The Unwritten Rules of Business

Last Updated Aug 12, 2011 10:28 AM EDT

Sports have unwritten rules. In baseball, jogging slowly around the bases after hitting a home run, or stealing second with a 10-run lead, or cutting across the pitcher's mound on your way to the dugout are all violations. Breaking one can lead to bean balls and empty dugouts. Punishment is often swift and harsh.

Business has unwritten rules, too -- and violators often are often punished just as swiftly. Here are eight:
  1. Never dress above your position. I know -- dressing for success is important, acting like you're already in the job is the best way to get the job, etc. It's also the surest way to draw the not-so-friendly fire of colleagues or subordinates. Dress slightly "better" if you want -- but just slightly. Otherwise you'll be perceived as a shameless climber. The only time this doesn't apply is if you run your own business, but even then you should dress in a way that enhances your image while ensuring customers feel comfortable.
  2. Never show up a peer in a meeting. A colleague proposes an idea. It stinks. Not your job to say so, though. If you're a supervisor and another supervisor makes a terrible suggestion that doesn't affect your area or your employees, sit tight. Let someone else, preferably someone above you, shoot it down. Then jump in if you can to modify the idea so it is more workable, giving credit to the other supervisor for raising an important issue, of course. Bad ideas come and go, but professional relationships should be forever.
  3. Never sit by the CEO when he comes to visit. You walk into a conference room. The CEO, fresh off the plane, is there. Say hi, introduce yourself, and then sit at least two seats away. There are better ways to get face time. Plopping yourself down by the big guy (or gal) will do nothing for your career and everything to draw sideways glances and post-meeting sniping.
  4. Never use your position as an enabler. Here's a classic example. In many companies, how late you arrive for a meeting depends on where you stand on the food chain -- the higher you are the later you arrive and the less likely others are to complain, at least openly. Never use your position to enable discourteous, rude, or insensitive behavior. Everyone notices -- and everyone resents it.
  5. Never fail to two-way mentor. You have a mentor. Great! Mentors can provide motivation, be a source of ideas, provide counsel and guidance. So pass it on. Mentor someone below you. Otherwise everyone knows you take like a bandit but give like a miser. Think of it this way: You may aspire to someone's position, but at the same time someone aspires to yours. A sub-set of this rule: If you want a great mentor, first be a great mentor.
  6. Never "borrow" someone's idea. Business owner, CEO, supervisor, entry-level employee... doesn't matter. Always give credit where credit is due. Steal an idea and the victim never forgets. And don't fall back on the old, "Well, they work for me, and we're a team... so I was just raising the idea on behalf of the team." No one goes for that excuse but you.
  7. Never leave out the negatives. We all like sharing good news. Good news is interesting; bad news is critical. I like to know a shipment went out on time, but I need to know a shipment will be late so I can contact the customer and put other plans in place. (And speaking of customers, always share potential negatives as soon as possible -- the fewer surprises the better.) Positives are easy to deal with; negatives can make or break a business if the right people are not aware.
  8. Never talk when you don't have something to say. We've all known the guy who must speak in every meeting, even if he has nothing to add. (Okay, we've all known a lot of those guys.) You may think you need to contribute just to show you're involved; the rest of us know you're just talking to show you're important. And we think a lot less of you as a result. Think of words as something scarce; use them sparingly and only when they will make the most impact.
Those are some of mine -- what unwritten rules should be added to the list?

Read More: Photo courtesy flickr user Laura HB, CC 2.0
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    Jeff Haden learned much of what he knows about business from managing a 250-employee book manufacturing plant. Everything else he picked up from ghostwriting books for some of the smartest CEOs and leaders in business. He has written more than 30 non-fiction books, including four Business and Investing titles that reached #1 on Amazon's bestseller list. Follow him on Twitter at @Jeff_Haden.

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