An (former) intern writes to an advice column about getting fired for petitioning their boss for a change in the dress code. They note that they had never held a job before and felt that being fired for petitioning for a change in the dress code was a harsh move on their manager’s part. They are shocked, outraged, sad, and, most of all, confused:
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. Any advice would be greatly appreciated.
The letter and subsequent response from askamanager.com made the rounds on the Internet pretty quickly. This was yet-another confirmation of a generation of coddled and fragile college students going off into the real world totally unprepared for its realities. Here are a group of students, who are essentially guests at the company over the summer, treating company policy like it is a student government at a liberal arts college. The final line about the dismissal being unfair and wanting to be re-hired after undermining the managers reeks Millennial of entitlement that everybody’s Baby Boomer aunts and uncles like to decry on their Facebook walls.
The responses are not entirely out of place. Clearly this intern needs some work experience to understand that companies develop cultures and have policies for reasons. He or she needs to learn, potentially the hard way, that there are certain things you can change and others you can’t in the world. As the column notes, interns are essentially guests at companies and, as I have noted elsewhere on the Praxis blog, often destroy value when they are only there for a few months (especially interns in soft business areas like marketing, sales, operations, etc., outside of engineering, although even here there is a learning curve). The most value that internship programs provide for companies is providing a funnel for knowing which talent they do and do not want to hire in the future.
Getting a Job is a Two-Way Street
The responses from everybody’s Millennial-hating aunts and uncles do miss a key point, though. Hiring and recruiting are a two-way street. This intern also seems to have missed this point there. Perhaps it is the desperation of college debt and coming out of the Great Recession that lead us to believe that as a young person you must take the first job you come by, but nobody is forcing you to take a job at a company you do not like.
The interns in this case learned a number of valuable lessons — and I don’t mean that in a condescending way ala “I hope you learned your lesson!” when you are in trouble when young. Namely, lessons about culture, recruiting, and value-addition.
Culture is something companies work hard to develop and something that is not easy to alter. It’s a spontaneous order that results from the product of everybody’s actions, but is designed by nobody. Attempts to design it often result in adverse consequences. Managers are not wrong to try to enforce policy that they believe creates the culture they want for their company — and they are not wrong for getting rid of people whom they think undermine it.
On the other side of the coin, the interns should know that not every company has a culture like this one and now know that they don’t want to work at a company like this. Culture is something that matters a lot during the job hunt and should be considered when comparing job prospects.
Recruiting is like dating. If you know the end-game isn’t going to work out, you’d be stupid to keep along with the agony. From the managers’ perspectives, they saw that this wasn’t going to work out and that they should move on. The intern shouldn’t be distraught for having been fired here and want to go back — they know it isn’t going to work out. Going back after breaking up rarely works in relationships — it works even less in work.
Adding value is the most important thing at the end of the day and the thing that will keep you employed. This is a harder point for interns to really grasp and carry out in their work, but the only thing that keeps you from getting fired at the end of the day is whether or not the value you add to the company outweighs the value you extract. When you rock the boat for silly reasons like what you wear, you’re extracting extra value from the company.
Lots of Fish in the Sea
Also like dating, just because something ends poorly doesn’t mean that the world is over. There are lots of companies out there that need good help. If you find yourself in a case like the interns above, just make sure you are good help. Learn from your mistakes, take the instance as an opportunity to introspect and figure out what you want from a company, as well.
Now you know you don’t want to work at companies with stuffy, button-downed cultures. Now you know you want to work at a company that is more horizontal and open to considering interns’ opinions. Now you know you may need some more skills to buffer yourself in an HR dispute. Now you know more about yourself and what you want. This is a good thing.
Different companies produce different cultures. Not everybody will be a good fit with every company for which they work. The companies can filter out the kinds of candidates they don’t want to hire and the candidates can select among the companies with whom they’d like to work.
Kudos to Brandon Schmuck for pushing my assumptions on this matter.