Periodically, I like to throw out a question to readers to answer. Here’s one for you to tackle — and the story is long and juicy. Have at it in the comments…
I work in a field that’s big on mentoring — at one point or another, everyone in my field had to intern. In fact, the program I graduated from requires a 6-week internship in the final year. I had some great experiences that really helped shape my career as an intern, so now that I’m doing well and am in a position to pay it forward, I did. After giving a skype-talk to students at the university I graduated from, I was contacted by one of them asking to intern with me. She was quite aggressive and had a lengthy portfolio and resume, as well as good references from people I trust at the university, so I agreed.
I’m based overseas, and I explained to her multiple times that while she’s welcome to come, my company was not able to cover her travel or living costs while here, nor were we able to pay her for the internship (this isn’t uncommon — most internships in my field are unpaid). I said this to her verbally as well as in writing, and my manager repeated this information as well.
I work from home, so in the interest of giving her the best experience, we worked out that she’d be based with me for the first half, then go with me to the main office in another city, where she’d finish the internship. At some point in the lead up to this, she asked if she could stay at my house while she was job shadowing me, and somehow, in a fit of wanting to help her out, I agreed.
Once she arrived, it quickly went downhill. I discovered that not only had she not booked any sort of hotel in the other city she’d be staying in, but she hadn’t even researched costs in that city — and it’s pricey, and lacking in hostels or other cheap, safe ammenities. While, during work hours, she was flipping out about this, I gave her a couple of possible solutions and reassured her as much as I could, and came up with a solution that I’d actually used when I first moved overseas to that city.
I gave her a few tasks, and was generally unimpressed — it took her far longer than it should, and she didn’t even bother to spellcheck her work before submitting it to me. But I thought “ok, she’s young and it’s her first day.” I also looked the other way when she asked me or my flatmates repeatedly about the “party” scene in our city and seemed more interested in going out and meeting guys than, you know, working. Her first day, I cited first-day jitters and jet lag for the weird behavior. But over the next two days it plummeted even more. Not only was she not performing (to the point I had to basically spoon feed her every tiny task, and was told by my flatmate that, while I was out on work meetings, she’d come back home for lunch at noon to find the intern. . . still asleep), but I had several panicked phone calls from the university — turns out the intern was sending back emails to them basically freaking out that she couldn’t afford this internship, and it was my, my company, and the university’s responsibility to make sure she could. Emails she’d also sent to my boss.
Meanwhile, two days away from home and she was sobbing and crying in my living room . . . The final straw, however, was when one of her friends back home started tweeting about how dare my company not pay our interns and expect them to shell out x amounts for the pleasure of being our slaves, how dare I, personally, treat her this way, and what a horrible horrible company and organization we were to do this to the poor girl. . . tagging both myself, the university, and my company. We’re a media company, so our Twitter feeds are actually part of our online brand and we have thousands of followers. Who all got to see this vitriol. Including my boss’s boss, when our web guy, confused as to what this was, alerted other managers to it, trying to find the culprit so we could get the posts deleted. When both I and the school contacted the intern, she didn’t seem to see why this behavior was such a big deal — and she declined to get her friend to remove the posts.
We had no choice; we had to fire her. I felt horrible about it, and she left … taking with her work she hadn’t completed, as well as my spare phone I’d lent her for her stay. And for the next two weeks more posts went up from her and her friend, tagging my company, about how horrible we all were, how unprofessional, and how I should be fired.
Fast forward several weeks and she’s back home, trying to find another internship (she needs the credit to graduate, and while if she had completed the projects I’d given her I would have counted the week she was with, since she finished barely half a day’s work in total with me, I just couldn’t), as well as get a job post-graduation. And since her blog and online portfolio which she’s sending out still says she’s going to be interning with my company, and my field back home is fairly small, I’ve gotten a few calls.
My questions are: what responsibility do I have to this girl and her new employers? It’s possible she just freaked out completely — people at the university say this behavior was out of character for her — how much tale-telling am I allowed or obligated to do? I am totally disgusted with her behavior and her friend’s behavior, who both seem to have come out of this feeling self righteous and put upon. I’m 26, I’m on facebook, twitter, etc and I’m careful about it. . . but these kids, barely younger than me, seem to think they can do or say anything they want, and that offends me. Moreover, they have both damaged my credibility with my company — not only did they behave badly on my watch, but they tarnished the reputation of the institution my degree comes from. What can I do to repair that? And is there anything I can do to make sure these two children don’t do this again to someone else? I wasn’t fired — although if I had written those tweets I could have been — but the next person might not be so lucky. Finally, as someone whose name and reputation is crucial to my field, it’s now still sitting out there in cyberland that I’m some sort of horrible unprofessional ogre. What can I do?
Want to read an update to this post? The reader’s update in December 2011 is here.