It began so innocently.
A young reader's request for advice went viral over the weekend, via a blog post on Askamanager.com. The reader had received a summer internship with a company that does work in the individual's desired industry.
"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," the person wrote. "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."
The intern spoke with a manager, who made it clear that there wasn't any leeway allowed under the dress code, despite the exception made for the other worker.
And that's where it all goes downhill.
Angered by the "hypocrisy" and having discovered that many of the other interns felt the same way, the reader and the others wrote a proposal stating why they should be allowed to stray from the dress code. The proposal was accompanied by a petition signed by every intern (minus one who refused to sign), and given to the managers. The interns asked for "a more business casual dress code," outlining the types of footwear they felt were more appropriate, along with a request that the group "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 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."
And that's what we call a "welcome to reality" moment.
But the worst part of it all, and what proves that the interns' decision to submit a petition lacked emotional intelligence, is the reasoning that comes next. After acknowledging the situation of the colleague who was given an exception because of her physical condition, the reader writes:
"You can't even tell, and if we had known about this we would have factored it into our argument."
Man oh man.
If you read my column, you know I write a lot about the role emotional intelligence (EI or EQ, for emotional intelligence quotient) plays in the world of business. EQ involves the ability to recognize and understand your emotions, and to use that information to guide decision making. Building EQ can prove very useful by shaping our communication in a way that gets people to listen with a more open mind.
As I read this young person's dilemma, I couldn't help but identify numerous lessons as to how emotional intelligence could have helped the situation. (My forthcoming book, EQ, Applied, is a practical approach that illustrates just how EQ works--and doesn't work--in the real world.)
Here are a few:
1. It pays to get perspective--from the right people.
After initially getting frustrated, the reader voiced his or her concerns and looked for the opinion of others.
Nothing necessarily wrong with that. Except for one thing.
The reader looked to his or her peers: people with very similar viewpoints, as well as job and life experience. (Most likely, the reader didn't even know the fellow interns that well or for that long.)
When you're involved in an emotional situation at work, it's greatly advantageous to get perspective from someone who's older and wiser than you are. Finding a mentor who will help you see the big picture and whom you can bounce questions off of can help save a lot of grief in the long run.
2. Aggressive communication begs for aggressive behavior.
The voice behind the blog, Alison Green, hits the nail on the head in her response to the reader.
"[Your employers] 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.'"
Following Green's calm and reasonable approach would have greatly increased the chances of a positive outcome in this situation.
Not that the company would have changed its dress code, but that the interns (probably) wouldn't have gotten fired, and they would have made a much better impression on their managers.
3. Learn from constructive criticism.
Instead of allowing the company's response to serve as a wake-up call, the reader focuses on the view that the situation was "unfair," and doesn't seem to have learned any lessons from the situation.
Look, people don't like to get their rear end handed to them. But everyone needs criticism. When you receive it, set aside your emotions and strive to learn from the situation.
Even if you deem the negative feedback harsh or unnecessary, chances are you can still benefit from it.
Because everyone makes mistakes, even big ones like this.
But those mistakes aren't failures if you allow them to make you better.