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.
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.
Article originally posted on www.inc.com, by Inc.com columnist Alison Green.