Editor's note: Inc.com columnist Alison Green answers questions about workplace and management issues-everything from how to deal with a micromanaging boss to how to talk to someone on your team about body odor.
The piece below was originally published at the advice column I run, Ask a Manager. After it was printed there, it went viral and turned into fodder for barbs about how young people today are overly coddled, immature, and entitled. Some commenters blamed college campuses for teaching students that anything they don't like can be solved with a petition for change--as if this generation was the first to have discovered protesting, and as if agitating for change is inherently a bad thing.
My belief, as the advice columnist who answered the original letter, is that this isn't about "young people today." It's not generational at all. It's just about being young and new to the work world. Most of us made plenty of mistakes when we first started work--I know I did. That's not to say that there's no entitlement in this letter. There's entitlement and naivete in generous quantities here. But it doesn't warrant condemning an entire generation or writing off this young person as someone who won't learn how to better navigate workplaces as he or she gets more experience.
Here's the letter that caused all the commotion, and my response.
A reader writes:
I was able to get a summer internship at a company that does work in the industry I want to work in after I graduate. Even though the division I was hired to work in doesn't deal with clients or customers, there still was a very strict dress code. I felt the dress code was overly strict but I wasn't going to say anything, until I noticed one of the workers always wore flat shoes that were made from a fabric other than leather, or running shoes, even though both of these things were contrary to the dress code.
I spoke with my manager about being allowed some leeway under the dress code and was told this was not possible, despite the other person being allowed to do it. I soon found out that many of the other interns felt the same way, and the ones who asked their managers about it were told the same thing as me. We decided to write a proposal stating why we should be allowed someone leeway under the dress code. We accompanied the proposal with a petition, signed by all of the interns (except for one who declined to sign it) and gave it to our managers to consider. Our proposal requested that we also be allowed to wear running shoes and non leather flats, as well as sandals (not flip-flops though) and other non-dress shoes that would fit under a more business casual dress code. It was mostly about the footwear, but we also incorporated a request that we not have to wear suits and/or blazers in favor of a more casual, but still professional dress code.
The next day, all of us who signed the petition were called into a meeting where we thought our proposal would be discussed. Instead, we were informed that due to our "unprofessional" behavior, we were being let go from our internships. We were told to hand in our ID badges and to gather our things and leave the property ASAP.
We were shocked. The proposal was written professionally like examples I have learned about in school, and our arguments were thought out and well-reasoned. We weren't even given a chance to discuss it. The worst part is that just before the meeting ended, one of the managers told us that the worker who was allowed to disobey the dress code was a former soldier who lost her leg and was therefore given permission to wear whatever kind of shoes she could walk in. You can't even tell, and if we had known about this we would have factored it into our argument.
I have never had a job before (I've always focused on school) and I was hoping to gain some experience before I graduate next year. I feel my dismissal was unfair and would like to ask them to reconsider but I'm not sure the best way to go about it. Any advice would be greatly appreciated.
Firing the whole group of you was a pretty extreme reaction, but I can understand why they were highly annoyed.
Y'all were pretty out of line. You were interns there--basically guests for the summer. Their rules are their rules. This is like being a houseguest and presenting your host with a signed petition (!) to change their rules about cleaning up after yourself. You just don't have the standing to do that.
To be clear, that doesn't mean that you need to suck up any and every condition of an internship. You don't. But this wasn't something like asking you to do unsafe work or work unreasonable hours; this was asking you to abide by what sounds like a very common and reasonable professional dress code.
They presumably have that dress code because, rightly or wrongly, they've determined that it's in their best interest. Sometimes these sorts of dress codes make sense (like when you're dealing with clients who expect a certain image). Other times they don't. But you really, really don't have standing as interns to push back on it in such an aggressive way. And beyond standing, you don't have enough knowledge as interns to push back so aggressively--knowledge of their context, their clients, and their culture.
What you could have done was to say, "Would you talk to us about the dress code and explain why it's important? We're sure we'll run into this again in future jobs, but coming from the more casual environment of school, it's not intuitive to us why so many businesses have formal dress codes. We'd appreciate getting a better understanding."
But instead, you assumed you knew better (despite being in a position where the whole point is that you don't have experience and are there to learn) and then went about it in a pretty aggressive way. A petition is ... well, it's not something you typically see at work. It signals that you think that if you get enough signatures, your company will feel pressured to act, and that's just not how this stuff works. A company is not going to change its dress code because its interns sign a petition.
Honestly, if my summer interns banded together and this was what they decided to take on, I'd have some serious questions about their judgment and their priorities. I wouldn't fire you for it ... but I would not be impressed and we would be having a very stern conversation in which I explained the above.
The fact that they did fire all of you for it makes me wonder if there were other issues too and this pushed them over the edge. Were you getting good feedback before this, or had you noticed your manager trying to rein you in on other things? If there were other issues, I can more easily understand them just throwing up their hands and being finished with the whole thing.
In any case, I don't think you can ask them to reconsider. What's done is done. But it would be smart to write a letter to your manager explaining that you've learned from the situation and that you appreciate the opportunity they gave you and are sorry that you squandered it. They're not likely to invite you back, but a note like that will probably soften them up a little and will mean that they don't think so witheringly of you in the future.
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