Summer Interns Submit Dress Code Petition, Get Fired, Are Surprised

business_ethics_highlights_2This discussion at the excellent advice blog Ask a Manager is good fodder for discussion in management or business ethics courses about the differences between organizational life and political life—or between organizational life and university life. The short story (but please, read the whole thing): Summer interns bristle at the company dress code, ask individually to be excused from adhering to it, and the request is uniformly denied. Rather than accept the outcome, they then organize and submit a formal, signed petition to management to overturn the dress code. The petitioning interns are then terminated en masse for their unprofessional behavior. An intern-petition ringleader writes to Ask a Manager to complain and ask how to go about getting the company to reconsider its decision. Excerpted below is Ask a Manager’s response.

Two quick observations:

(1) It’s interesting to note how widely diverging are the intuitions about appropriate organizational behavior between the (presumably) college-aged interns and the more experienced Ask a Manager blogger (and the blog’s commentariat). (Again, read the whole thing.)

(2) This incident illustrates an important difference between participating in democratic political society and participating in organizational life: the difference in relative opportunities for exercising voice or exit. We expect rich voice rights in democratic polities, in part, because one generally is bound to a political state and cannot exit that political state except for another political state. However, rich voice rights seem less necessary where robust exit rights exist. Hierarchies and terms of employment that would be democratically intolerable as conditions of political citizenship may be unexceptional in an organizational context, due to both the consensual aspect of participating in this organization and the richer right to and availability of exit from this organization. Of course, it’s an open question whether this is a decisive difference – as workplace democracy advocates remind us – but it is a difference that seems to inform Ask a Manager’s response. >>>

LINK: I was fired from my internship for writing a proposal for a more flexible dress code (by ALISON GREEN for Ask a Manager)

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.

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.

What do you think?

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