What Are The Unwritten Ground Rules At Your Workplace?

What Are The Unwritten Ground Rules At Your Workplace?
Any large workplace will have policy documents that cover everything from who cleans the kitchen to what you’re allowed to look at online. However, surviving (let alone thriving) in the job requires knowledge of the rules that aren’t written down.

Picture by goincase

Cultural theorist and conference presenter Steve Simpson developed the concept of unwritten ground rules, or UGRs, to cover the undocumented rules that tend to develop in workplaces. Simpson (who was a guest presenter at this week’s Gartner Security Summit in Sydney) suggests that these UGRs can usually be expressed in the form of sentences beginning with the phrase “Around here”. Typical examples include:

  • “Around here, no-one leaves the office until the boss does.”
  • “Around here, it isn’t worth complaining at our meetings because nothing will get done anywhere.”
  • “Around here, the only time anyone gets spoken to by the boss is when something goes wrong.”
  • “Around here, customers are a pain in the rear.”

While many of the attitudes expressed in UGRs might seem undesirable, identifying them is a useful strategy. If you want to change them, you need to know what they are. If you’re not in a position to change them, at least you can work around them.

But how do you go about identifying the UGRs when you take on a new job? Simpson offers some useful suggestions. Non-work settings such as visits to the pub can help reveal details, but your colleagues may be wary of sharing those ideas initially, especially since UGRs often run contrary to “good” corporate behaviour. Conversely, they may not realise which UGRs are actually in place.

Observing behaviour on the job is useful, Simpson said. “Meetings are a really good litmus test. Is the meeting one way information dissemination, or do people actually contribute? And what is said immediately after the meeting?”

Time-keeping is another area where UGRs can readily be identified. “See if a 10am meeting starts on time,” Simpson said. “And note the reactions: If you arrive at 10am, does that demonstrate you’re not busy enough? In the same way, if it’s officially a 5pm finish but everyone is still there at 630, is the first person to leave at 20 to 7 frowned upon?”

What UGRs are in place at your workplace, and how do you deal with them? Offer them your insights in the comments.


  • I love the layout of the office in the picture!

    “Around here, it isn’t worth complaining at our meetings because nothing will get done anywhere.”

    At my old workplace, I developed a bit of a reputation for breaking this rule. I gave it to them exactly as it was. My colleagues loved me for it, but management saw me as a pain in the butt.

  • This, like many other management-driven exercises, isn’t an easily explained or understood concept.

    We only very recently did a round of UGRs where I work, and very few people actually understand the purpose behind it.

    What, seriously, was the point of first capturing a bunch of negative UGRs and then making the staff rewrite them as positive UGRs? We even have UGR champions here!

    “Around here, our managers parade new bullsh*t while we pretend to understand it.”

    • Hi Dan

      Steve Simpson here!

      Dan – I agree with you totally – identifying the negative UGRs, then simply paraphrasing these into positives will do very little to change the culture. In fact, simply doing this may make matters worse, as people will become even more cynical about attempts to change the culture.

      The REAL trick is to get people’s buy-in into a key set of positive UGRs (limited in number to no more than six or so). Now the work begins. Once these have been agreed to, a range of strategies need to be implemented to help embed those positive UGRs.

      Talk is cheap and easy. Changing behaviours in line with the positive UGRs is something else!

      • Hi Steve,

        I hear you, but introducing yet another management “flavour of the month” (trust games anyone?) is not the way to induce culture shift.

        Until a leader actually DOES something, it’s all just words on paper (or a Powerpoint slide, as the case may be).

        Consider the language you’ve used: “buy-in”, “key set of positive UGRs”, “range of strategies”, “to be implemented”, “embed those positive UGRs”.

        This is all management jargon and, to the worker who just wants recognition for doing a great job, offer very little comfort.

      • Hi,

        I agree with Steve’s comments. There is no value in writng up a series of positive UGR’s if you do absolutely nothing with them. Condoning bad behaviour and attitudes seems to be the norm in many organisations. The real challenge is stepping forward and saying NO. There are very few people prepared to stand out in the crowd for fear of retribution. It is a shame, because we all understand what is right yet we allow what is wrong to permeate the life blood of our organsiations and then we ‘bitch’ about it without having contributed to making a change.

  • A good set of agreed values and behaviours can formalise UGRs, or at least mitigate the impact of negative UGRs. Setting values and behaviours can work well in a small organisation where there is an opportunity to come to a consensus about shared values. It is much harder in a large organisation where there is no process around agreement and the output can become quickly-ignored platitudes.

  • UGRs, what a novel concept, here i am at uni being told this was part of a subject area called org culture, with solid research going back decades, silly me. cant wait till the next class and i can tell the lecturer how wrong they are. LOL

  • I agree with Mark. Isn’t this concept of UGR’s just a vocalisation of the organisational culture concept we all learnt at university? While I think it IS a good way to discover the culture of your organisation, a nod to the bigger picture of org culture by the author would probably be appropriate here.

  • Around here, you go to work, do a really good job and get rewarded appropriately. No scheming and conniving, no dodgy office politics, no hidden agendas.

    I’m joking of course……

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