The Internship Dress Code Petition: My Opinion

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.

Internship Problems

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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?

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