Earlier this month, an entire cadre of interns was fired for submitting a petition to their employer asking for a more relaxed dress code. The Internet got hold of the story, and all kinds of people decided to weigh in. “Kids these days,” said Jason Chalker, whoever that is. “Real life can be brutal,” Glenn Beck added. “This is the direct result of bad parenting,” whined Lucas Correia. The overall message? Kids today are idiots.
Interestingly, however, nobody seems to have actually read the petition these interns submitted. Their desire for a more relaxed dress code is seen simply as another indication that these whiny, bratty semi-humans aren’t satisfied with anything. To be fair, it’s quite possible that their proposal was brusque, poorly presented, and delivered with the smug assurance that they deserved to get whatever they asked for. New hires have definitely been known to do that.
However, since nobody seems to know what actually happened, it’s also possible that these interns made a simple request based on the fact that one of their colleagues was not abiding by the same dress code the company was forcing them to adhere to. Their letter may have been something along the lines of a question – “Would it be possible for us to dress more casually like some of our colleagues do?” – and the response was an immediate firing.
There’s no way to know whether these were high performers or loafers, nor is there any way to know how they presented their case – which means that none of us should presume to pass judgment on a situation we don’t know enough about. The only thing that is certain is that these interns submitted a petition to their bosses and were fired for it. No discussion, no opportunity for apologizing or making it up somehow, no consideration for past performance – just pack your bags, turn in your ID badges, and get the hell out of here.
Everyone else seems quite happy to write these interns off as deserving of their fate. But when is firing ever an appropriate response to someone asking a question? Can you imagine how your own job would change if you worried that asking the wrong question might cost you your position?
I’m not saying that these kids were right to do what they did, and based on my own behavior in my early 20s I’m almost positive they could have been more tactful than they probably were.
But let’s put this into perspective. Companies hire interns specifically because they don’t want to pay them as much as they would have to pay full employees. They get a great deal on cheap labor, and in return they are supposed to teach their interns how to navigate a world they know very little about. It should be expected that they will make mistakes, because they don’t really know anything yet. If they did, you’d have to hire them as employees, and who wants to pay for that?
So when they make mistakes, it is the company’s responsibility to teach them how to avoid those mistakes in the future; and firing interns for making an unacceptable demand or asking an inappropriate question is not the right way to do that. If it were one intern in particular whose track record indicated a poor fit, then that might make sense. But it strains credulity that an entire class of interns were so universally awful that not a single one of them was worth keeping around. What message must that have sent to all the “real” employees about the wisdom of asking delicate questions?
Companies often think of the employer/intern relationship as a one-way street – the employer is doing the intern a favor, and the intern should be grateful and obedient. But that’s hardly fair. Interns are doing their companies an enormous favor as well by working to the best of their ability at a pay rate below what a fair world would give them. Companies should be grateful of that as well.