documentation
- Is the rule common knowledge and manages to get communicated to pretty much every member of the organization or team over time? It can’t be an unwritten rule if only a couple of people are following it and get irritated when someone else doesn’t follow-it because they don’t know what it is
- Is there some sort of follow-up when the rule is broken? In baseball breaking an unwritten rule can lead to anything from someone being pulled aside and having the rule explained to them, to a pitcher plunking a batter with a pitch, to an all out team vs team brawl. Is this a rule that ends in someone taking some action as a response? This could be as small as pulling aside the offender and communicating the rule all the way up to someone getting let go if a particularly bad manager’s unwritten rule gets broken
This last item, an unwritten rule causing someone to lose their job, is a very serious consequence for breaking something that for the most part goes unstated and undefined. It definitely begs the question – are unwritten rules worth it? In baseball there are certainly examples of very negative unwritten rules. The baseball color line, also referred to as the color barrier, was an unwritten rule that “in American baseball excluded players of black African descent from Major League Baseball and its affiliated Minor Leagues until 1947″ (Wikipedia: Baseball Color Line. WPC Score: 8). An unwritten office rule of not shooting the boss in the face with a nerf dart or he will fire you isn’t nearly as socially or culturally significant, but can have a major impact on an individual’s life if you happened to be the very unlucky person to have an errant shot slip through the crack in the office door and attempt to make a pirate out of your boss.
The good news is that while there are some extreme examples of discord resulting from unwritten rules, the majority of examples are nowhere near that dire. Per Wikipedia, “The unwritten rules of baseball are meant to establish certain behavioral thresholds for sportsmanship.” In a similar fashion, the unwritten rules of the workplace serve to establish and maintain certain aspects of the unique and hopefully positive culture that you share with your teammates. They are guidelines to manage some of the myriad interactions and conflicts that inevitably arise as you spend time with other people.
Even though the unwritten rules that pertain to your specific company and situation will vary, there are many that you should consider even if they haven’t been communicated to you yet or aren’t part of the current rule set at your job. One big category here could fall under a heading of simply being a good person at work. Clean up after yourself if making food or coffee or a snack and please be aware of what smells you are introducing into a common gathering area when bringing in leftovers to reheat for lunch. Don’t steal someone else’s food from the fridge. Wash your hands after going to the bathroom and try and leave the bathroom cleaner than when you found it. Your mom doesn’t work there and isn’t going to cleanup that paper towel that you just dropped on the bathroom floor.
Other unwritten rules could be considered subsets of actual rules as laid out in the official Employee Handbook. What does flex time really mean? It is a topic that is almost never explicitly spelled out and therefore the application of this typically falls under the unwritten rule to determine how your workplace views flex time when it is actually put into practice. As this post is intended as Engineer advice you are most likely salaried and therefore may not have to punch a clock every day. So when does your work day actually end and when is it acceptable to jet out at the end of the day? Email responses – don’t hit reply all to a company-wide email. Just. Don’t. Do. It. Dress code. All of these have hidden unwritten rules underlying the official company line as called out in the handbook. Even though the dress code states that shorts are acceptable, wearing them when it is 20 degrees outside may trigger an unwritten rule and cause someone to prompt you to go buy a pair of pants.
Is it justified to feel frustration when someone is parked in what I personally view as my parking spot? Even though the person that parks next to me on a daily basis has both commiserated with me and vented themselves when someone takes one of our perceived spots, my parking scenario doesn’t pass the litmus test of a true unwritten rule. When spot stealing occurs we don’t take any action to communicate and propagate the rule forwards, we both simply complain about it and move on. However, unwritten rules occur at every workplace and on every team. They are important guidelines for setting and maintaining culture and making interactions smoother and easier. YMMV as to what unwritten rules exist in your workplace, but if you want to be the best Engineer and teammate that you can be it is in your best interests to both learn and help others with these rules. And don’t forget to keep them verbal – the first rule of unwritten rules is to not write them down!