how much guidance should interns need?

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A reader writes:

We have a very small company and recently took on our first (paid) interns, and we’re having some issues managing. There is regular last-minute calling in/not showing up, other types of behaviors that are not ideal (falling asleep in a “boring” meeting). They also ask regularly press for permanent jobs, which we directly addressed at their interviews and a few times since. After discussing it a time (or two, or five) very early on, I believe they should be a bit more concerned with trying to make their work and work habits demonstrative of their long-term value as employees to us. 

I know these issues need to be addressed by us as the managers. For the future, we’re wondering if you have any advice for how to avoid these problems from the beginning. We are a small and casual office, employee handbooks and the like seem unnecessary. We would rather not have to police entry-level employees, but basic expectations about calling in or changing hours in excess seem obvious. Is that an unreasonable expectation? Should we sit down with new employees and outline expectations about schedule, sick days, etc.? 
Thank you for any guidance you can offer us!

It’s obvious to you, but it’s clearly not obvious to them. So yes, you need to sit down and discuss expectations about schedules, sick days, and so forth right at the start. Like, the first day. Do it as part of an overall orientation to the internship, and include the stuff I’ve outlined here too.

Part of the point of an internship is to start getting experience in how an office works — because by definition, when someone doesn’t have a ton of experience in office life, they really don’t know how things work. Things that seem obvious to you are often not going to be obvious to interns. You are doing them a favor by spelling things out explicitly in the beginning, so that they know from the start (rather than being told partway in that they’re doing it wrong).  This means, as silly as it might seem, explaining things like “you’re expected to be here every day, on time, except if you’re sick or you’ve cleared it with me ahead of time” and “if you’re not able to come in, please call and let us know before 9 a.m.” and “you need to call with that message, not text it,” and “please keep the use of social networking sites to a minimum during the day” and so forth.

Many, many interns really don’t know this stuff. It’s part of the price you pay for hiring really cheap labor; you get to teach it to them. And then, in the future, this internship is going to help them get a better job, because that employer is going to see they’ve had this office experience and figure that someone has already taught them the really basic stuff. And that someone is you.

And while you shouldn’t need to say “don’t fall asleep in meetings” from the start, if it does happen you need to address it immediately, firmly and clearly:  “Falling asleep in a meeting is rude to the other people in the meeting and makes you look unprofessional and like you don’t care to be here. It will have a terrible impact on your reputation. You need to make sure that doesn’t happen again.” And then if it happens again? You need to seriously consider replacing that intern, because that’s really not okay. That intern is displaying a disregard for your and her work, and it’s almost certainly showing up in other ways too.

By the way, regarding the pressing for permanent jobs, it concerns me that this has come up five times at this point. Either you’re not being clear or firm enough, or you have some seriously pushy interns on your hands. If you haven’t already, tell them very clearly what it would take for them to be considered for a permanent job —  whether it’s five solid months of excellent work (describing what that means) or whatever. Or if it’s unlikely to happen at all because you don’t often have openings that they’d be a strong fit for, tell them that too. And once you’ve explained that, if they continue to press you, point out that you’ve already talked about it and find out if you’re being unclear, or they’re not taking you at your word, or what.

Anyway, back to your question about avoiding this in the future:  Be really clear about basic expectations from the start, especially about things like schedules and time off. Pretend that you’re dealing with strangers to our planet who don’t know the culture or our norms, because in some ways, you are!

{ 100 comments… read them below }

  1. Anonymous

    Thank you for answering our question, Alison! This is great advice, thank you. I realized the interns aren’t the only ones that need training, we’ve never had to manage others before, so there’s some training needed for us, too!

  2. Eric Woodard

    Ya…as usual, Alison is right about the expectations thing…but here are a couple of more talking points for you to use with your current interns or future ones…

    1) We need to you to commit to X, Y, and Z. Can you commit to this? Great, sign here. If not, no problem – happy to give you advice about finding another internship.

    2) First time they don’t meet commitment of X, Y, and Z you say, “Hey, remember how you committed to X, Y, and Z and remember signing this piece of paper saying you would? What’s the deal?”

    Don’t coddle interns…you’re not doing them any favors if you do. I love working with students and young professionals and I respect them greatly, but the best thing you can do for them is to set their expectations about how the real working world works. School likely hasn’t done it. Their parents likely haven’t done it. Do them a favor…you do it. Good luck!

    1. Ask a Manager Post author

      Very good advice. And OP, if you want to be really nice to your interns, give them a copy of Eric’s book for interns on how to be awesome at their jobs (info at his website if you click on his name above) and insist that they read it.

  3. Nethwen

    While I certainly understand not to change hours in excess, you should spell out what “in excess” means at your work place. If your work is one where employees have the same schedule from week to week , “in excess” should be something different from a work environment where employees have no idea what their Monday-Sunday schedule will be until after 6:00 p.m. on Sunday.

    From an employee’s point of view, if I don’t know what my schedule will be until the last minute, then I am going to get on with my life, scheduling appointments and such, and keep my boss informed of my availability changes. But, if I know I have the same schedule week to week, I will do my best to schedule appointments outside of my work schedule.

    If an intern is coming from a week to week changing schedule, she may have no idea how expectations will be different in a set schedule environment.

  4. D

    Agree, agree, agree. Don’t have negative feelings for one second about setting expectations or writing a handbook on things that seem obvious. Some teens/early twentysomethings have literally not ever had a job, and if they think of an internship as the gateway for a full-time professional job, they need to be schooled.

  5. kristinyc

    Do you do any kind of orientation for them when they start? (I know it’s too late for that with the current interns, but next time around..)

    At one of my internships, they had the 5 interns go through an orientation similar to what new employees go through on their first day. Only, during the parts when they would normally go over benefits/payroll/things that wouldn’t apply for interns, they talked about professionalism/expectations. Even a short one-page handout that outlines expectations might be helpful. It’ll help them be better employees and you have better interns. Everyone wins!

    My degree program required everyone to take a professionalism class before we did our internships, but not everyone has that.

    1. Ask a Manager Post author

      Love that idea. Years and years ago, I worked at a place where I had tell multiple interns, “Do not walk through the halls singing loudly.”

      1. KayDay

        And don’t wear flip-flops, even if the casual dress code allows sandles!!! The flippity-floppity sound will drive people nuts!

        1. Ask a Manager Post author

          Yes! And because they provide no protection, when you will fall off a curb while wearing them, you will break your foot and be unable to walk for four months.

          1. ChristineH

            LOL I’m sorry, but this made me laugh! Seriously, ever since you broke your foot, I am forever leery of flip-flops (never felt comfortable in them to begin with though).

  6. Steve Berg

    Not that this will help OP at all, but those interns should have learned most of those things from their parents in the context of their K-12 education (go to school unless you are actually sick, be there on time, don’t fall asleep in class) or at home (“no you can’t have that” means “no you can’t have that”). Since that seems not to be the case, I agree that a manager should have no hesitation about spelling out expectations in detail at the start.

    I’ve probably just opened up a can of worms.

    1. Anonymouse

      There was a recent article in the Washington Post about elementary aged children being chronically late to school, and the parents insisting it’s no big deal. So, the basic behaviors we used to expect in those entering the workforce are being eroded and can no longer be taken for granted.

      1. Ask a Manager Post author

        I saw that! The article was about how schools are starting to have parents hauled into court if their children are chronically late to school. The article was written as if this was an outrage to do to parents, but pretty much all of the commenters were on the schools’ side.

        1. Anonymouse

          I think deferring your childrens’ first real experience with failure, until they are young adults in the workplace, is unspeakably selfish. It just makes me sick thinking I am going to have to manage those kids. And probably tell them where babies come from too.

          1. ChristineH

            A friend on Facebook posted an article about how parents and school programs do whatever they can to protect their kids from failure, from giving every kid a trophy to make them feel “special” to college kids enlisting mommy’s help when they get a low grade on a test. Sorry, I don’t recall where it was at the moment.

        2. jmkenrick

          Parents like this baffle me. How do they think it benefits their children in the long run?

          When I was in college, one of my classmates kept getting low marks on her papers. She asked for help, which we tried to give, but it soon became clear that by help, she meant completely re-writing her paper.

          It turns out her mother had only been having her do first drafts for years, and then would “edit” them, essentially rewriting the papers. My friend knew people had things edited, and thought this was totally normal, not realizing her mother was completely abusing the word.

          It sucked, becuase she’s not an unintelligent girl, and even has an understanding of grammar, etc, but that stuff is hard translate to paper without lots of practice. Additionally, her indignation at the low grades made her come off as entitled, even though I’m sure she didn’t mean to be. She ended up having to drop some classes and sign up for extra writing tutorials instead…

          1. Rana

            I think that some of it is because it’s “easier” in the short run to “help” the child, instead of watching them struggle and complain. I suspect another problem is that a lot of people seem to forget (or don’t understand in the first place) that while you are taking care of children, your goal is to end up with functional adults. So sometimes you have to let children struggle and push and move past their limits and sometimes fail, because one day they will be adults and no one will cut them any slack. If they don’t learn coping skills as kids, they’ll have to learn them as adults, when the penalties for failure are so much greater.

            1. M.D.

              Thank you! Everytime I hear the phrase “raising children” I want to punch someone. You’re raising ADULTS!

            2. Long Time Admin

              “I think that some of it is because it’s “easier” in the short run to “help” the child, instead of watching them struggle and complain. ”

              A friend of mine calls this the “Tube Sock Mentality” of modern parents. They decide it’s too much trouble teaching their kids how to put on socks with knitted-in heels, so they just get them tube socks. It’s too hard teaching them how to tie their shoes, so they get the shoes with hook-and-loop closures. Or give them flip-flops.

              But that’s OK. Someone, somewhere, some time will teach their kids essential life skills.

        3. Elizabeth

          As an elementary school teacher, I totally agree. My observation has been, time and time again, that the kids who are chronically late are much more likely to have trouble with organization, focus and self-regulation. Some of it is directly related: if you miss Morning Meeting where we go over the schedule for the day, of course you’ll feel a bit discombobulated for the rest of the day. (If I oversleep I always feel “off”, and I’m an adult – it’s harder for kids!) Some of it is doubtless causal the other way; I’m not a parent myself but I am sure that it is very challenging to get a scattered, unfocused kid dressed, fed, and out the door, so the actual personality of the child contributes to the lateness. And some of the unfocused-ness is, I think, is indirectly caused by the lateness and by whatever disorganization causes the lateness.

          I will admit – I am a chronically late person myself when it comes to social engagements and the like, and I am not a morning person. When others are depending on me, though, I get more disciplined – and I hope I’ll be able to do that for my kids when I have some.

        4. Jaime

          Since the topic was brought up, I definitely have to say I think jailing parents for truancy is going overboard.

          1. Ask a Manager Post author

            Agreed. In the Washington area, they get fined, not jailed, but I do think I’ve read there are states where it can theoretically be jail.

        5. Cassie

          When my older sis was in the 4th grade, she was late to class every single morning. It wasn’t until the parent-teacher conferences a few months into the school year that my mom found out that class for 4th graders started at 8:00, not 8:10am like grades 1-3! And I guess my sis didn’t realize she was late (walking into class and seeing everyone already seated every single day wasn’t a clue?) and the teacher didn’t say anything (not even to my sis).

          So yeah, having all the rules/guidelines laid out at the beginning is a great idea – as “obvious” as something may seem, it’s probably not. You know what they say about common sense.

    2. Andrea

      ITA. I never, ever behaved like this at any job I ever had–including internships, part-time jobs I had in high school/college. I’m appalled that they are acting this way. I would have fired them already. Internships are supposed to be learning opportunities, but if these interns don’t even understand that they have to be there on time every day and other basic MINIMUM standards like that, then I say get them out of there and carefully screen your next interns. Seriously, they just don’t show up? And they still have positions there?! These things need to be ingrained long before orientation day at a job. And somewhere, there are some bright young people who are eager to fill those spots in your company.

      1. jmkenrick

        I fully agree. My sister is in college now, and I’m not long out of it, and I know very few people who behave like this. Granted, it might not be a representative set – but there are certainly 18 year-olds who know not to fall asleep in meetings.

      2. Anonymous

        While I don’t agree with the bahaviour, I think it’s a two-way street here. If the interns aren’t behaving properly, but aren’t being told they aren’t behaving properly (at least, that’s what I’ve gathered from the OP). If there has been no recourse for their actions, what incentive do they have to change their behaviour?

        Internships are learning opportunities, as Andrea said, so help your interns learn and tell them when they are acting innapropriately for a work environment.

        1. fposte

          Right. This goes back to Alison’s “If a manager has a problem with the employee and only the manager knows it, it’s not the employee who has a problem.”

          But I do understand that it can be tough to realize what you can’t take for granted. One thing you might consider doing is having this first batch of interns, once they’ve ripened a little, help you write orientation guidelines for their successors, since they’ll know better than you what might surprise the incomers.

          1. fposte

            Or, if you have the ability to make the term a little more flexible, have somebody you like from the current crop come help with orientation for the next batch.

  7. KayDay

    The whole point of an internship is to learn about working (i.e. the stuff that school doesn’t teach you). Of course you need to give them some guidance! You don’t need to coddle them, but you may need to spoon feed them information a bit more than with a regular employee (but you absolutely should not have to repeat yourself, if you are being clear). And if they have only had part time jobs before, I’m sure they have never had to deal with things like sick leave and so on. You will probably need to explain “business casual” if that’s your dress code, because college students tend to only know suit vs. “normal” clothes.

    Here are some “obvious” things I didn’t know when prior to my first internship:
    - It is also not necessary to always ask your boss for permission to do everything (“is it okay if I mail this funder packet out now? is it okay if I send the report to Susan now?” “can I take my lunch break now?” “should I write Dear Ms. X or Dear Mrs. X?”) In fact, this will annoy the absolute crap out of them.
    - Your company’s conventions for cc-ing, sending mass emails, shared calendars, etc.
    - Email signatures
    - Expectations for various meetings (when should they attend, if it’s okay for them to speak up, what they should prepare to share, etc.)
    - Whether or not a task has a specific company procedure that they must learn and execute (e.g. recording donations) or if they can just do it however works best for them (e.g. tracking news stories about donors).

    1. Anonymous

      Agree with the fact that you don’t need to ask your manager for permission for every little thing. Although I could be understanding of interns who do that. Going from a high school/college job where you have to clock-in and out and report to a supervisor can be a micro-manager to a professional office environment is a really big change.

  8. Anonymous

    I don’t think it matters how “casual” your work place is, every work place should have an employee handbook that outlines things like vacation time, procedures for sick days, etc. This is a resource for everyone, not just interns.

    I love being able to reference my employee binder for quick answers to questions. I know that what I’m reading is what has been told to every other employee, and if for some reason I’m told I’m wrong, I have a solid reference to go back to.

    Employee handbooks shouldn’t necessarily be huge and full of policy, but they can be used to outline basic practices and essentially how that office culture works.

    1. KayDay

      I totally agree. But then the OP still needs to explain the difference between the “letter” of the policy and the “spirit” of the policy. I’ve seen a lot of new grads make that mistake…e.g. wearing really casual “critter” pants or sky high heels (“but the dress code says we can wear chinos!” “but they have a closed toe!”) or going to way too many seminars (“but it says that interns are encouraged to attend free local seminars!”), etc.

          1. Ellie H.

            Ahh I remember now! I HAVE heard of those before. Omg. There are so many social/cultural implications to wearing those too . . . even if I liked them I would not wear them to the office for fear of what coworkers would think! (I’m from MA)

  9. Anonymouse

    > regularly press for permanent jobs

    I have to wonder if they aren’t being subjected to outside pressure to secure a permanent job. It could be that either they are reading about bad job markets in the media, or (I think more likely) their parents are constantly pushing them to ask, and ask, and ask again.

    I think if you set a date, say “We will revisit this in 2 months, in May, so I can give you feedback and let you know if you are on the right track towards the 5 solid months of excellent performance we would need before considering anyone for a permanent position.” Make sure they know that this performance is to put them in a pool for consideration *should a position be available*, and not a guarantee that A=B.

    1. KayDay

      “I have to wonder if they aren’t being subjected to outside pressure to secure a permanent job.”

      ^This. I am sure career counselors, parents, other career advice blogs, etc. are all telling them how important it is to “follow up,” “close the deal,” “keep on pushing,” and that “the squeaky wheel gets the grease.” The OP needs to be REALLY explicit about what the company can and cannot offer. (and maybe suggest the apply elsewhere as well to to emphasize that there is no guarantee.)

      1. Anonymous

        This could be like people calling to follow up on resume submissions…they think by asking constantly they’re showing initiative and how eager they are to work for X company, when really, they’re just being annoying.

  10. Adam V

    It might help if you have a one-liner to throw out to the interns who won’t stop asking about permanent jobs, something like “our HR director (or CEO) has told us we can’t discuss permanent positions for interns until after the internship has been completed”. Of course, for your group, it almost sounds like they’d take that as a challenge to go tell the HR director or CEO why *they* should be the exception to the “rule”…

  11. Lesley

    When I was accepted for my internship, there was a one page document outlining my pay, minimum and maximum hours, attendance policy, etc. It ended with a statement saying that this was the minimum threshold for expecting a positive recommendation or course credit. I had to sign it and turn it in before I started. While it was a little overly formal, it was really useful to know what the basic requirements were and what I could expect at the end if I met them.

  12. Charles

    I am OLD!

    Since when do adults (young or otherwise) NOT know that coming in late, not showing up, falling asleep in meetings, etc. all while pestering for a permanent job is okay behaviour?

    And OP, I would not be as kind as you in calling these behaviours “not ideal”!

    1. Anonymous

      Although I’m a “young adult” I’ve never engaged in these behaviours, but I have seen other people my age think it’s perfectly acceptable. I’ve managed student-staff at a University and probably the best excuse I’ve heard is that when they’re in school, with the exception of a few clases, no one cares if they’re late for class, don’t show up, or fall asleep. Since they can get through school with this behaviour…why can’t they do it at work?

      On the other side of not showing up, I have friends who have never held jobs before and don’t understand that they should contact someone if they’re sick and can’t make it into work.

      Unfortunately, “common sense” just isn’t that common. I also agree that there should be harsher reactions to this, the reason why these people have deemed this behaviour as acceptable is because they’ve never gotten in trouble for it, so it’s never been a problem.

    2. Andrea

      I guess I am old, too, then. (I am 34.) But I have known this stuff since I was much, much younger. I guess parents are unwilling to teach these basic things.

      1. Anonymous

        You pretty much hit the nail on the head here. I worked at a University for four years and every year students seemed to be pushed more in the direction of “do nothing but study and mom and dad will take care of everything else”.

        I’m lucky enough to be a 20-something whose parents encouraged her to get a job and learn life skills in highschool, but it seems many parents are now discouraging this.

  13. Anonymous

    I must be mistaken in thinking there is an inordinate proportion of questions about interns and internships…?

  14. Ellen M.

    Falling asleep during a meeting? Even on my first day at my first job, or when I was an intern, I would *expect* to get fired if I did that. It’s appalling that anyone, even an intern, would think that’s OK. And expect a job offer too!

    *ends “kids today” rant*

    1. Anonymous

      As a few people have mentioned above, I think it should be more of a “parents today” rant. Kids are a product of how they are raised and parents/schools are enabling kids who have no idea how to act in professional environments.

  15. Cara Carroll

    I am sure it has already been stated in the previous comments, but being that you do have a casual office and it seems you would like to keep it that way, why not create brief guide for interns to sign and review when accepting their offer letter or filling out their paper work. Document the problems you have been having and think come up with a simple yet clear document that you will go over and have them accept that they understand it. I really do believe interns should not be treated much differently when it comes to professionalism. The more you handle the interns like professional employees the more they will probably act like professional employees. It will take some effort on your part, I think the more responsibility the intern has the more they will realize they must act accordingly.

  16. $.02

    I learnt the hard way on my first internship, so please outline:

    -Business Professional Vs Business Casual attire
    -Don’t have to ask to take lunch
    -Don’t have to clock in/out if professional, unless your company does

    SN: One of the interns I worked with dropped a Fedex package in UPS drop box but the package was clearly labelled Fedex (It happens as an intern everything is confusing)

    1. jmkenrick

      Haha. I remember it felt really unnatural to just go to lunch without getting ‘permission’.

      Same with going to the bathroom, actually, at my first job. I had been so trained to need permission & a hall pass.

      1. Anonymous

        Also:

        -You don’t need to tell me what is wong with you if you call in sick for a reason that isn’t clear over the phone. I know you feel guilty if you can’t sneeze to make sure I know your illness is authentic. If I require a doctor’s note, then bring one, but I don’t need to know how many times you’ve barfed today… or worse.
        -You can’t UPS or FedEx to PO Boxes.
        -This is a fax machine. You have to put this paper face down to send it.

        (Yes, I learned these the hard way… I’m not proud.)

  17. Holly

    Question from an intern: is it a good thing if your manager starts the internship giving you a paper stating the different projects you have for the month, the goals of them, etc, but over the course of several months stops doing that? How about if your manager gives you lots of new projects, but it seems that in every one there’s something that needs to be corrected? I honestly can’t tell if my manager thinks I’m doing a good job or not. In the beginning there was a lot of praise but now it’s leveled off – not sure if that’s because I’m doing well consistently or doing poor.

    1. Steve Berg

      If by “something that needs corrected” you mean something you have done needs corrected, I think that’s what an internship is for–learning. There is always room for improvement. In any case, try not to sound defensive.

      1. KayDay

        Something will always need correcting. I always laugh when my boss actually corrects her own corrections.

        Holly, to answer your question: it sounds like you have a great supervisor. S/he likely feels that you know what you are doing now and can work independently. But you should also go ahead and ask him what he thinks of your work (generally best to phrase this as, “what am I doing well/what should I continue doing and what should I improve?”) There will always be something you can do better…

    2. Anonymous

      My guess is they stopped seeing the feedback as important after several months. If you’re getting lots of new projects, that’s a good sign. Remember, an internship is a learning thing- it’s ok to make mistakes. If your manager is not doing so, ask him/her to show you the corrections they make so you know what to watch for in the future.

    3. fposte

      How much longer will you be there? What you might consider doing is checking in with your manager–not to ask her if you’re doing a good job or not, but to ask if there are any particular areas you could work on strengthening in your remaining time there.

      My guess is that you are doing a good job; praise generally doesn’t stay constant because adequacy becomes expected, and correcting work is part of the managerial process. If she hasn’t talked to you about an ongoing deficit, as opposed to correcting one-off problems in each project, then it’s also on her if you should be better than you are, because you can’t fix something you don’t know about. But I correct stuff junior staff did all the time, and it’s because I have a framework that they don’t, not because they’re bad at their jobs.

  18. Anonymous

    Even for a small office, you should probably have a handbook – or at least an onboarding exercise that explains company culture. It differs too much from company to company these days. It’s helpful to say “We’re a pretty casual office. Our dress code is business casual, which means no jeans except on Friday – but if you’re wearing khakis, they should look more like Chino’s than cargo pants.” Or “We’re flexible with hours – we open at 9:00 but it’s okay to get here from 8:45 – 9:15; if you’re going to be late, you need to call. If you’re habitually later than 9:15, that may be a problem.” Sure, people -should- be able to pick up on the culture pretty quickly, but people -should- wash their hands after they go to the bathroom and plenty don’t (ick).

    This especially helps employees that are newer to the workforce, including interns. Yes, there are a lot of things that should be common sense. But there’s a lot in our culture that is affecting how much they know when they come in. The only news stories I ever see about corporate culture these days are about how cool it is to work for X company that has free ice cream and naptime and yoga classes. Newer employees and interns may think that wearing suits, like smoking cigars and drinking in the office, is something that only happens on “Mad Men.”

    The other thing I’ve learned managing internship programs is that interns learn a lot by monkey see, monkey do. If your regular employees are allowed to call out sick without any explanation or doctor’s note, your interns are going to assume that it’s okay. If your regular employees nod off or roll eyes during meetings, interns are going to assume that this behavior is okay, too. I think it’s extra important to draw distinctions with interns as part of the teaching process. “Our dress code says jeans are only okay on Friday. You may see someone else wear jeans on another day. It’s against the written policy, but that person might have permission from a manager. As a new employee, you haven’t had a chance to build credibility in the workforce, and not following a policy may make you look unprofessional or flippant. You should adhere to the dress code.”

    1. KayDay

      “monkey see, monkey do” +1. I see senior executives nod off in conferences all the time! One time, I saw a presenter creating his powerpoint AT the meeting. Many of these problems are not just limited to 20-somethings!

  19. Mels

    I’m actually a bit surprised that so many of the comments have kind of jumped on the millennial-bashing bandwagon. Sure, some of us can be flaky and clueless, but the fact that Alison’s blog even exists, should be a huge clue that poor workplace behavior is by no means exclusive to or even more prevalent among young people.

    But I digress.

    I guess my reading of the situation hinges on just how “casual” the OP’s office is. Does he mean “small and family-like” or casual as in there are basically no rules? If the OP’s office doesn’t have an employee manual to codify office norms and culture and their “casual” office environment is anything like the one I currently work in (e.g. flexible schedules, telecommuting with no prior notice, jeans and t-shirt dress code, equally “casual” use of language) the only yardstick an intern or new employee would have to measure themselves by, would be the conduct and norms followed by the other employees. Depending on the comportment of your current employees, they may or may not be the best example for an intern to follow. Case in point – I once interned in an international NGO where meetings were sometimes conducted over cocktails and the office assistant once danced shirtless at a work event (!) Had I not known better, I may have concluded that this was acceptable workplace behavior at non-profits. Luckily, I did know better.

    I’m not saying the OP’s office culture is anything like this (it may indeed just be small and family-like, in which case the interns need a kick in the butt), but this is precisely why I don’t understand why offices larger than say, five people, don’t have at least a brief employee handbook or written rules. The absence of these really opens the door for misunderstandings, and screams “we’re disorganized.” If the office is big enough to have multiple interns, you really really need to have a manual, or at least some written procedures. That said, kudos for being willing to take on and mentor interns !

  20. Student

    This is acceptable behavior at some jobs. That may annoy, anger, or surprise you, but it is what it is.

    We have a program at my university where some of the smarter students were paired up with a university professor, ostensibly as an assistant. It was a decently paid position – about $18k for 9 months of work. However, most of the professors did not take it seriously. Several students told me that their sole job responsibility was to meet with the professor for coffee once a week. One student was assigned to look up websites that were applicable to the professor’s weekly lectures.

    I would not be surprised to see students with similar experience behave badly at a (presumably low-paying) internship. It doesn’t excuse it, but consider that you might be doing a public service by undoing bad habits they learned elsewhere.

  21. Anonymous

    Like the advice AAM!

    I started working in a department that hired many recent grads and all they cared about was setting up happy hours and decorating their cubicles the way people would in dorms. Our manager even had to warn all of us not to go on social networking sites or personal e-mails as much.

    As a prior intern, one thing I wish was that my manager tell me these things. It’s better to learn now than when you get your first real job and have your manager tell you then. That would be more embarrassing.

  22. ChristineH

    Great advice and comments!

    In addition – what about the colleges themselves? I think I’ve seen some schools have internship seminars, either through the career services division or through individual academic departments at larger universities (I know some MSW programs have dedicated courses to discuss internships issues). I would think that would be another good place to emphasize to prospective interns that this is a whole new ballgame than what you may be accustomed to, then give a broad overview of common expectations.

    1. Charles

      “some schools have internship seminars.”

      I was thinking along these lines as well. AAM and others, I have a follow up question – shouldn’t the basics be covered by the school?

      I would think that the real idea behind the internship is not so much to “learn how to behave like an adult;” rather it should be to get real work experience in the intern’s chosen field.

      For example, say an engineering student gets an intenship with an engineering firm. How useful is it if time is spent on the professional basics, such as show up on time, don’t fall asleep during meetings, etc. Shouldn’t the idea be to learn how the classroom stuff is applied in the real world, by working with/learning from practicing engineers?

      If I were in the OP’s shoes I would see about talking to someone from the school and letting them know that these interns are so inmature and see what the school can suggest. Perhaps, next time the school and the OP’s firm can do a better job at selecting the interns? The set up as it is now sounds like no one is benefitting from this internship; neither the interns nor the company.

      P.S. as a trainer I have worked with interns over the years and have never heard of or dealt with someone doing some of this stuff mentioned by the OP. Isn’t it possible for an intern to “fail” an internship?

      1. Evan the College Student

        That’s assuming the interns go through a preparation class at their school. My school offers one, but I don’t know anyone who’s taken it (and almost all my friends have internships). Of course, a lot of these students seem to need it – but I’m afraid they wouldn’t realize that.

      2. Ask a Manager Post author

        I think it’s both — learn how adults work in an office, and get experience in your field. The basics of working in an office aren’t going to be a full-time instruction thing, but rather something you pick up over the course of the internship, hopefully while doing — or at least being exposed to — work in your field.

  23. Sean

    I think it’s absolutely ridiculous that they should even be keeping their jobs. I know you’re a small business and so having employees helps, but if they’re having continuous sick days it’s inexcusable. I mean if they have the flue and can prove it, by all means stay home. But I think within a year, especially when being interns, they should only really have an allotted amount of sick days allowed.

    As for the falling asleep in a “boring” meeting, I’m 24 and even I would say that’s an immediate firing. I would completely understand being fired for falling asleep in the middle of a meeting, it’s unprofessional and the fact they’re not even full on employees but simply paid interns, to me they deserve a lot less leniency than a full time employee. I say don’t even sit down with them, if they’re still having these issues and have continued to do this? They’re done, plain and simple.

    And I don’t think you should have to talk to them, these are common knowledge types of work place rules. I think it’s unbelievable these interns even think you can fall asleep in a “boring” meeting. Honestly, do you think any other employees would fall asleep? No. And now asking for permanent employee status? How long have they even worked there?

    I wish you luck and figuring out these interns who seem to not know what it means to be an intern.

    1. Editor

      When I was in high school and college, people fell asleep in lectures and no one said anything. The days when professors threw erasers at sleeping students pr docked their grades seemed to be apocryphal even then. Students may have never been in a meeting/lecture/program where people were punished for falling asleep.

      1. Sean

        Doesn’t mean necessarily that they shouldn’t know it. It’s proper work etiquette. Yes, in school you might fall asleep, but it’s not school anymore and falling asleep at work is a ridiculous thing. If I were to fall asleep during a meeting as an intern I’d expect to be fire, I’d be lucky to even get a warning. But hey that’s just me, maybe I just have a different mindset from students.

  24. Steve G

    At least they are interns and not real employees! Because we’ve all seen seemingly non-terminatable employees acting like this!

    But one thing I remember from my interning days – because I was “just” an intern, no one planned work for me. It was very stressful going to internships not knowing if I would be really working or just hanging out, or a combination of both, all day.

    Maybe if you up the work load and the consequences of the work (i.e. give them more “real” work), they will take it more seriously?

  25. Andrew

    I think that the reason so many people are upset by interns falling asleep in meetings is that they secretly long to do the same.

  26. Anonymous

    In regards to the “falling asleep in meetings” issue, I have been in a position where I was regularly required to sit in on meetings just “in case” any questions regarding my department arose. It is incredibly challenging to remain engaged when you do not have any stake or input in the actions that are going on, and even harder if the meetings take place in a warm room right after lunch. If I was managing a team of interns, I would ask myself why I’m having them go to these meetings. If I want them to learn something about content or procedures, then give them a specific task, such as “Summarize what was discussed in the meeting and give your recommendations on which concepts you thought were best for this situation, and why.” Then use the observations as a way to see if they are learning from the meeting, or even if there’s anything you can learn from the intern. If you give them some reason to directly engage with the proceedings, then they are less likely to drift off, and more likely to get something out of the meeting.

    1. Anonymous

      Absolutely agree! As a new college graduate looking for my first real job, I would find something like that incredibly helpful. I would know what I need to accomplish in the meeting and have a way to be directly and actively engaged the whole time.

    2. Sean

      Despite what I perhaps said above, I do agree that is a reasonable expectation. I mean I think being sent into a meeting that has nothing to do with you is rather discouraging and pointless. But I do still feel that if I’m there, I should at least pay attention. Perhaps it could lead to me gaining permanent employment because I was responsible, paid attention regardless of the boring quality of the meeting and maybe, just maybe, my management will see that I didn’t look dead-faced and think “he’s got a good attitude”.

      Again these are just my own opinions, to each their own in these cases.

    3. Amy

      I agree and think you have a good point, but unless you have a hard time getting to sleep at night and come in on “E” as I like to say …are you excusing this? When is it ok to fall asleep at work? Some days are just boring. I think that maybe they having nothing to do with it isn’t the issue. Maybe the intern doesn’t take it seriously…I just don’t know I think interns should atleast act enthusiastic, grab a coffee or hard candies before the meeting, do something, take doodles/notes. Its not that hard to stay awake during the day, unless like I said, tired because of no sleep! Eek (just my opinion)

    4. Student

      At my workplace, the director is rather notorious for using his laptop instead of paying attention in meetings. Many managers play on their laptops or smartphones during important presentations. Many of the staff can be seen sleeping through presentations. So, before I got angry at the intern, I’d ask myself how important or relevant the meeting really is, and whether other people take the meeting seriously.

      That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t tell the intern to suck it up and pay attention, but it might mean you should be more honest about why you are asking the intern to pay attention. If you are asking the intern to pay attention so the intern gains real, professional, beneficial information, tell them that, and give some examples of what information was important. If you are asking the intern to attend and look interested for image reasons, then just say so and tell the intern to alleviate boredom by sketching or doodling during the meeting, and explain that this is sometimes a necessary evil of the working world.

      Some people respond better to rules and office politics if the reasoning is laid out for them instead of opaque.

  27. Editor

    I don’t work with interns any more, but I am surprised students at paid internships are behaving in such exasperating ways. We had unpaid interns, and a couple of them wanted to be more flexible with their schedules, but part of the explanation one gave was that she’d rather work longer hours four days and have a long weekend because she wasn’t getting paid. The college gave a grade for an unpaid internship and the student absorbed the costs, but the paid internships involved no credit or less credit. A paid internship without college credit removed our manager’s ability to call the professor supervising the internship to complain, because there was no supervising professor, just a one-page evaluation to the college career center that couldn’t be shown to future employers, just the college staff and the student.

    Over the years I’ve worked with a lot of just-out-of-college grads, and they do tend to feel meetings are boring. They don’t want to understand what the president of the company is saying on the quarterly video message and aren’t interested in the implications of quarterly goals and their affect on share price, or they don’t care about United Way and they make fun of an agency’s name. (Yes, they’ll spend an afternoon happily volunteering at the food bank, but ask them to understand where the food bank gets its various funding streams, and they shut down.) They have so little world experience they don’t grasp the larger business and civic perspectives, and the grads who are going to be lackluster in their jobs continue to complain during the explanation of what was important in the “boring” content.

    The best interns and the worst interns use the question “why do I have to know this?” But the tone and question have very different meanings depending on the intern.

    That said, examine your meetings, not to juice them up for fun times, but to see if you’re being efficient or if people are just bloviating. The interns shouldn’t be dozing, but you shouldn’t be modeling bad meeting behavior.

  28. Anonymous

    I know a few permanent non-intern employees who need this lesson too.

    Including two specific examples:

    - Phoned in saying “I can’t be bothered to get out of bed

    - We have a set policy which says dayshift have to phone in – themselves unless they cannot speak/are in hospital – within a certain time of their start time. A number of people turn up the following day claiming not having mobile phone credit so they “couldn’t phone in”. Not acceptable!

    We have a strict handbook at work that lays out everything. Still people don’t work to those standards. None of these people are of ‘intern’ age/experience and should know better.

    1. Sean

      Please, please tell me you fired the person who did number 1. And perhaps followed with a “Well I can’t be bothered to have you work for us.”

      1. Liz in a library

        Ugh. We once had a #2. She also couldn’t make it to work because she ran out of money to put gas in her car…

  29. Caution...mini-rant

    As someone above has already said, it is really sad that a few people (note, not ALL) here have decided to play the “youth today” card in response to this. Of course the behaviour the OP lists is not OK, and yes, that should have been ingrained in these interns at school and home already, but young people vary significantly in levels of maturity…and to be honest, so do all adults. Just look at the amount of posts the blog gets from people having problems with the inappropriate behaviour of others. I have had problems myself with harrassment and bullying bosses. It should have been ingrained in these people at school and home not to act like complete jerks to others, but it hasn’t, and even WORSE, they are paid a full salary for acting that way.

    At least with interns, they are often silly things you should be able to correct fairly easily by laying down the law about what is expected of them, and making sure they know that not complying with that is grounds to dismiss them. When it comes to employees acting like jerks, that is a whole lot harder to correct, especially since judging by this blog, managers are often afraid to confront them.

    I don’t know about anyone else, but I would rather work with a clueless intern who can be likely be licked into shape than an “old-hand” with unpleasant behaviour that is very difficult to change.

    It is far better to just come out and tell them that their behaviour is not appropriate for a work setting-chances are that if they are doing it, they don’t realise it is not OK. Better to tell your interns so now and nip it in the bud (even if you feel you shouldn’t have to at their age), rather than risk them turning into people like some of the arrogant morons I have had to work with who think their behaviour is OK because they have always gotten away with being sloppy and rude.

    Sorry. Very long rant over.

  30. Amy

    It has been addressed, but I find it very important to have interns sign a document the manager goes over with them. When I interned the manager sat down with me held it out and we went over each thing on the list. She said now is the time to ask any questions about items or anything else. She explained once I signed it I agreed to do and not do all those things. She reminded me that silly things like “smoking in the building” seem obvious, posted signs, laws etc, but they have had interns fail to recognize. We would also go on site and again, “drinking at all, and smoking unless on a break and ina designated area is NOT to happen, you are not paid, but you are one of us, follow the rules we follow” And again, other interns failed to realize drinking at an event, while we were working, was, well just stupid. By signing this and reminded of interns that had made mistakes and paved the way for me, I got it. I think pointing that out is a good idea too. Then if I messed up, it was my signature stating I wouldn’t be late, or I wouldn’t sexually harass my co-workers!

  31. JfC

    Oh, so /that’s/ why I’m having trouble getting hired as a new grad. Stupids making my generation look bad.

  32. Liz in a library

    We run a fairly casual workplace, but having had numerous student employees for whom this is their first work experience, we’ve found that the following work really well:

    Treat interviews for student/intern positions every bit as seriously as interviews for permanent positions. This doesn’t mean that we require the same background or experience as we would, but we walk the student applicant through a formal interview with the staff, ask them to provide resumes and cover letters, ask for references, etc. At a minimum, we figure this is good practice for them in future jobs.

    We provide formal training throughout the first week on the job. We have them do appropriate shadowing with staff members, have them sit down and look at a formal staff manual (designed just for student staff), and have them sign an agreement that they’ve understood the manual.

    We provide small-scale (still important to the function of the department) projects that the student worker can begin on day one without much additional training, so that they have something to become invested in ASAP.

    If the standards that were discussed during their training, interview, and in the manual are not met, we address them immediately and make them aware that there are both rewards for strong work and the possibility for discipline or termination if they won’t hold up their end of the deal.

    I don’t think doing these things makes us terribly formal, and I’ve had some wonderful student workers who came to us as untested teens and proved themselves to be true professionals. If you have student employees or interns, I think part of what you owe them is the opportunity to learn about how work works and to professionalize.

  33. whitney

    I recently completed an internship at an advertising agency.

    One of the things that I really appreciated from my manager was a set up of a bi-weekly 30 minute meeting. There was no expectations, just for me to come in and talk about whatever I felt like with her.

    I used that time in multiple ways (then again I feel like I am more of a go-getter than most):
    1. informal performance review, receive feedback on what I could improve on
    2. look for more opportunities to gain work/experience.
    3. general discussion of happenings of the company

    I actually brought up to my manager in a meeting that I would like to start helping more on our client work as I was brought in for more internal matters. While she was very busy, she put me in touch with one of her direct reports that could use some help. I now work alongside said direct report on her accounts learning project management in a full time role.

    I really think 1 on 1 meeting could be a good way of giving them an idea of where they stand, what they can do to improve, but it also gives them a chance to evaluate the internship as well and gives them a voice on what they would like to see change or improve.

  34. Ali

    I worked with an intern once who used to come to work stoned, which I felt was completely inappropriate. I wasn’t his supervisor, so I didn’t say anything to him, but to his supervisor. Eventually he learned that this wasn’t a good idea because he could get fired for it. What was funny about it though, is that his quality of work actually went down when he came to work non-stoned.

    I also feel an on-boarding process, for all new employees including interns, is hugely important….and do it soon after the employee is hired, rather than 6 months after they’ve already been there. I understand waiting until there’s a larger group to onboard everyone at the same time, but if you have to wait, at least give out a handbook on the first day. Several jobs I’ve had to wait many months before “new employee orientation”, and by that point it just seemed ridiculous to attend.

  35. Wayne Schofield

    Paid interns are employees, but whether paid or not…you have to hire the right people. My daughter had a internship last summer and said her manager was like many of the bad interns you are discussing! Granted my daughter is ridiculously efficient, but why not hire those people versus those who are going to come in stoned, late or not at all?! BTW…not trying to get her another internship…she has one already. :)

  36. helen

    I once had to explain to a new trainee that yes, unless a request is illegal or immoral, they do actually need to do as instructed by other staff.

  37. Mishsmom

    I have learned that it’s always better to be overly clear than ambiguous. This is the first “real” job some of the students I supervise have had. Now some of the students I’ve hired were exceptionally sharp or had experience and the training seemed to be almost unnecessary, but it still helped to make sure everyone is on the same page. In my experience it also helps put them more at ease.

  38. jn

    I would bet that most of them haven’t even had a job at all. These days it seems most kids get anything they want com mommy and daddy. Especially if said parents are divorced

  39. Intern

    I have been at my internship (I do not get paid but it is a good merit) through my university for three weeks now. I will be here for five months. We are two interns. The first week I had to work on the weekend, work late and even night to complete our first project. Our supervisor was impressed. My fellow intern did very little on this project. The second week she writes on her thesis and goes early hours. I work late and on the weekend to start on our second project. The third week, I’m tired and she continues to be on “sick leave” (writing on her thesis) or go home early. My supervisor even give me a “side project” in the middle of the day – he has it on his desk nine in the morning (worked night to complete it) – he is very impressed and send it right to the chief of staff and the president of the company.

    My intern friend reports to me that she will not be finished with her part on the project in time and I have to report it to our supervisor. This second project is also supervised by the highest person in the whole company – a man which I have not yet met but she has. We agree to meet this Friday to connect the dots. She did not show up. She was “home being on sick leave”.

    Now, I’m tired as hell because I have been up like whole night to finish my part. I write a lot until after lunch, than I go into the bathroom, it is far away from everybody else and I’m placed among consultants that care nothing for my existence.

    My supervisor is also abroad and is more concerned in results than me working 9 to 5. I fall asleep on the toilet for like 3-4 hours. I was just supposed to take a short nap. When I walk out, the president of the whole company sees me. I really hope he did not notice me. I sent a text message to my intern friend this morning, asking her to send her written stuff to me so I can take the weekend to edit and create wonderful stuff – she has not even replayed – now we have a new deadline to next week and we do not have time to run around in circles. I have been here for three weeks and I’m already worn out.

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