Unwritten Rules

Why doing a good job might not be enough.

March 18, 2010
by Laura Sabattini, PhD and Sarah Dinolfo

In today’s business climate, getting ahead is tough for any professional — whether seasoned executive or entry-level. And while every organization has their rules and regulations, as mandated by handbooks, performance review procedures, or by senior leadership, others are left implicit — unwritten — for employees to decipher on their own. Those who do not have the tools to access this maze of “unwritten rules” and the important knowledge the rules provide, remain left out, no matter how competent they are.

Catalyst knows from prior research that some individuals, especially women and people of color, are often excluded from important informal networks in companies. Without access to influential “inner circles,” these individuals miss out on opportunities for development and the chance to piece together information about what it really takes to get ahead. The upshot? Both individuals and corporations lose out. Women and people of color don’t advance as far, as fast. Corporations don’t effectively use all the talent that is available to them.

For the first report in Catalyst’s series on this topic, Unwritten Rules: What You Don’t Know Can Hurt Your Career, we interviewed 65 women and men from a variety of industries, locations, and roles about the unwritten rules and how they had used these rules to develop and advance their careers. We learned that when it comes to career advancement, “just” doing a good job wasn’t enough. We uncovered a set of strategies — unwritten rules — that individuals deemed critical to their advancement. But the question remained whether those strategies work effectively for all women and men.

In the second report of the series, Unwritten Rules: Why Doing a Good Job Might Not Be Enough, we reveal findings from an online survey taken by nearly 700 respondents working in a variety of industries and workplaces, mostly across Canada, Europe and the United States. The majority held managerial positions and had more than five years of work experience. We asked them:

  • What unwritten rules for getting ahead were important at their current organization?
  • Which of the rules had they personally followed? Which rules did they wish they had known about from the very beginning of their career?
  • How did they learn about these unwritten rules?

The large and varied sample allowed us to delve into how individuals used unwritten rules and how they perceived them as important to advancing their career. We also were able to compare differences in the perception and use of unwritten rules among women and men of different racial/ethnic backgrounds. Based on the responses of the survey participants, the study revealed that:

In general, regardless of gender or race/ethnicity, respondents agreed that unwritten rules play a major role in career advancement. Respondents rated activities involving communication and feedback, performance and results, career planning, increasing visibility and relationship building as particularly important.

In terms of the strategies they had used in the past, participants were more likely to have focused on time-related strategies (e.g., working long hours) and on performance-related strategies (e.g., exceeding expectations) than on visibility and relationship building. The inconsistencies between what participants rated as important for advancement and what they had used in the past provide a learning opportunity for both individuals and organizations.

Women were more likely than men and, among women, women of color were more likely than white women, to rate “seeking visibility” as important. Compared to white women, women of color were also more likely to report having used other strategies that emphasize visibility and showcase job commitment, including explicitly “communicating their willingness to work long hours” and “face time.”

When it comes to learning about advancement strategies in the workplace, participants rated observation, seeking out mentors, and soliciting feedback as the ones they used most often. These approaches also emerged as the most effective ways to learn about unwritten rules for advancement.

Although a majority of respondents had learned unwritten rules through “trial and error,” this approach was not rated as particularly useful.

These and other findings can help individuals better understand advancement strategies in their own organization. In addition, diversity and inclusion professionals can gain insight into their own organizations’ cultures of unwritten rules and learn ways to increase transparency in communicating requirements for career advancement.

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Laura Sabattini, Ph.D., director, Women in Leadership Research, leads research related to women in leadership, talent management strategies, and barriers to women's corporate advancement. She is the co-leader of Catalyst’s Work-Life Issue Specialty Team. Sarah Dinolfo, senior associate, Research,  uses her Advisory Services experience to inform and conduct current research on several topics, including global talent management, the unwritten rules of advancement, generations, and men as diversity champions.

About Catalyst
Founded in 1962, Catalyst is the leading nonprofit membership organization working globally with businesses and the professions to build inclusive workplaces and expand opportunities for women and business. With offices in the United States, Canada, and Europe, and more than 400 preeminent corporations as members, Catalyst is the trusted resource for research, information, and advice about women at work. Catalyst annually honors exemplary organizational initiatives that promote women’s advancement with the Catalyst Award.