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Unwritten rules are worse than bad written ones.

“That is just the way things work around here.”
“They should have known.”

Have you ever heard these phrases at work? As a team you have implicit norms about how you work together and the way you do things. You’re probably not even aware of these norms on a day to day basis. But just think about these questions:

  • How long should you come to the office each day?
  • If you aren’t feeling well, is it okay to work from home?
  • Do you need to show up on time to meetings or is it okay to be a few minutes late?
  • What is a reasonable amount of time to respond to an email?

As a leader, you are setting a culture whether you acknowledge it or not. And I want you to acknowledge it, for the sake of your team and the success of your business. I want you to be intentional about these unwritten rules, because it is better to have badly written rules than no rules at all.

Why I hate unlimited vacation policies…

 This blog post came out of a recent realization I had: unlimited vacation policies are bad for everyone.

Why? Because even if the policy is “unlimited” no one is really going to take more vacation days than work days, and so in every one of these organizations there exists an unwritten expectation of what is reasonable.

Instead of this being liberating and a good thing, it actually punishes the people who would rather have money than time off (I was always one of these people, so I speak from personal experience).

Maybe it is because I loved my work, but I always stacked and accumulated my vacation so I could cash it out at the end of the year, or when I left the company. I would rather have the cash than the time off. This isn’t possible with unlimited vacation – there is no cash equivalent to days you don’t take off, so you are removing the decision and choice for some of your hardest working people.

Really though, the problem here isn’t just about giving people time off when they need it or giving people the option to cash out. Instead, the problem is that with an “unlimited” policy, there isn’t a clear expectation around how much time off is reasonable.

Can I take a month off to travel and then a couple of weeks for the holidays? What about the guy who doesn’t want to take any time off? Am I going to be seen as less committed to the company than he is?

Where is the line of what is reasonable? And if you have a culture where taking a month of to travel is the norm, then a lot of people will take a lot of time off. And if you have hired a bunch of workaholics (like the ones that tend to inhabit most startups) then you may end up with a culture where even 1 week of paternity leave is seen as too much time off.

It is much better to have a clear policy and make exceptions for the guy who wants 3 months to go hike across the US, than to have an unwritten policy with implicit expectations around it.


You have unwritten policies and they are determining your culture.

Even if you don’t have unlimited vacation or other trendy-but-confusing perks, you absolutely still have unwritten cultural rules at play in your office. The hours people work, the way decisions are made, and even the process around how things get done have all sort of connotations.

If it is acceptable to have all your meetings start late, you may not realize it, but you are wasting time. If you go to 3 meetings a day and they start 10 minutes late, you have burned 30 minutes of your day. And if you have more meetings, the impact is even larger.

KateS once told me that the real secret of time management is knowing what to do with a free hour  – but what if the people on your team are wasting that hour? These things add up.

And even if you don’t buy into the productivity benefits, starting things late doesn’t show respect for the meeting organizer or other attendees. Do you really want a company culture where disrespect is the normal modus of operation?


What should you do?

The first step to solving the unwritten expectations in your company is to acknowledge that they exist. Start by identifying what implicit norms exist and deciding as a group if they are good ones.

Sometimes the current way of doing things is actually a good one, and making it explicit can help everyone understand the expectations (which is super helpful for new folks). If they are negative things you want to change, an explicit policy can help here too. Otherwise you are setting people up to fail, because the rules aren’t clear but everyone still has certain expectations. It is not fair to your team to leave them guessing; tell them what they should and shouldn’t be doing.

The key is having these uncomfortable conversations regularly. And they probably will be uncomfortable, because unwritten rules tend to be unwritten for a reason.


Setup a “what implicit expectations do we need to work on” meeting


Gather your team together, or use your next team meeting to talk about these topics.

While your agenda will depend on your company, here are some questions to get you thinking about potential discussion topics:

  • If someone new joined the company, how would you explain our company culture?
  • What is our meeting culture? Is it a good one?
  • If you want to know the answer to a question, what is the best way to ask it (email, in-person, by picking up the phone, etc.)?
  • When was everyone’s last vacation? Do people feel like they can take time off?
  • How do we feel about working from home? If someone works remotely what should they do so everyone is aware they are working (send an email, be available on chat, etc.)?
  • If you aren’t feeling well is it better to come in, work from home, or take the day off?
  • How are we making decisions?
  • How do we handle mistakes? What is our protocol for escalating problems?


Nobody wants to be the annoying boss who says everyone can only have 3 weeks of vacation. Unlimited vacation is an easy solution that makes you feel like the cool leader we all secretly hope we are. But as a leader, it is not your job to be cool; it is your job to create an environment where your people can thrive, and part of that is setting rules and boundaries that they can operate successfully within. You need to be deliberate about the culture you want to create.
If you want everyone to take vacation, then give them the amount of time you want them to take and make it expire each year. Then they know what is expected and can take advantage of it. If you want to give people the option of choosing cash instead of time off, decide what makes sense for your bottom line and let people make their own choice.

If you want meetings to start on time, always be punctual yourself. Wrap your meetings on time and give yourself enough time to get to the next one. If people realize that the meeting will start without them, and they want to be there, they will start showing up on time.

Make this review part of your team process. Don’t leave your culture dynamics implicit.

Tags: company culture, leadership, unlimited vacation, unwritten rules,

2 Responses to “Company culture: unwritten rules are worse than badly written ones”

  1. Stephen Purpura

    Context Relevant has a vacation policy that states that you are expected to take at least 3 weeks off per year but you are also expected to work out with your manager the appropriate amount of time off such that you can get your job done and remain a balanced social member of the community. We explicitly say that we’re not going to pay people to work every day of the year because we want you to get out of the office and appreciate perspective.

    While we demand that you find a way to complete your commitments at work, we also require that you leave the office if you are sick and we want you taking care of your children/family when the need arises without feeling guilty if you leave work. Frankly, your family is more important than your job and we don’t want people in the company that can’t find a way to take care of both without guilt or shame. There is no shame for leaving the office. Only for failing to find a way to meet one’s commitments.

    I didn’t implement this policy to be a cool boss; being cool is the least important aspect of my brand. I implemented the policy because I am not a babysitter. Each person needs to opt in to take responsibility for understanding their job, how to effectively get it done, and how to spend time with their friends, family, and detoxing from the stressful environment of tech. And the solution is different for every person, which is easily accommodated.

    • katemats

      I love this policy. I think the important thing is that you made one – but the thing I like most is that you are focusing on commitments and results.

      And I bet you are a cool boss :)