Professionalism/Professionalism in ''The Intern''

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Background[edit]

The Intern is a 2015 film starring Robert De Niro and Anne Hathaway. Hathaway plays Jules Ostin, a rising star in the internet fashion world. Her company, About the Fit, has taken off in the last eighteen months. Her investors fear that the company may be getting beyond her grasp, and ask her to consider hiring an outside CEO.

DeNiro plays Ben Whittaker, a recently widowed retiree who has tried everything to stay busy. He’s feeling a lack of purpose. On a whim, he applies for a senior intern position at About the Fit.

Ben is hired as Jules’ personal intern. The Intern deals with Ben's "old fashioned" notions of professionalism versus Jules' company's modern feel. The pair encounter many ethical dilemmas along the way in both personal and professional settings. Throughout the movie, Ben and Jules have a lot to learn from each other about professionalism and ethics.

Professionalism in Startup vs. Corporate Culture[edit]

Appearance[edit]

About the Fit asks potential senior interns to apply for the job with a cover letter video, because cover letters are “so old fashioned.” The idea was that a video would tell more about the character of the applicants. Ben decides to wear a suit in the video to portray his experience and maturity.

Despite being repeatedly encouraged to dress more casually, Ben wears a suit to work every day. While some of his employees ask why Ben does not dress casually, Ben explains that showing up clean and freshly shaven is what he has always done. When Ben entered the workforce forty years ago, formal attire was the norm. However, this expectation has been fading. Many companies do not enforce a dress code anymore. A Fashion Analyst from the New York Times even argues that "words like 'professional,' when used to describe dress requirements, can seem so vague."[1] Many technology companies, like Google, foster a casual work environment as a means of increasing productivity.[2]

Gear[edit]

When they arrive at their desks for the first day, another recently hired intern, Davis, takes out an iPhone, headphones, and a laptop. Ben however, pulls out the same briefcase he’s been using for over forty years containing pens, a clock, and a calculator, all things that are in some ways rendered useless by a computer.

Interpretations[edit]

What are the things that determine what a professional is? A suit and tie vs. a hoodie? An employee that does not use social media on the job? That may be one part of it, as Ben gets a lot of respect for his attire, briefcase and focus. But he also earns respect through his actions. Regardless of his traditional ways, casual culture is a trend that is gaining speed. Managers at the consulting firm AT Kearney support employees using Facebook at work, as they believe it makes employees happier and more productive. Fictitious companies like About the Fit, and real companies like AT Kearney believe that it is possible to be casual and a professional simultaneously.

Professionalism and Leadership[edit]

Tardiness[edit]

Jules is frequently tardy to meetings. Her colleague informs her the office has coined the term "Jules Standard Time," referring to the fact that Jules is an hour late to every meeting. As a professional, her investors see this tardiness as a sign that Jules is overwhelmed as a leader and recommend bringing in a more experienced CEO to ensure the success of the company. Lateness has been associated with financial losses for a company.[3] "Jules Standard Time" also likely decreases the productivity of other workers, who are reliant on her for work.[4] Jules' coworkers admire her work ethic, while others caution her that she may be stretching herself too thin. These situations show that leaders face scenarios that reflect how their employees view them. The result may impact the success of your career, so it is important to act professionally to retain respect.

Emotional Responses[edit]

In the film, Jules sends text messages to a colleague asking to get Ben's intern assignment switched to someone else. Though others admire his work ethic, Jules does not appreciate Ben's observant nature. Only after transferring Ben does Jules realize that Ben has been helping her tremendously, and she was letting her fear of someone getting close get in the way of their professional success. She then begs Ben to come back to work for her, embarrassed that she transferred him at all. Ben understands that Jules transferred him because of her own personal stress, not because of his performance. He agrees to come back as Jules' personal intern. Emotions can foster a positive work environment, or get in the way of production.[5] It is important for a professional to realize how his or her emotions may affect work.

Taking Initiative[edit]

Ben enters About the Fit as Jules' intern, but she is reluctant to use him. She doesn't assign him any tasks. Ben, who has years of experience working prior to this internship, does not let the lack of assignments prevent him from making things happen. At the office, there is a table where everyone throws miscellaneous items. Jules is constantly bothered by this mess, but she never has time to handle it. Ben notices this. One day, Jules enters the office to find the desk completely cleaned. She is very impressed that Ben took the initiative to clean the desk without being asked. Actions like these led to high opinions of Ben from his coworkers.

In the movie, it's evident that Jules is fully committed to customer satisfaction. In one instance, she orders clothes from About the Fit to her house so that she can see what a customer sees. She is unsatisfied with the quality of the packaging: the tissue paper in the box is crinkled and askew. She takes the matter into her own hands. That day, she goes to the vendor herself to teach the workers how she wants her clothes to be packaged. This is the kind of work ethic that Jules has. She also spends some time each week taking customer service calls to know what things at About the Fit are like at the customer experience level. Her interest in these low level activities is why the investors are worried about About the Fit getting beyond her reach, but it’s also what makes Jules so great at her job. She cares about minor details, and will do whatever it takes to make her company great.

Whistleblowing[edit]

In one scene, Ben witnesses Jules' driver drinking alcohol as Jules is about to enter the car. Ben sprints down the office steps while Jules is in the elevator. He approaches the driver and gives him the option to go home sick, or admit to Jules that he has been drinking. Ben faces an ethical dilemma. He cannot let Jules be driven by someone under the influence of alcohol. Ben gives his coworker an opportunity to avoid being fired. Some might argue that Ben did not do enough, and that the driver should receive consequences for his inappropriate behavior. However, Ben recognizes that getting this driver fired for drinking might only exacerbate the problem. Hopefully the driver can get help, and Ben's decision gives him a second chance. It's hard to know the right time to whistleblow, but whistleblowers are protected by law from retaliation.[6] Ben could have immediately reported the driver to Jules, but found a way to protect everyone involved and give his coworker a chance to learn from his mistakes. While this scenario is potentially a dramatazation of events that might occur in real life, the message is the same: there may not always be one answer, but professionals should take actions to pursue what they believe is right.

Overlapping Personal and Professional Relationships[edit]

Another situation involves Jules using her power to receive personal favors from her employees. She accidentally emails her mom and wants to delete the email to avoid conflict. She then asks her information technology department to hack into her mom's computer. Ben witnesses the incident and offers to help his boss and friend by breaking into the mother's house to delete the email. Jules allows Ben and two co-workers to take on this mission and provides information to help. Although this scene adds comic relief to the movie, both Ben and Jules break the law. Some may argue that Jules should not ask employees for personal favors. Regardless, Ben believes it is more ethical to delete an email that could harm Jules' relationship with her mom than to respect Jules' mom's privacy. Issues like these are not always black and white, and it important for a professional to understand where he or she stands.

Ben encounters another ethical conundrum when he witnesses Jules' husband Matt cheating on her. Ben doesn't know what to do because he and Jules are friends, but she is also his boss. He decides not to tell her, but it makes him feel very guilty that he is keeping this secret and his work suffers. He's distracted, and Jules starts to notice. Jules and Ben go on a business trip to evaluate a new CEO. Jules is very nervous to meet this man, and asks to hang out with Ben to de-stress the night before. She discloses that she thinks that Matt might be cheating on her. Ben tells Jules that he knows, and that's what has been stressing him out. They share this moment as friends. It's hard to say whether or not Ben did the right thing in this case. Ben chose to protect his friend from being hurt, but others might argue that Jules had a right to know that her husband was cheating. This is another ethical gray area, and shows how it is important for professionals to strive to do what they believe is right. It also illustrates that no matter how long you have been working and how much experience you have, there are some situations where the right thing to do is not clear. Even though Ben has 40 years of working experience he has never encountered this situation and has to use his discretion when dealing with this issue.

Conclusion[edit]

At one point in the movie, Ben says this quote which is often attributed to Mark Twain: “You’re never wrong to do the right thing.” Ben seems to be revealing his personal ethics statement, and it's evident that he tries to live up to it during the film. The Intern suggests that there are a lot of things that go into being a professional.

Being a professional can include how you present yourself, in appearance and timing, but that's not all it takes. Professionals are susceptible to emotional responses, but assess and handle them appropriately for the situation. Professionalism does not mean waiting to take orders from someone. Professionals take initiative. Professionals hold true to their beliefs, and act ethically in exposing wrongdoings in ways that benefit the greater good. Professionals manage their personal and professional relationships with integrity.

No matter how much experience you have, sometimes the situation is still tricky and it can be hard to act like a professional. The Intern uses Ben and Jules as examples of professionals. Though they are not flawless, they always strive to do the right thing.

References[edit]

  1. https://www.nytimes.com/2016/05/26/fashion/office-fashion-uniforms.html
  2. https://careers.google.com/fields-of-work/facilities/
  3. http://psycnet.apa.org/journals/apl/79/6/959.pdf
  4. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12450347
  5. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2559945/
  6. https://www.whistleblowers.gov/know_your_rights.html/