When I first saw a Yahoo Style post about interns who got fired after protesting the dress code at work, my first thought wasn’t “oh there those millennials go again … when will they learn?”.
Disgruntlement Among Employees Is Multi-Generational
My first thought was about a different communication. It was different because it was anonymous (whereas the interns’ petition was signed by all but the one intern). It was different because it was composed by one individual (whose identity I still don’t know years later). Maybe that individual was a millennial; I will never know. It was different because instead of being presented to our Executive Director, it was mailed anonymously to every member of our organization’s board of directors. Yep.
My second thought was about a time much earlier in my career. Three of us peers were in roughly equivalent positions and shared responsibilities at the same area of the organization. Two of us grew frustrated with the other’s lack of carrying her share of the weight. We had planned an agenda for a meeting with our boss in which we would share our outrage that she was not pulling her weight and demand that something be done. Shortly before the meeting, my ally told me that she was being promoted, and did not want to proceed with our plan for concern that our expressions of disgruntlement would interfere with her promotion. I was angry at the time, but in retrospect I am so glad that our plan fell through. Telling our boss how our co-worker was failing (in our eyes) would have suggested that he wasn’t doing his job as a supervisor.
My third thought was “this kind of thing would never happen at the Disney College Program (DCP). My daughter just finished her tenure at the DCP, and the appearance code is meticulous, strict, and unyielding. Is that right or fair? Maybe not, but there are so few applicants (relatively) who are accepted proportionate to the applications received, that a DCP’s appreciation for being there (and, by extension, their parents’) means they will correct the two-toned hair, cover up a tattoo every single day for work, buy the glasses with the basic frames. The list goes on and on.
Now Back to the Disgruntled Intern at the Heart of this Story
Let me recap the intern/dress code situation that got me going down this path. On June 28, Ask a Manager published a post titled I was fired from my internship for writing a proposal for a more flexible dress code. I first learned about the situation from the Yahoo Style post I referenced in the first paragraph. The only way I can process what the intern wrote in their letter to Ask a Manager is to point out the passages that pressed buttons for me (there are many!) and share my opinion.
Disgruntled Intern (DI): 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.
Big Green Pen (BGP): “Able” is the key here. Getting an internship is a privilege. This internship will provide payoffs in new learning, networking, and the opportunity to learn real-life applications of everything you’ve learned in school.
DI: 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.
BGP: It may not make sense to get dressed up formally if a customer is not going to walk in the door. I can see that. Two thoughts: 1) There is some truth to the idea that the way you dress influences the way you act and 2) By agreeing to intern there, you accepted their “very strict dress code” and I would advise just dealing with it, being grateful for the payoffs in new learning, networking, and the opportunity to learn real-life applications of everything you’ve learned in school.
DI: 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. [Note: DI had shared in their letter to Ask A Manager that there was one employee who wore shoes that were not aligned with the dress code.]
BGP: I don’t think I would even have done that (I’m not sure how long you had been there, but I probably wouldn’t have asked at all), but it sounds like you attempted to start with the appropriate place on the chain of command. Smart move. That said, when they said it was not possible, that should have been the end of the subject.
DI: 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.
BGP: First of all, I would like to shake the hand of the one intern who declined to sign the petition. Secondly, one of the things I would have asked, were I one of your managers, would have been “wow, did they spend work time composing/writing/organizing this petition effort when they could have been doing the work related to the core of our business goals?”. Maybe you all did this on your personal time, and there are times when it is appropriate to do human resources-related tasks on the clock, but it would make me question your priorities. Thirdly, in case I haven’t been clear enough about this, I don’t agree with this strategy on your part.
DI: 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.
BGP: I agree with Alison from Ask a Manager that this was a pretty extreme reaction on your employer’s part, BUT it was their option to choose that reaction. In a perfect world, I would love for them to have used this as a teachable moment to explain why your strategy was so offensive to them and how, in the future, you could approach situations that you thought needed changing, but ultimately I imagine they may have doubted whether or not you would be receptive to this type of counseling and every moment they took away from the business to manage this situation was time away from the core purpose of of the organization, time away from making money (or providing services or whatever your particular organization did).
DI: 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.
BGP: Props to you for professional writing skills. Props to school for teaching you professional writing skills, and props for the ability to think through well-reasoned arguments. The thing they don’t teach you in school is how and when to share a proposal, or whether to share it at all. Sometimes the answer from a business is “you don’t even get a chance to discuss it.” That’s just the way it is.
DI: 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.
BGP: Well, there you go. Applause to your employer for accommodating the employee who needed an exception to the dress code due to her combat related injury sustained while serving our country. You say “if we had known about this we would have factored it into our argument.” It would have been nice if the several managers that several of you apparently approached about this issue had said, “sometimes we make accommodations for personal health issues (or whatever)” but a) they aren’t required to do that and b) did it occur to you they may have been trying to protect the privacy and dignity of your coworker who has a combat related injury sustained while serving our country? Lastly, as I said above, I don’t think you should have continued making the argument after the initial “no.”
DI: 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.
BGP: The fact that you’ve never had a job before is precisely why it was premature and ill-considered for you to proceed with your proposal/petition plan after the initial “no.” It’s great and fitting that you’ve focused on school, but the transition to the work world (part of which is an internship) is brand new territory. Just like you wouldn’t race a car in the Daytona 500 while still in Driver’s Ed, you shouldn’t take it upon yourself to change an organization’s dress code while still in your internship. The dismissal was drastic, not unfair. Alison of Ask a Manager is right: “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.” (And not to put words in Alison’s mouth, but she probably means REAL LETTER. On paper. With a return address, a “to” address, a stamp, and your honest to goodness most sincerely felt signature.)
To Repeat, This Is Not About “Kids These Days”
Many of the reactions to the intern/dress code post criticized millennials and young people as entitled, unwilling to pay their dues, and overly coddled. One Reddit thread I visited introduced me to the acronym SJW and shared lots of opinions about “day care babies,” the participation ribbon culture, and kids who have never been told no. Although I do see those types of struggles among millennials, as I pointed out in the example at the start of this blog, our “anonymous letter to the board” situation may have come from a millennial but since it was anonymous and our office included Millennials, Gen X, Gen Y, and Baby Boomers, I can’t assume. In that case, it wasn’t about demographics, it was about the sheer stupidity of thinking it would be constructive to air organizational dirty laundry and embarrass the Executive Director by using the “anonymous letter to the board” approach.
During grad school, I resigned from an internship when I was getting my Masters in Counseling and Human Systems. The supervision was (to my mind and the opinions of others) sporadic. I was not alone; several of us called this place the “Family Death Center” instead of its given name, the Family Life Center. At the time, I was told I would be able to return later. When I tried to return, I was told by the administrator in charge of interns, “I don’t have time to manage all that.” At the time, it seemed unfair. I had followed the procedures I had been given, and this felt arbitrary. But they had the power and I did not. In the “things happen for a reason” category, that inability to get re-hired is what led me to do an internship in Career Planning (thanks, FSU Career Center!) and my eventual position as Internship Coordinator at Fordham University.
Five or ten years from now, the interns who created the dress code proposal/petition may put this whole situation in the “things happen for a reason” category.
I still want to hear from the one intern who declined. I’m guessing they were pretty busy after all those other interns were fired!
If you were in a position at that organization to respond to the interns’ proposal/petition, what would you have done?
Wife of one, Mom of two, Friend of many. My pronouns are she/her/hers.
Colleen G. Steinman says
Very interesting piece. I have a closet full of suits that I never wear anymore, simply because dress codes have relaxed so significantly. I’m curious what he original dress code was – full business suits with pantyhose and pumps for women (closed-toe only!)? Are the interns paid a nything for their time and effort? Even parking reimbursement or a housing stipend? I’ve always admired GM CEO Mary Barra’s dress code policy: “Dress appropriately.” End of policy.
Paula Kiger says
Thanks for your comment, Colleen. I had SEVERAL follow up questions I would have loved to ask similar to yours. It sounded like the MAIN thing was the footwear. No idea if it was a paid internship or not. I am a little out of the loop of what is typical these days for internships; at Fordham most were still unpaid. I know there are several differing schools of thought on that — some ppl think the “unpaid” part is “paying your dues. Others acknowledge that unpaid internships favor kids who socioeconomically can afford to do unpaid internships. I’m not in a position to comment about it because I had left before it was implemented, but I know Healthy Kids enacted a stricter dress code once I left — which is an interesting thing because HK does not have customers in that often. I didn’t have space or enough authority since I am not there to comment. (But I have opinions!). Mary Barra’s policy is wise (if she / they have hired wisely in the first place).
Colleen G. Steinman says
To your point, however, interns do need to understand their “voice” and appropriate roles. I’m a fan of Liz Ryan and I believe she would tell this group of new professionals that they got a very early warning of the kind of workplace they need to grow “their flames.” This place, clearly, was not a good fit for them, so now they are free to find the place that will give them a much greater voice. A hard lesson, but one that everyone of every age needs to learn. I also don’t do well in top-down, dictatorial workplaces. Not that I will always get everything I want, but I like having a voice and contributing to create policies that are workable for everyone.
Paula Kiger says
All good points, Colleen.
Robin C. says
I have never supervised interns, but I did supervise a few Millennials. I had to be firm and unwavering: “You cannot wear such-and-such because it does not meet the office dress code. If you are going somewhere after work, bring that change of clothes and wear it after work.” It might also be followed by “if you don’t like the dress code, you need to find another job”. In earlier times I didn’t feel the need to be so blunt, because young workers seemed to have been counseled/taught about office dress codes by parents, teachers or mentors. Not so much anymore, or maybe the Millennials are better at talking than they are at listening…..
Paula Kiger says
HMM. First, thanks for your comment (and won’t THIS be a fun speech?! Imagine the props!). Again, not to overgeneralize to all Millennials. The challenges I have faced, and some specifically with people who fall in the millennial demographic, had mostly to do with not taking the time to understand the LONG VERSION of the history of why things are done the way they are done. That’s different than “because we’ve always done it that say.” It’s more: “before doing “x” hastily, take into account times we’ve tried something similar and learned why it was a bad idea after a strenuous evaluation process. I also think often about how this is the era of “rate my professor” (and for people like me, Trip Advisor.) I seriously read others’ reviews before choosing to stay someplace, and students in this era read these sites — if a professor got bad feedback, they’ll go out of their way not to study under them. That’s often good — because you do learn about the really awful instructional techniques used sometimes, but I also know sometimes a professor who may not have been deemed “likable (sp?)” was one of the best things that could have happened for me academically. We don’t always get instant rewards (or instant feedback).
I would have never made it through DCP (read it thoroughly!)
I didn’t leave an internship when I was going for my MSW that I should have left—thought it was me–so I admire you.
I was cutting edge in how I dressed but I understood boundaries which I don’t think is a bad thing. I think that while there should be some flexibility we don’t get to pick and choose everything we want to do at work, and we need rules so we can learn which ones are needed and which can be broken–later after we’re somewhat experienced.
Then again I’m so glad we live in an era where a boss isn’t allowed to grope an employee, and the attitude of management is “must have been something she did,” (when I was very young.)
Paula Kiger (Big Green Pen) says
Hi Pia – great comments and as always I appreciate your perspective. Yes, the DCP requirements are intense. Although a person could argue that they are too strict, too conformist, or whatever it’s VERY clear to the students who apply (and accept) that those are the requirements. I think, on balance, the participants who choose to follow through and accept those requirements end up on the “beneficial” end of things. They learn that attention to detail shows the care you will take with OTHER things, and that’s a good lesson which carries forward for a lifetime. // In the case of the internship I left, as I said it was “meant to be” that way because the career planning path took me GREAT places, but I still wish there had been a different kind of closure. I was scared to death the first time I sat with a family doing therapy — and arguably as a completely inexperienced (except for lots of phone counseling) individual, I shouldn’t have been all by myself and/or should have had different/better support — but I still all these years later feel bad for one particular family that I feel I let down, especially their kid. // In these case of these interns I totally understand the question (why do we have to dress so formally when we don’t deal with the public?) and I think the employer missed a big teachable moment that could have helped the kids for a lifetime, but I think it was the orchestrated proposal/petition after being told no that was an overreach.
You know Paula I hate to sound like a hard ass but I would have acted the same way. It is a privilege and time spent on dress code is ridiculous in the big business world. I have to assume since there were many interns it had to be a big company. Company rules are company rules. Not only is the intern program for the intern to get experience they usually want a good recommendation and or a job offer, the big picture that this intern failed to see showing poor judgment which is also a reason to dismiss the individual.
Paula Kiger says
I don’t think you’re being a hard ass! Maybe you are but I don’t disagree that this choice made by this organization was one they were entitled to make. The most drastic one, yes, but definitely within their rights. I also wonder, if these kids were there via a college/university, if their internship coordinators followed up with them re: the whole situation.
MarySchaefer (@MarySchaefer) says
Hi Paula. As a former HR manager, I could say a lot about this situation. I have to admit I’m glad it was Alison at askamanager who was in the position to respond. I am still at a loss for words, in general.
Paula Kiger says
I am sure you could, Mary! And I would really love to know your extended thoughts on this. It really does have many facets to explore.
MarySchaefer (@MarySchaefer) says
Hi Paula. Now that I’ve pulled myself together 🙂 and listened to a few of your comments on FB, I am reminded of a *similar* situation I encountered at work. A number of junior employees were dissatisfied with how they were being treated by their direct supervisors and also unhappy with lack of opportunity for advancement.
I was an HR manager at the time. When I got wind of this and some of the things they were saying I knew I needed to intervene or this could go very wrong, for everyone.
I contacted one of the more open *issue raisers* and asked if I could help. He got agreement for me to do so. Sitting in on their meetings and listening to the words they were using, I could tell they were going to hurt their careers by presenting issues in an us/them fashion. Their comments also shed light on assumptions they were making about management.
I am so so fortunate they let me in. I was able to coach them on how to present their concerns and how they were willing to participate in improving conditions.
When we got to the meeting where they made their presentation to management, it was very fulfilling. Firstly, they did a great job. Secondly, everything they proposed was accepted. I wish you could have seen the looks on their faces when their proposals were met with cooperation from management. They had expected a fight even with my coaching.
I support anyone in raising up something that bothers them at work, but HOW it is done is AS important or MORE important than the issue sometimes. I don’t know how many people I’ve coached about there being a spectrum of responses to “no.” And going from 25 mph to 100 mph usually isn’t the best next move (i.e. getting no’s, then sending a note to the board.)
It’s amazing what you can get done by asking questions, checking assumptions, checking your humility and being committed to being on the same side. Just like marketing, issues like this must be presented in a way that makes the receiver want to move toward you.
Paula Kiger says
Perfect, as I knew it would be. What a difference you made in coaching them (and what a bright move on their part to be receptive to it).
I saw the original AAM post in June 2016 and read some of the responses at the time, but yesterday I sat down and read all 1459 of them, which is how I found Paula’s link to this post. I assume it’s OK to put in my 2 cents at this late date? As Paula said, the situation is multifaceted. My thoughts, not necessarily elegantly structured or sequenced:
If I were the employer, I would have taken Paula’s or Alison’s approach: tell the interns why they were out of line. Firing them seems vindictive. Whatever else their working up the petition may have been, it was an honest mistake, and it wasn’t malicious. This story touched a nerve for me because I’ve had people (in my personal life, not on the job) react to my mistakes with disproportionate anger.
Would I have spearheaded the petition? Probably not. Would I have signed it? Hard to say. I can imagine signing it in solidarity with the other interns even I didn’t much care about the dress code. The interns probably thought that the worst that could happen would be that the company would decline to change the dress code.
Until I was 15, I dressed up only on special occasions. For the last three years of high school, I went to a small private boarding school. During the week guys wore dress slacks, a dress shirt, a sport coat and tie, and girls wore the female equivalent. I didn’t do any internships in college, and I went into a field where I don’t need to be dressy. But I think that if I had been in the interns’ position, I would have gotten the general concept of a dress code, thanks to my boarding school experience. I would also feel that I could tolerate the dress code for a summer. If I had a serious problem with it, I could let that inform my choice of academic major and employer going forward.
Apparently, the interns’ argument was twofold: (1) the dress code was arbitrary, given that their jobs weren’t customer-facing, and (2) the perceived unfairness of one intern getting an exemption from the dress code.
As for (1), they probably thought they’d make a logical case that the dress code was arbitrary, and management would see reason. Naïve, but understandable at that age.
As for (2), it sounds as if the reason for the amputee veteran’s exemption from the dress code came out only after the petition. I assume that if they’d raised the issue in the earlier discussions with their managers, they would have gotten the explanation at that time. That would have left them with just argument (1), that the dress code was arbitrary. Some people raised a point about protecting the veteran’s privacy, but IMO giving the interns the full back story (soldier who lost her leg) is counter to that idea. Management could have just said, “She has a medical exemption from the dress code.”
There was a follow-up letter in May 2017 from an intern who had signed the petition but not spearheaded it, saying, “Without this internship, I have no work experience to put on my resume.” He indicated that a guy, referred to by the pseudonym “Niles,” had spearheaded the petition. What struck me about this was that the shoe issue is something you’d expect a woman, not a man, to be concerned about. Maybe Niles and the other guys had issues with the dress code in their own right and they included shoes in solidarity with the female interns. But we’ll never know.
The original story got a response from a business owner who said, in effect, “I put $1M of my own money into my business. It’s not a democracy. Damn right my employees have a dress code, and I can wear anything I want.”
He said that before the dress code, some of his employees were exposing their butt cracks. Well, if I had employees exposing their butt cracks, I’d institute a dress code too. But it wouldn’t be on a basis of “because I own the company, and I say so.” What happened to being reasonable because it’s the right thing to do, even if the other party works for you?
There were quite a few responses along the lines of “Yes, you hold the cards, and realistically you can be this way. But if I worked for you, I wouldn’t respect you, and I’d be sending out resumes.”
Paula Kiger says
Thanks for your detailed comment! I will read it over (and re-read my old post) and reply in more detail. It’ll also be interesting to think about it in a COVID world, where so much has changed about office life.