A reader writes:
My department of four has an intern, Jane, for the summer. My manager is crazy busy and is out of the office for meetings 50-70% of the week, so while we don’t manage Jane, it’s mostly the other three of us working with her. It’s a reasonably casual workplace, and we’ve been working together for a while, so there’s a somewhat laid-back vibe in the office.
Jane hasn’t ever worked in an office before and is clearly still figuring out office norms. For example, when my coworker said she was going for coffee and asked if we wanted any, the intern said “you can just leave?!” When I sent a quick text, she was like “I can send texts?” When my coworkers and I were laughing over a work situation, she said “so you all can just stop and hang out?”
Our answers have been in the vein of “well, in a workplace like this the most important thing is getting your work done. We’re all adults, and if we get our work done no one is going to nitpick about sending a text or chatting for a minute.” We’ve also noted that we often stay late or come in early to finish projects.
She definitely lacks some polish and is pretty blunt/brusque, probably partly from awkwardness, and she also seems to be taking us at our word and going out for coffee, texting, groaning very slightly when asked to do something boring, and interrupting to ask questions. When I was an intern, I was super careful to be extra diligent, cheerful, and polite, because of both status and newness, and I wonder if we may have done her a disservice by modeling more relaxed workplace behavior.
I half want to say “we can do this stuff as staff members who work here and have a proven track record, but as a new person and an intern, doing/not doing xyz can really hold you back.” But I’m not her manager and I don’t want her to think I’m trying to put her in her place or something. No single thing that she does is is super unprofessional, and we don’t care that much/are fine with ignoring some annoying behavior, but I also want to make this a good learning experience for her, which is the whole point of an internship.
Yeah, she probably didn’t get the distinction between “this is stuff we do as staff members with proven track records” and “interns and new people don’t have quite the same leeway.” That can be a sort 201-level distinction that someone brand new to the workforce might not get unless you really clearly spell it out.
I think you’d be doing her a favor if you did explain it to her now, as long as you don’t sound like you’re chastising her for not figuring it out on her own. And since it’s a small office and you all work closely together, I don’t think you’d be overstepping if you invited her out for coffee to talk about how the summer is going and used that opportunity to raise this.
Make sure that during this conversation you talk about good things too — not in the terribly transparent “compliment sandwich” way, but with genuine back and forth. Ask how other things are going, whether there’s anything she’s curious about or questions she hasn’t felt comfortable asking, tell her you thought her work on project X was great (if you can say that honestly), that you admire her ability to do Y, and so forth. Genuine conversation will make this go far better than if you let it feel stilted.
And when it comes to this topic, I’d say it this way: “You asked some questions earlier on about what is and isn’t okay at work — like when we told you that it’s okay to send the occasional text or chat with others. I realized afterwards that we should have said that you can get away with more of that when you’re more established. When you’re an intern or just new to a job, I think you can’t be quite so relaxed as you can later on since people are still forming impressions of you. When you’re less known, you want to make more of a point of demonstrating that you’re working hard and happy to be there. I was thinking about this because I noticed you’ll kind of groan if we give you work that’s boring, and you’ve texted through meetings a couple of times … and then I realized we probably wrongly led you to think that was fine.”
Of course, there’s a risk that this will make her self-conscious, and it might send her back to the opposite extreme. You can try to head that off by saying something like, “Please don’t feel self-conscious about this — it can be really hard to figure this stuff out when you’re just starting out, and much of it isn’t intuitive. I made plenty of mistakes early on, and I wish someone had helped me through it so if you’re ever trying to figure out where the line is on any of this, come talk to me. Learning this stuff is part of the point of an internship, so this is all very normal.”
Also, note that my suggested language above didn’t mention the coffee runs or occasional, non-rude texting. Unless those are happening at a higher rate than would be okay for the rest of you, I think those are fine for interns too. But if they are happening at a higher rate, that’s fair game to note too, and just explain to her what a reasonable amount is.
With the interrupting, I think you’re better off saying something in the moment when it happens — like, “Please hold on, I’m in the middle of talking with Lucinda” or “I wasn’t quite finished yet. As I was saying…” If it continues after a few times of shutting it down in the moment, then I think you’d want to move to a separate “hey, you’ve interrupted me a few times recently — please don’t do that.” But I’d start with the feedback right in the moment, which might take care of it.
Also, steer her away from petitions.