Recently in the news, Yahoo covered a story about interns getting fired en masse after disagreeing with what they believed to be an unreasonable dress code. In the hopes of reversing the dress code policy, a group of interns wrote a proposal and signed a petition to enact change. The next day, the same group was let go by management. While the request may have been reasonable, the manner in which it was delivered left much to be desired.
Employees should be free to offer an opinion, but employers have the right to decline with or without the thinly veiled pressure of a petition as a first initiative. Friendly side note to the interns: when you agree to join a company, either as a full-time employee or an intern, you also agree to adhere to the corporate culture, including but not limited to their dress code policy. Any confusion or concern should be taken up with a supervisor for clarification. Step one should be a face to face conversation; a signed group petition will likely come across as aggressive without first bringing it to the attention of your manager.
For those just starting out, there is a natural learning curve, and setbacks are part of the professional growth process. Mistakes and obstacles often go along with entrepreneurial success. But, common sense and good judgment must be utilized, and some decisions carry more impact than others. In this case, the group petition backfired, and I am hopeful the interns will have a compelling message to share with their mentees one day. Moving forward, here are a few steps to consider when attempting to implement change.
Make an assessment.
Ask yourself, “Is this issue worth it or am I jumping into the mix because everyone else is doing it?” If it’s something you sincerely believe in, by all means, move thoughtfully forward. Give your supervisor a chance to hear what you have to say by requesting a meeting to discuss the issue respectfully and privately. Offer alternatives when appropriate, and keep in mind there may be a reason for the policy.
Suggest a compromise before considering an ultimatum.
Some companies, due to the nature of their business, require a more formal dress code. Others have the ability to adjust their dress code for seasons or occasions, while still maintaining a professional environment. Employers value strong, bright, enthusiastic employees and want to make the work environment both positive and productive. With millennials making up 75% of the global workforce by 2025, smart managers understand the importance of creating a collaborative culture. Both sides will ultimately benefit from thoughtful listeners and strong communicators, fostering an environment where respect and understanding go hand-in-hand.
Keep your demeanor and tone of voice calm and conversational. “Kate (or Kit), I would appreciate an opportunity to discuss the current dress code. Can we meet for 15 minutes this afternoon?” Once you are together, start off by saying, “I understand the reason for front office employees and sales reps to dress a certain way, but as an intern not interacting with the public and on a limited budget, would you consider making some small allowances?” Warning, don’t be surprised if the answer is “No,” as you represent an overall company brand. If you applied for (and accepted) the position, unless otherwise informed, you also agreed to be an ambassador of the company. Clearly, there are instances where dress codes vary, for example, a shipping and freight company wouldn’t expect their professional drivers to wear the same type of clothing or shoes as an office worker.
Weigh the risk.
Be ready to look elsewhere if you are unable to find a resolution or, in the case of the interns, you’re terminated. The way you respond to a conflict may be seen as an expectation of how you handle discourse in front of clients. It’s the prerogative of management to do what they feel is in the best interest of the company. A recent Harvard Business Review article states, “When powerful people shut you down, it may not be because they’re incapable of brooking dissent. It may be that they mistake dissent for disrespect. By contracting up front for candor, clarifying your intent before diving into the content of your concerns, and giving your boss a reason to give you permission to disagree — you’ll find that you’re able to disagree far more effectively.” Ultimately, it’s each employee’s job to find a position where their comfort level (including wardrobe) and talents align.
Think through your game plan before a conflict occurs.
Look for an opportunity to broach how to best handle a potential conflict. Say something like, “So far we have agreed on all of our objectives but inevitably, I am sure we will have some different viewpoints. I want your feedback on how you suggest I confront the disagreement (i.e. an initial email stating points of concern, a personal meeting, or a quick phone call). Asking for parameters indicates you are interested in your boss’s communication style and value their time.
Don’t blame everything on millennials.
Many older adults are quick to judge particular behaviors as exclusive to a certain generation. In this case, it was a group of young executives. However, we all know strong opinions and quick reactions are not limited to a particular age bracket. Millennials are bright, dedicated, generous and hardworking, and like every other generation, learning to navigate a world they will soon control. As with every decade, their ability to build relationships will play a defining role in their success. Shrewd individuals are aware that most often a “no” is only a brief detour to success. Every incident, positive and negative, offers an opportunity for growth.
You may also enjoy my recent Inc. article, What Entrepreneurial Millennials Can Teach Us About Success.
For more of Diane’s etiquette tips, read her Inc. contributions, subscribe to her articles on Huffington Post, “like” The Protocol School of Texas on Facebook, or follow her on Pinterest and Instagram.