Anyone who follows sports, even on a casual basis, has heard about “unwritten rules.” But the problem with unwritten rules is that sometimes they can be subject to different interpretations and standards. This is because, well, the obvious reason that they aren’t written down for everyone to see.

Take the baseball series this past weekend between the Boston Red Sox and Baltimore Orioles. The Orioles’ Manny Machado took out Dustin Pedroia of the Red Sox on a somewhat aggressive slide at second base, which resulted in Pedroia being injured and missing the last few games and perhaps more. This happened last Friday. In the eighth inning of Sunday’s game, Red Sox reliever Matt Barnes threw at Machado’s head, in what clearly was retribution for the slide. Machado was none too happy, for obvious reasons. Video caught a fascinating exchange between Machado and Pedroia immediately after the attempted beaning, which Pedroia further expanded upon in a post-game interview. In short, Pedroia disagreed with his own teammate, stating that any retribution should have been done right away (i.e., during Saturday’s game) and not in the latter innings of a game two days later. Specifically, Pedroia stated it was a “mishandled situation.”

So according to Pedroia, the unwritten rules of baseball say retribution should be taken right away, not days later when the hitter assumes everything is OK and gets comfortable in the batter’s box. But Red Sox reliever Barnes obviously thought differently. And Machado clearly didn’t agree with not only the timing of the retribution but the fact that it was aimed at his head. Of course, I’ve heard the head is not the appropriate target, but that right in the middle of the back is OK. Others state you should only aim below the belt. Everyone got that?

How about the NBA? Earlier this month, words were exchanged when JaVale McGee of the Golden State Warriors took a three-point shot at the end of a blowout, causing much anger from members of the opposing Washington Wizards. A few nights later, Toronto Raptors players got all upset when Lance Stephenson of the Pacers scored a layup in the last seconds of a lopsided win, calling it disrespectful and classless. Yet a member of this same Raptors team threw down a highlight windmill dunk last year with time running out at end of a game when they were up 22 points. Huh?

These are just a few examples. There are multitudes of “unwritten rules” in sports, too many to list here. And almost all of them at some point can have different iterations, variations, or perspectives depending on whom you ask. When it comes to the expectations within your workplace, the existence of unwritten rules can cause similar havoc:

  • Don’t just say you have an open-door policy–include a written one in your handbook so you can defend against employees who claim they have no means to report issues or complaints.
  • Don’t just say everyone knows the rules for requesting and taking leave time, but instead include the procedures in your written policies so employees can’t claim they were improperly disciplined for unapproved absences.
  • Don’t defend against an hourly employee’s claim that she worked off the clock by stating everyone knows when the workday actually ends, but instead be able to point to a written policy prohibiting after-hours work (or overtime work) for nonexempt employees without written approval.
  • Have a dress code? If you want to enforce it and show it’s applied in a nondiscriminatory manner, first you have to have it written down so your managers can enforce it in a uniform fashion (pun intended).

Most employers have an employee handbook or other written policies that govern the obvious topics, such as at-will employment, harassment and discrimination, and the disciplinary process in general. But don’t forget about those other day-to-day workplace rules, and don’t assume that “everyone simply must know what they are because they work here.” Even if they do know, they may claim that they did not or that the rules are unclear since they are unwritten. As Natasha Bedingfield astutely put it: “I am unwritten, can’t read my mind, I’m undefined.” So don’t let this lyric from a 2000s era pop song exemplify your workplace policies, even if the song itself is admittedly catchy.