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Unwritten Rules, Sports Fandom and Company Culture

As culture continues to be a hot topic for human resources pros, I have a hard time grappling and explaining one of the most important parts of culture that aren’t defined by any one person in the company: unwritten workplace rules.

I worked at one place where nobody left company premises for lunch. This wasn’t in the handbook and there were a slew of restaurants within a mile of work (even a couple within easy walking distance). Other people have told me about places they’ve worked where nobody leaves before the boss leaves. You get the idea.

We often leave this out of the discussion when we talk about culture but it is a huge part of that and of other parts of our lives too (like taboo subjects to bring up during family get-togethers or air travel with smelly food). Or in this case, sports fandom.

If you’re a sports fan, you’ve inevitably met a certain type of fan. They’ve lived their entire lives in a place (often in a big enough city with 3–4 of the major sports) but they root for the Lakers, Yankees, Patriots, Red Wings and, worst of all, Duke basketball. No real connection to any of the teams. But if you ask the more traditional fan about this type of fan, it won’t elicit the most positive response.

Now to be clear, it isn’t against the law to just pick the best teams to root for out of thin air. But it is against some very sacred, unwritten rules of sports fandom.

People unaccustomed to sports fandom might be surprised that you can’t just pick the best team every year and just root for them to win, greatly increasing the chances that the team you root for will be successful. Enter the guy at your Superbowl party this weekend who was confused as to why you care about the outcome of the game if you aren’t a fan of either team. “It’s so illogical.”

Illogical? Perhaps. But they are as much a part of the game as hot wings, little smokies and at least one guy drinking a little too much. And go against those unwritten rules and you’ll face the wrath of your peers (like the one lady my mom’s age who decided to switch which team she was rooting for because the team she picked was doing poorly a couple of years ago).

Same thing is true of these unwritten rules at work. Walking out of work that first day to grab a bite to eat seems more logical than sitting and eating the light snack I brought and being hungry for the rest of the day. Looking back, it feels even more stupid now. But unwritten workplace rules that helps you navigate everything from getting decisions made, running through the bureaucracy of work or not getting on the bad side of the boss can make a big difference in your career. And when you’re the new jack in town, you cling to the first couple of co-workers who help translate those unwritten rules to you.

It seems silly that it’s even necessary. As silly as rooting for the same team for 30 years that has gotten close but hasn’t won the big game in your lifetime. No matter how silly it is though, these unwritten rules tie people and your workplace together and if you don’t understand them (and its impact on your culture), you’ll be in the dark. If you care about your business and the people there, you owe it to them to understand the hidden language that moves your organization.

By Lance Haun

Strategy for The Starr Conspiracy. Former HR pro. Portland guy (Go Blazers!) and WSU alum (Go Cougs!). I get to write about what I want here.

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