The Unwritten Rules of Work Etiquette

Play by the rules and no one gets hurt, kid.

Play by the rules and no one gets hurt, kid.

If you haven't seen it yet, you've got to check out this piece that recently went viral on the rules of language that we observe without even knowing it. This blew my mind:

“Adjectives in English absolutely have to be in this order: opinion-size-age-shape-colour-origin-material-purpose Noun. So you can have a lovely little old rectangular green French silver whittling knife. But if you mess with that word order in the slightest you’ll sound like a maniac. It’s an odd thing that every English speaker uses that list, but almost none of us could write it out.”

Clap...clap...what an observation! Well done, Mr. Forsyth.

It got me thinking about the unwritten rules we follow at work without asking why, so I put together a list of the ones I've noticed over the years. I'd love to hear of more in the comments if you have any others.

Nothing flattens hierarchies like market feedback.
— Jeff Bezos


  1. Group e-mails are addressed to recipients in descending order of rank. Think about it: If you were sending an email to a bunch of people and then remembered it should also go to the CEO, would you enter in the CEO's address at the end of the distribution list? Not a chance. You'll move the cursor to the front of the line and then enter his or her address so it shows up first. No one ever trained us to do this, but we all do it. I don't know why we do, but if you ever feel like sticking it to someone passive-aggressively, put them in a lower order than they should be on the distribution list of an e-mail. They'll get the message.
  2. After the first hello of the day, switch to tight-lip-arched-eyebrow nods. It would be majorly weird to greet someone by saying, "Hi, John" five times in a row. You'd seem like you had amnesia. Instead, almost all of us do the pursed lip, eyebrow arch grimace instead. How that became the standard is unclear, but it is universal. Most of also build back up from the grimace-hello to a verbal "Hey," and then only after a few hours have passed are we comfortable saying the person's name again. That's just the way it is.
  3. The two-tone collared shirt is for serious ballers only. Gentlemen, you really need to be the most powerful person in the room to wear this shirt at the office, and probably the most powerful person in the building to be safe. Don't even think about it unless you're at the executive level. Even if you are the boss, tread carefully. I think you should need a black card just to be allowed to buy this shirt. What's funny is that almost all men understand this and steer clear of this shirt until they're ready, but a few miss the memo. Watching somebody wear this who isn't at that level yet is like watching a basketball player go up for a dunk only to get stuffed by the rim.
  4. When ordering a drink with your boss, don't order a stronger class of drink then they do. We'll get into my tips for successful work drinking soon, but generally speaking, when getting a casual drink with the boss, it's expected that you order at their drink class or milder in terms of alcohol content. If the boss orders a light beer or a glass of wine and you order a scotch, it makes things feel off balance. Later at night or at a party this rule is relaxed, as it is when you become more senior. But suffice to say if you're on the young side of 30, this rule is almost always instinctively observed by people.
  5. When calling in sick, people expect you to mention symptom - unless it's gastrointestinal. It seems a little weak, even suspect when someone says, "I'm not feeling well - won't be in today." As a result, most people will disclose if they have a migraine, sore throat, threw out their back, whatever. But no one in the world wants to hear about gastrointestinal issues, and everyone knows this. Telling people you've been vomiting all night is pushing it. Telling people you have diarrhea should be a dismissable offense. (A foreign colleague of mine once sent me an email saying they'd be out for that reason. I had to go wash my hands after reading it I was so disturbed.) And related to that...
  6. No eye contact or hellos of any kind are necessary in the restroom. Common rules of etiquette simply do not apply in the men's room (I can't speak for women). If you're washing your hands and someone comes out of a stall and starts washing their hands right next to you, it is perfectly acceptable to make no eye contact and not acknowledge their existence in the slightest way. This is the only place and situation I know of where you can stand two feet from someone you know and the polite response is to act like they're invisible.

I'd love to hear of other ones you've noticed. Happy halfway  point in the week!