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by ERIN WHITE | March 10, 2009


For six months after starting a new job a few years ago, project-management executive Lyria Charles didn't check her email over the weekend. Finally, a colleague explained that employees were expected to read email over the weekend. "I didn't know," she says. "No one told me."

Learning a workplace's customs can be a major challenge. Regardless of prior work experience, people often struggle to discern protocols, etiquette and culture when they change employers. "It's like going to a different country," says Michael Kanazawa, chief executive of Dissero Partners LLC, an Oakland, Calif., management-consulting firm. "There are cultural norms of behavior that go way beyond what anybody would have the capability to write in a job description."

One big issue: Tolerance for questioning the boss. Some companies encourage it, believing that confrontation can generate sharp, creative thinking. Other companies consider disagreement inappropriate and disrespectful.

Even mundane issues can present hazards, such as how much to lean on administrative support. In some companies, managers have assistants book travel arrangements. If a manager booked travel himself, higher-ups would think he was wasting time. At other firms, managers are expected to book their own travel. Asking for help would violate the company's self-reliant culture.

Ben Dattner, a principal with Dattner Consulting LLC, an organizational-effectiveness consulting firm, cautions that there can be lasting consequences to breaking unwritten rules. Co-workers may label the newcomer as an outsider who doesn't fit into the corporate culture. "You're stuck in your old culture, or you're not going to get it, or you're the new person, so you're not meant to be taken seriously," he says.

Career experts urge newcomers to take advantage of their "grace period" by asking lots of questions in their first months on the job. It may feel embarrassing, but it's worse to remain ignorant a year later. "Don't pretend not to be ignorant," Dr. Dattner says. "You're going to get in much more trouble."

Another effective strategy is close observation. Watch others and follow their lead. Newcomers should also try to enlist a friend or office assistant from whom they can seek guidance. Newcomers can ask those people to alert them when they've unknowingly violated an unwritten rule.

Ms. Charles discovered many unwritten rules when she left her employer of seven years, a California consulting firm, for a technology company in northern Virginia. Her new post was a vice president job, directly supervising about 12 project managers. During her first week, she asked her assistant to set up meet-and-greets with some of her staffers. When she checked the schedule, she was surprised to see that her assistant had arranged the meetings at the subordinates' cubicles -- not Ms. Charles' office.

"'That's how it's done,"' Ms. Charles recalls her assistant telling her. Ms. Charles was grateful for the guidance. "If I had done the reverse and insisted they come to my office, that would have set a tone of 'You don't really understand how things work here and you're not a team player.' " Realizing her assistant could be a valuable guide, Ms. Charles asked her help deciphering corporate politics.

Ms. Charles learned other mores through careful observation, or trial and error. She noticed that co-workers preferred to send instant messages to colleagues before calling them, to see if the person could chat just then. She learned about weekend email-checking after missing an email requesting her approval on a project task. Ms. Charles didn't see it until Monday. Her delayed response didn't cause big problems, but it prompted a friend to explain the company ritual.

Kevin Hall started a new job as a mortgage banker about 18 months ago. He'd previously worked at another financial organization. His new job involved a lot of travel, and at first he made his arrangements himself. About three months into the job, he found himself bogged down with booking details.

He noticed that some higher-up executives sometimes asked the receptionists if they could help with travel arrangements. Mr. Hall wasn't sure he was allowed to do that as well, but he approached some of the administrative staffers to ask for help. Some said it wasn't part of their job, but others were happy to help. "You feel your way as you go," he says. "I'm still learning new things, but the learning curve has slowed down."


Filed Under: Workplace Issues

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