Early in her career, Kym Harris-Lee was invited by the vice president of human resources to join her at a meeting with the company president. Harris-Lee sat along side the vice president, injecting her thoughts and sharing ideas. She left that meeting feeling like she had nailed it until her manager let her know that the vice president was upset that Harris-Lee had spoken during the meeting. 

It turns out the vice president invited her to observe the meeting, not to participate but failed to share those expectations with Harris-Lee. “I learned from that experience and now I ask before any meeting,” says Harris-Lee, who is now an executive coach in Atlanta.

While Harris-Lee was able to rebound from her misstep, not every employee recovers from a stumble. Make enough blunders and suddenly there’s a narrative spreading around the office you’re not a good cultural fit. 

“We’ve all witnessed the knowing looks around that table that this person isn’t going to do well here,” says Caroline Stokes, founder of FORWARD, a Vancouver-based executive leadership coaching company and author of Elephants Before Unicorns: Emotionally Intelligent HR Strategies to Save Your Company. “Unwritten rules can disrupt, derail and trap even the most competent employees, sabotaging their success.”

That perception of not being a good cultural fit can wreak havoc with the employee’s self-confidence, causing them to second-guess themselves, Harris-Lee says, and can even result in the employee deciding to quit their job.

Career coaches offer five ways you can uncover the unspoken rules in your office.

1. Ask your boss

Don’t be shy about asking your manager about any unwritten rules, says Jennifer Tardy, CEO of Jennifer Tardy Consulting LLC, in Bowie, Md., a firm that offers recruitment training and career coaching. “You can ask your boss anything you want to ask, you just have to ask the right way,” she says. For instance, consider asking your manager, “Are you able to share what some of the unwritten rules for success are here?” Or ask, “What are some rules employees follow that maybe aren’t publicly written down in the handbook.” Use your colleagues and peers as resources as well. Ask them about the most common mistakes new hires make in their first six months, Harris says, as well as what missteps create the biggest headaches for new employees.

2. Seek out advice from other recent hires

Ask HR to introduce you to two or three people who have recently joined the organization and are thriving, Harris-Lee suggests. Ask about them about their experience at the firm so far and whether they’ve encountered any surprises since joining the organization. Find out what they wished had known during their first 60 days on the job.

3. Practice active listening

Don’t just take notes during meetings, listen carefully, ask questions and then paraphrase back what you hear, Stokes says. Don’t be afraid to say, “This is what I’m understanding. Please tell me if I’m wrong.” This will allow colleagues to correct any misunderstandings you might have about an assignment or company expectations, she says.

4. Seek advice from colleagues that hold the most coveted positions

Identify the most successful people in your organization and ask them about their career path, Tardy says. “If you listen to enough people in your organization, you will see patterns to how they got to the next level.” Employees often assume that every position will be posted for anyone to apply but that’s not always the case. Or you might assume that only team players who assist their colleagues are promoted but, in many corporate cultures, only employees who bring in a certain amount of new revenue will advance.

5. Read the room

Observe your colleagues and managers in meetings. Notice who is participating in the conversation and who is staying silent. “Sit back and watch the dynamic, and then check your interpretation with others to make sure you’re interpreting it correctly,” Harris-Lee says. 

Melissa Shahbazian, co-founder of Spark Insight Coaching in New York City, recommends keeping an observation journal by jotting down thoughts about any behaviors and interactions you witness. “Take on the role of the investigator,” she says. “Then name the elephant in the room and usher it out.”

Talk about what you’ve observed with a colleague or your manager even if it feels uncomfortable, says Sean-Nika Floyd, an HR business partner for wireless service Visible. “People have a tendency to stay silent or get defensive, and that allows the unwritten rules to perpetuate,” she says. 

While it’s common for everyone to encounter unwritten rules at work, it can be particularly difficult for people of color to learn what the unspoken rules are because colleagues tend to be less likely to share information with people they see as different from themselves, Harris-Lee says. Or they may hesitate to share advice if or they think the person receiving it could be offended, she says. Much of the anxiety caused by these unspoken rules could be mitigated if HR would simply share list of potential pitfall that new hires tend to stumble over in their first 30, 60 or 90 days, she adds.

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