What To Do When the Unwritten Rules Rule

Every company has two different sets of rules: the official rules written in the policy manual, and the unspoken rules that everyone actually follows.

A classic example is working hours. Company guidelines might say that quitting time is five o’clock. But if everyone else works till six and looks at you funny when you leave at five, you’ll pretty quickly start working till six.

Now, a more modern example involves flexible work arrangements, or FWA. Those are things like reduced working hours or working from home or job sharing. And anyone who’s worked in a corporate setting knows there’s a big difference between a company that has an FWA policy and one with a culture that actually allows employees to use those arrangements and feel good about it.

Most companies today have an FWA policy. But at some of those companies, the unwritten rules—the underlying culture that actually guides employee behavior—keep people from taking advantage of those policies. Sometimes there’s actually an overt effort on the part of management to discourage people from using them. More often, though, it’s less overt. Employees are just afraid they’ll be viewed as less committed to the company, and that their careers will suffer.

So, how do you make it clear that your organization’s culture is one that truly embraces FWA policies (or any other policy for that matter)? The answer is that you celebrate the people who use them properly by sharing their stories. For example, in June 2011, there was a Fortune 100 company that had a short video on their employee website telling the story of three employees at its San Jose office: Silvia, Annette, and Maria.

Silvia joined that office in March a year earlier as a cost accountant. She got married in November, and within three years had her first child. A couple of years later she and her husband were ready for another child. What they weren’t prepared for, though, was to find out they were having triplets!

All of a sudden, she had a house with four children under the age of three. Silvia had her hands full. So, she asked for an entire year of maternity leave, which her managers agreed to. But a working career was still an important part of her plan.

So, after all that time away from work, her boss let her come back in a role in her same area of expertise — even though they’d already filled her job. That way, she wouldn’t have to learn a whole new set of skills.

In addition to that, three days a week she got to work from home. That way she could be involved in the most intimate bonding moments with her children instead of hiring a full-time caregiver. On those days, Silvia could bathe her children in the morning, feed them at lunch, and still get all her work done in between.

Now, Annette and Maria had their own unique situations that required flexibility in work time or location. And, their stories were just as poignant, and the company’s FWA policies met their needs just as well. And to the thousands of employees who saw their stories on the company website, it was clear that the company they worked for not only has an FWA policy but also a culture that supports using it.

So, if your organization has a disconnect between the written rules and unwritten norms of behavior — in whatever area it is — find stories of people following the norms you want to foster and spread them across the company. And that’s how you’ll ensure people are following the rules you actually want them to follow.

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Source: Lead with a Story: How to Craft Business Narratives that Captivate, Convince, and Inspire, by Paul Smith.

Paul Smith is one of the world’s leading experts on business storytelling. He’s a keynote speaker, storytelling coach, and bestselling author of the books Lead with a StoryParenting with a Story, and Sell with a Story.

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