'Working Wounded': Unwritten Rules

DEAR WOUNDED: I know how things are supposed to work in my company. But it's clear to me that there are also a lot of unwritten rules. How do you learn what gives outside of the personnel manual and operating policies?

ANSWER: Everything that I needed to know about the unwritten rules at work I learned from Mr. Mamadou Obotimbe Diabikile. He was shot by police and arrested after he tried to rob the Mali Development Bank in Bamako, Mali. Part of the reason that he was shot was that his movements were hindered by the seven pounds of magic charms he was wearing to make himself invisible.

Unwritten rules at work are like those magic charms. As much as they may seem invisible, there are often tell-tale signs of their existence. You've just got to be aware enough to look for them. I've listed some questions below to help you identify the unwritten rules where you work. For more, check out "Survival of the Savvy" by Brandon and Seldman (Free Press, 2005).

What are the official rules? OK, your company personnel manual might not be the most scintillating summer reading, but it could be some of the most valuable. In addition, read your company's annual report and any published operating policies. Study the organizational chart. Read company publications. All of these can provide a glimpse of how the company likes to think things get done.

How does management behave? Most employees have a Ph.D. in studying their boss. So this should be nothing new. But it is important to see how they behave and how they maneuver through the bureaucracy. Sure they'll always have an easier go of it, but you can almost always learn a trick or two by watching how they get things done.

What behaviors are rewarded and acted upon? This is the best part of capitalism; organizations tend to reward certain kinds of behavior with pay increases, bonuses and other bennies. Keep a look out for exactly what gets rewarded in your organization. Another tool is to see what kind of behaviors get budget, staff and firepower assigned to them. Although the official line may be that the company cares about A, B & C, in the words of Deep Throat, (or at least the movie character) "follow the money" and you just may see that it really values X, Y & Z.

What is the culture of the industry? In addition to company rules there are industry practices that you should factor into the equation.

Do you talk to the successful people you know? In these days of e-mail many of us are getting more removed from our co-workers. It is important to take the time to pick the brains of the people that you know are successful. Often this can be achieved for a cup of coffee or a beer.

Keep an eye out for the unwritten rules where you work and you'll never need to rob a bank to get ahead, you'll be laughing all the way to one.

We'd like to hear your strategy for learning how things really get done at your company. I'll give an autographed copy of "Working Wounded: Advice that adds insight to injury" (Warner, 2000) to the best submission. Send your entry, name & address via: http://workingwounded.com or via e-mail: bob@workingwounded.com. Entries must be received by Wednesday (July 13).

Online Ballot and Contest

Here are the results from a recent workingwounded.com/ABCnews.com online ballot:
How would you describe your stress level at work?

       Laid back, 17.4 percent
       Stressed, 52.1 percent
       A heart attack waiting to happen, 30.3 percent

Winning Strategy

Our winning strategy for dealing with stress comes from LW in Newton, N.C.:

"I use what our grandparents and parents used to tell us when we were in elementary school and days seemed to drag by: "Just wait till you're older. Time will fly." I recently practiced this at the doctor's office, and it applies at work. Why stress over what's going on or coming? In a few minutes, it will be next week. It worked!"

List of the Week

The minority is the majority…How minorities feel about today's workplace

      Between 1994 and 2005, 51 percent of new U.S. workers were minorities.

      Only 22 percent of black women say their managers are adequately trained in managing a diverse work force.

      Nearly one-third of Hispanic female executives say they have faced ethnic discrimination at work.

      One-third of new immigrants to the United States are from Asia, and their rate of employment matches that of whites.

Source: Steve Morris Associates

Bob Rosner is a best-selling author, speaker and internationally syndicated columnist. His newest best seller, "GRAY MATTERS: The Workplace Survival Guide" (Wiley, 2004), is a business comic book that trades cynicism for solutions. Ask Bob a question: bob@workingwounded.com or http://graymattersbook.com.

ABCNEWS.com publishes a new Working Wounded column every Friday.

This work is the opinion of the columnist and in no way reflects the opinion of ABC News.