74. Workplace Norms: What’s “Normal” in the Workplace, anyway?

Workplace norms are those rules, behaviors and ways of going that define how we work together.  When teams discuss and define their norms, they create safe workplaces for folks to succeed. When we are unaware of our workplace norms, we can fall prey to unspoken rules about professionalism, duty, work, etc that are difficult to navigate; frequently confusing and often rooted in sexism and racism.


Norms are essentially expectations of the group and can be conscious and formal, or unconscious and informal. A couple of examples of group norms at work include the expectation that all members show up at group meeting times, that all group members focus on the group instead of personal matters (for example, turning cell phones and other distractions off), and that group members finish their part of the work by the established due date. Norms are also expectations such as don’t disagree with the boss or don’t ask your assistant to perform personal errands for you.

Gender norms are particularly problematic at work.  Gender norms are learned in the home and reinforced in school, at work, in our institutions and in our social interactions.  They perpetuate power differentials and equality and often negatively impact women.

Norms around race, while more complicated, are created similarly to the way gender norms are created.  White norms often define what is “professional” at work – in everything from hair to grammar.  Defining professional as primarily white cultural norms excludes and separates people from other cultures from the workplace.

Norms do have a positive side – they simplify group process – when we know the “rules” we know how to act and do not have to guess.  

There are two kinds of workplace norms – technical norms and social norms.  Technical norms focus on skills and information and are communicated by policies, procedures and rules.  Social norms guide interactions, particularly with regard to conflict, challenge, accountability and disagreement. Social norms are transmitted through observation or trial and error.  For example, not disagreeing with the boss is learned by observing not from the employee handbook. 

Workplace norms change over time, which is good because there are some workplace norms that need to change.  Top candidates for change include getting rid of long and painful meetings, mandatory afterwork events, set work hours, coming to work sick, work – life separation and micromanaging.  What would you add?


4. Establishing and Maintaining Group Norms

Politics, love & slacking: Managing new workplace norms | HR Morning

7 Workplace Norms That Need to End in the New Normal (idesign.com)

The Bias of ‘Professionalism’ Standards (ssir.org)