my intern has a terrible attitude

A reader writes:

I’m struggling to figure out how to give feedback to an intern about the constant barrage of criticism she emits.

The intern in question, “Alice,” spends one day a week here, along with several other interns, through a graduate-level academic program that will last four years. All of these interns are over 21 and are paid; this work experience is a required part of their program.

She’s very bright and competent, but I think she sees herself as proactive and a problem-solver, when actually she comes across as simply complaining all the time. Her complaints range from relatively minor issues that are easily fixed (“this task takes too long!” — because she doesn’t know how to use a particular program efficiently yet) to issues that are endemic to the field as a whole, to things like the physical layout of the office (she suggested remodeling the office at an all-staff meeting). She often tries to offer solutions to the “problems” she identifies, but because of her lack of experience, her suggestions are often unwieldy, impractical due to costs or time requirements, or ignore external constraints like regulatory requirements. She seems to think that all explanations to this effect simply reflect a lack of will or energy to solve the problem on the part of the office. We’re generally pretty responsive to intern feedback and we’ve accommodated a number of the more reasonable complaints (getting her additional training on the computer program, revamping some of our orientation process, etc.), but obviously we are not going to remodel the office to her preferences or magically find a solution to a structural issue that affects literally every graduate program in this field.

Her attitude is starting to rub off on the other interns in her cohort. Even worse, she is taking all of these complaints back to her program, which initially assumed that the problem must be with our office. (Fortunately it sounds like they are starting to hear that she is exactly the same way in other settings, so that particular issue may resolve itself.)

We really can’t get rid of her unless she leaves the program, and her actual work is done well. But I would like to give her some feedback about how she’s being perceived, both for her benefit and for ours. I’m finding it hard to do because she’s not necessarily wrong about the individual things she finds annoying, but the sheer volume of complaints, lack of filter, and tendency to escalate issues to higher-ups regardless of the severity or validity of her complaint is making everyone in the office dread seeing her. One of the other managers referred to her as a dementor at a recent meeting, and it’s … not inaccurate. Being around her can be very draining. As I said, though, I feel like she sees herself as being a proactive go-getter and advocate and I worry that unless we phrase this very well she may simply decide that we’re just being defensive.

You can read my answer to this letter at New York Magazine today. Head over there to read it.

{ 253 comments… read them below or add one }

  1. Nanc

    I have nothing helpful to add but did snort-laugh (so unprofessional!) at Dementor intern and the stock photo in the link!

    Please do update us.

    Reply
    1. chocolate lover

      I once referred to a former colleague as “she who must not be named” in a fit of pique and the 2 coworkers I was talking to laughed hysterically.

      I found dementor equally entertaining!

      Reply
      1. Snark

        We have a neighborhood dementor who is obsessed with the scourge of homeless people and whargarbls all over Nextdoor and Facebook about it. When you point out that, say, defunding the mass transit authority so as to afford more police officers for the (gentrifying, largely white, largely affluent) neighborhood, you’re attacked for your lack of vision, care for the plight of your neighbors, and unwillingness to think big to solve big problems.

        And he’s barely 30. I shudder to think what’s gonna happen when he gets old and real bitter.

        Reply
    2. Liane

      I vaguely recall a previous letter, or open post, mentioning an “office dementor.”
      (Star Wars fan that I am, I have to concede that Harry Potter, which I also adore, is a much better source for noms de co-irkers. Lots of folks think SW Big Bads are COOL but no one gives dementors or Tom Riddle or Prof. U any love.)

      Reply
      1. Ramona Flowers

        That was me! I wrote in about my stresshead coworker Belinda. (I made a different anon email address in a fit of paranoia and can’t remembr what it was now, so can’t actually prove it was me.)

        Reply
        1. Victoria

          I just googled Belinda and reading your letter and update was exhausting. I’d be miserable if I had to work with her.

          Reply
      2. Candi

        Umbridge is the culmination of every bad co-worker/management/higher exec story we have every read here or elsewhere. I’m kind of surprised “Office Umbridge” isn’t far more common a term.

        Reply
    3. Jesca

      This made me laugh so hard. I am using this from now on when referring to office complainers (outside of work haha). It is genius.

      Reply
      1. ..Kat..

        I keep a personal emergency stash of chocolate at work. Not to be confused with my personal, everyday stash of chocolate.

        Reply
  2. NEW YEAR, NEW ME

    Maybe talk to her school advisor? Explain exactly her behavior and that it’s not a complaint about her worth ethic but what her assumptions/perceptions of an office setting are?

    Reply
    1. Samata

      I think this is a great idea, actually. I do think something needs said to the intern, but if she is there as part of a larger program going to the program coordinator or advisor would also be a great starting point. And if she works with him well she might be more open to discussing her thoughts/expectations vs. what program is experiencing from him or in a meeting between OP, intern and advisor.

      Reply
      1. Artemesia

        This. And explain to the advisor that this kind of behavior will be counterproductive for her as she will be building a reputation that will not garner her good recommendations for future employment.

        And absolutely she can be removed from the programs if she persists.

        This person will always have the narrative that ‘I was too good for them; they couldn’t accept my excellent suggestions; they are all stupid and incompetent.’

        Reply
        1. Mabel

          I wouldn’t say “always” because most of us have had our stupid phases, and we usually grow out of them. Let’s hope the intern can do the same.

          Reply
            1. Artemesia

              I’ll bet not. We all did our dumbass presumptuous things, but someone this tone deaf is more than just young and naive.

              Reply
              1. Dust Bunny

                Yeah, I used to work with a pack of late-teens to mid-twenties women and they had a lot of issues but none of them were like this. This might be partly youth and ignorance but when it’s this intense there is an underlying personality type. I know I made some boneheaded suggestions to bosses when I was this young, but then I clued in. And I am not an especially perceptive person, especially when I was 22 or whatever.

                Reply
    2. VelociraptorAttack

      Exactly this, I work in a role where I coordinate internships and I always make sure students and employers both know that if there are any issues or concerns, come to me and I can help get it resolved.

      Reply
  3. Not Tom, just Petty

    Another example of “good at specific task(s)” = good worker =/= good employee.
    A good worker completes his task well. Attaching teapot spouts, testing teapot spouts, answering the phone: A good worker does this job well.
    A good employee sees how this fits into the business and offers solutions, suggestions and even questions specific to her own area, BUT she is open to viewing the bigger the bigger picture and learning more.
    A good employee does not start from the position of either offense or defense. “You need to do this.” or “My way is the only way that works and everyone needs to do it this way.”
    Your intern is not a good employee. Is it worth it to the company? Is it fair to the other interns?

    Reply
  4. Lil Fidget

    Oh dear, I hope we can avoid too much millennial hand-wringing on the comment boards this time. I think there are certain characteristics that are endemic to all young people of every era (like not having the experience to understand why some things are done the way they are) and some are specific to this young person (being a dementor) but nothing that is characteristic of, say, all people younger than you!!

    Reply
    1. Jeanne

      I agree. I don’t see it as Millenial so much as completely new to the working world. I bet she thinks she is doing a good job, speaking out and suggesting things. I think she needs a talk about listening and learning, especially when you are new.

      Reply
      1. Shadow

        Its the fresh grads do it most. They assume all of the idealistic practices they have studied can be realized everywhere.

        Reply
        1. Lora

          I dunno, I see it more from people who have been working in the same job/company for more than 10-15 years. The whole Not Invented Here syndrome. Worse, at least with an intern you can say, OK you have a lot of ideas – but before you present them to a larger group, can you maybe work them up a little bit more? Like, if you want to reorganize the office, figure out how much that would cost, what the logistics of moving everyone around would be like, would other people like it that way, how do you quantify the loss of productivity associated with a big renovation, what is your backup plan if people don’t like it? You can say, bring me those ideas, ideas are great, and let me show you how to walk through the cost/benefit of ideas like that so that when you present to a larger group you have something fleshed-out and thought through. An intern will be receptive to that conversation. Someone who has been at StickInTheMud, Inc. for 25 years isn’t gonna change for some newfangled whipper-snapper, and they don’t have to really, because they are a manager. Instead they get to waste everyone else’s time and make everyone else miserable.

          Reply
          1. BethRA

            Yeah, I actually don’t think most interns have enough experience to know what’s worth “working up” without consulting with their supervisor. If one of our interns decided we needed to re-organize the office, and did all that research on their own without checking in? We would not be happy. And if one our supervisors let their interns disappear down a rabbit hole…we would not be happy.

            Reply
          2. Shadow

            That’s true but most experienced people complain differently with no solution behind it or want it to go back to the way it was.

            The newbies tend to complain and suggest ideas without realizing the barriers or trade offs involved

            Reply
        2. Alli525

          I’d say it’s idealism paired with this very collegiate sentiment: “if it doesn’t exist, invent it! if it’s bumming you out, you can be part of the solution! you create the college experience that’s right for you!”

          Great, lovely… but very jarring to graduate and realize that very few people actively care about how it “should be” when we’re all just trying to get by. I graduated in 2008 and luckily found out very quickly that the working world was not going to be for me what it was for the generations before me.

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        3. Candi

          I’ve noticed it more likely with fresh grads and undergrads that come from backgrounds where they had more opportunities and flexibility. They don’t always get right away that the majority of the world has all kinds of limits. Some can be pushed back on, some should be changed (glares at disparate pay by gender/race), but some are there for Reasons.

          Reply
      2. zora

        Also, super complainy dementors can be any age! I have worked with people like that at all different ages. Although, frankly, they don’t often climb the ranks very far. But, it’s definitely not exclusively a young person thing.

        Reply
        1. Jesca

          This is true, and I think it is also why OP will be doing her a huge favor pointing it out now. When I was much younger, I worked full time while attending school. I was really excelling in my work. I was like the rock star. But my attitude was poor. I was passionate but misguided. My boss at the time pulled me aside and explained to me in detail not only how this made me look but how badly it affected others. I am to this day so grateful for this feedback!

          When I see these people at work, I can tell that either no one has ever pointed this out to them or they just don’t believe it. And then you get to listen to them complain all about how and why the company is so awful and it shows by not promoting them years ago! Please tell this intern! If she doesn’t heed you? Then she is not self aware and can sink her own ship. But if she does listen, then she will remember you for the rest of your life and be thankful!

          Come to think of it? I think I am going to look that manager up from years ago and let her know my thanks!

          Reply
        2. Turquoisecow

          Absolutely! My last company was full of them (and most complaints were warranted, given that the place was slowly dying) and a lot of them were people who had worked their the last 30 years. Even attempts to make their lives and jobs easier were met with grumbled complaints.

          They still didn’t bother to switch jobs or offer any productive ideas, and they were a pain to work with, because any help you asked them for or work you needed done would lead to a prolonged diatribe on how everything was wrong with everything.

          Best to try to get a more positive mindset before she’s stuck that way forever!

          Reply
        3. Elizabeth West

          This is true. I’ve BEEN the office dementor and sometimes it’s just because we’re miserable and don’t know what to do about it. But it’s not an thing exclusive to younger people.

          Reply
      3. Danger: Gumption Ahead

        I still blush to think of some of my moments and a brand new MPH who only thought I knew everything because I actually knew nothing.

        Reply
      4. Anon for This

        I agree. And to be honest, in my early 20’s, I thought I had a wealth of experience because I’d been in college and had a few part-time jobs. The longer you are in the working world, the more I feel like you realize that you don’t know. So I think some of this is just this age range. Some interns/new grads come out of school less mature than others. I suspect I was on the less mature side. But, I think most will learn, it takes some longer than others to recognize what they need to learn but I think most do learn with the appropriate feedback and coaching.

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        1. Mabel

          Right! And I’m a big rule follower, so my learning to be not so rigid about the “right way” to do things is embarrassingly recent.

          Reply
      5. hbc

        I think it’s more of a personality trait, one that gets brought into any situation where a person has no experience with the actual struggles to make things work and therefore assumes everyone is just overlooking the easy solution. I know a brilliant controller with 30 years experience who’s all “Well, a work from home policy is simple, you either allow it or you don’t.”

        Reply
    2. Liane

      Right. This isn’t really different than an older recent hire who has several years’ work experience, saying repeatedly “At Last Job, we did XYZ differently. And never did ABC. Oh, and I think LMNO process should be changed to NML…”

      Reply
  5. (Mr.) Cajun2core

    As someone who was probably like your intern, I fully agree with Alison’s comments. The main question is, are her suggestions legitimate, especially from her point of view? In other words, if it wasn’t for regulations, money, etc., would the suggestions be helpful? If so, please read below. If not, don’t bother reading any further…

    The only thing I would add that may make it go over easier, is that you say something like, “If we had an unlimited budget and ton’s of time, I would love to implement that idea, but unfortunately, we just don’t have the resources.” Or say something like, “That sounds great and I wish we could do it, but regulations prevent us from doing it.” Obviously, make sure you say this only when it is true.

    I believe, if you validate her suggestions (if they are valid) she may not have such a negative attitude and may be open to understanding the reasons why things can’t happen. Is she open to logical arguments as to why things can’t be done that way? I know for me, logic rather than “Because that is the way it is” would have helped me accept things better and made me much more tolerable to others.

    Can you suggest that she do a ROI for her suggestions? Having to do that amount of work, may make her think twice about even making the suggestions.

    Overall, again, if her suggestions are valid, thank her and validate her suggestions but explain logically why they can’t happen. If they aren’t valid, then go with what Alison said.

    Reply
    1. GumptionIndeed

      This is advice given in the book about how to raise your spirited child. Acknowledge what they’ve said (or their feelings ) and give a simple logical answer as to why not. Then the child…or employee (who could be a grown up spirited child) feels like that at least they’ve been heard, even if they don’t like the answer.

      I try to use this every week with Cubs/Scouts. It most of the time works.

      Reply
      1. Candi

        I raised my kids this way. (Except when they were deliberately picking fights or arguing to argue.) Combined with teaching them to research rather than accept what’s given at face value, and I think it’s made them mentally stronger and more thoughtful.

        Some of their teachers have not been happy with the lack of ‘accept what I said because I said so.’ Hey, as long as they’re not disrupting the class or going off-topic…

        Reply
    2. Trout 'Waver

      But the manager’s time isn’t an infinite resource and the intern isn’t owed an explanation about everything.

      Also, at least in my experience, complainers tend to argue back when things are explained logically rather than listening.

      Reply
      1. Lora

        Depends. Are you managing goats or sheep?

        “The merest accident of microgeography had meant that the first man to hear the voice of Om, and who gave Om his view of humans, was a shepherd and not a goatherd. They have quite different ways of looking at the world, and the whole of history might have been different. For sheep are stupid, and have to be driven. But goats are intelligent, and need to be led.”

        ― Terry Pratchett, Small Gods

        Reply
        1. Falling Diphthong

          When I lived in West Africa, we discussed that there were many more road-killed goats than sheep. And eventually figured out that sheep are predictable: if one sheep starts to cross the road, you know that all the sheep in the vicinity are going to cross the road, in the same direction. Or stand in the middle of the road and stare at the pavement until grass grows there. Whereas goats will whip out evasive maneuvers, which a fair percentage of the time put them right in the path of the vehicle attempting to swerve around them.

          (I was also advised to aim right at chickens on my motorcycle, on the grounds that the chicken was going to run off in some direction at the last moment, so unless it chose straight at me or straight away from me I would likely avoid it.)

          Reply
          1. Alli525

            The comment makes total sense to me as a reply to your comment – some people will readily accept a blanket “we can’t,” and others (I am one of these) really appreciates when the context and inside baseball is explained to them. I feel I can do my work more intelligently when my manager has the time to explain background, and I was slightly more likely to obey my parents’ and school’s rules when they were able to give me coherent, logical reasons behind those rules.

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            1. Turtle Candle

              I do think that explaining reasoning where feasible is a good idea, but I do want to note that continually explaining your reasoning/the company’s reasoning can turn into an endless and exhausting task. I had one coworker who wouldn’t let go of a topic until she was given a reasoning that made sense to her, which was fine for things that were in her purview. But it applied also to things that really weren’t, like “Why did we pick X for the product name? Y is so much better.” (Because the product strategy and marketing teams came up with it, that’s why, and your job has nothing to do with product naming, and it’s not necessarily worth anyone’s time to rehash the discussion to your satisfaction.) Or even, “Why does so-and-so get to come in at ten when everyone else has to come in at nine?” (Because she has a medical condition, actually, which I know because she mentioned it in passing, but it would be inappropriate for me to relay that information without her permission, so “She has a legitimate personal reason” is all you’re gonna get.)

              Add to that that the reasons would get argued with (maybe I explain the reasoning behind Product Name X; she wasn’t terribly likely to go, ‘oh, okay,’ she tended to be like “But what about–” and extend the discussion further), and, yeah.

              I’ve definitely seen plenty of people who see asking for justification of everything as a sign of superior intelligence, of being less “sheeplike,” but sometimes it’s untenable (and frankly, kind of obnoxious). Asking these kinds of questions is contextually a good thing, not universally a good thing, and it’s legitimate for bosses to say, “I’m not rehashing that. It is what it is.”

              Reply
              1. Dust Bunny

                +100

                Side note: I don’t think the sheep/goat analogy works all that well if being followers means sheep are more likely to survive. Or was the point that pushing boundaries isn’t always a great idea. (Sorry, “sheep” usually has such a negative connotation that I’m a little unclear here. The goats might be daring but they don’t seem to be any smarter.)

                This isn’t kindergarten. She doesn’t get a happy answer to everything. And reality is that most answer are going to be something vague and mundane such as budget or space limitations or she may favor Product X over Product Y for her own reasons, but her employer may not share her priorities.

                We had an intern who was kind of like this (minus the work ethic, which made it a lot easier for my boss to decide how to phrase her feedback later. No conflicted feelings). She seemed to expect always to get an answer that satisfied her in breadth, depth, and substance, and would pester until she got one. Mostly, the answer was something boring such as the fact that it’s easier for us to share material with other institutions in our discipline if formats are somewhat standardized (not a concern for everyone but definitely for us) and the formats as they are are the result of decades of evolution. That she didn’t like them didn’t mean squat: We weren’t going to buck the entire discipline just to appease her sensibilities.

                She applied for an open position with us once her internship ended and people *in other departments* begged us not to hire her, they were so tired of her complaining and hounding.

                Reply
      2. The OG Anonsie

        But also, paid or not, an internship is supposed to be guided and involve pretty extensive teaching from the company. You assume they’re going to come in needing to be directed and have things explained to them, that’s the whole point.

        Reply
        1. Lora

          This. Even the military doesn’t blindly follow orders. The jobs where blindly, unquestionably following orders exist, but not so much in the US and I’m pretty sure that Ghanaian electronics recycling and Chinese manufacturing jobs don’t require a lot in the way of resume and cover letter prep.

          It is the nature of interns to screw up and be a lot of work and ask questions. That’s why they are interns, so they can learn and grow up. If they don’t ask questions or come up with dumb ideas, they’re not putting much effort or energy into their internship.

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          1. Jean Lamb

            And let us not forget that interns are working for free. Different workplaces have different cultures, of course, but in some teapot places interns are merely a source of free labor, while at others, they are there to be educated. Now, of course, a dementor intern is special, no doubt about it. But if a supervisor tries to treat a volunteer as merely a source of free labor, you can get away with it with some people. But others think they are there to learn and so ask questions.

            Reply
            1. Candi

              As I understand it from the many previous discussions on this site -with links- if the intern is doing actual work for the company outside of very, very narrow limits, they need to be paid. As in, that’s the law, and both the involved university and the government would be very unhappy to find an internship that doesn’t qualify within the, again, narrow limits, was being run as unpaid.

              I know the intern at my dental office is being paid. I overheard her talking with one of the hygenists that it was a little higher then she was expecting. (Sidenote: Clinic’s a nonprofit and gets federal funding.) She was awesome and I made sure the dentist supervising her knew it.

              Reply
    3. Awkwardest Turtle

      I don’t know that this will really help the OP since it likely won’t stop the intern from continually providing suggestions, and really the lesson for the intern should be that their input at every turn is not appreciated. You don’t always get an explanation as to why changes can’t be made, for confidentiality or other reasons. Better to get used to that during grad school than to spend your whole career being frustrated that your feedback isn’t leading to changes.

      Reply
      1. Danger: Gumption Ahead

        Instead of telling the intern that her suggestions violate regulations, I might she do some research on the regulations governing the industry and then explain how any suggestions fit within the regulatory framework. If she is planning on working in a highly regulated field, a good understanding of the regulatory requirements would be very helpful and this kind of activity would fit most internships

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        1. Snark

          I’d just be like, “Great suggestion. I suggest you do some research on whether that would be compatible with the requirements of the Llama Snuggling and Tummy Scratch Act of 1967.”

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          1. Danger: Gumption Ahead

            Yep. And if she doesn’t know, tell her to research the regulations and get back to you. Interns are there to learn and their supervisors are there to teach. Learning to check the regulations before making suggestions is a good lesson.

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            1. Jessica

              And by encouraging them to develop the habit of seeing whether their suggestions would actually be feasible, it both informs them and gives them the opportunity to develop actually feasible ideas. Without you being the Dream Crusher and Hater of Good Ideas.

              Reply
                1. Candi

                  Sometimes such crushing is necessary, regardless of personal feelings.

                  The crushee’s general attitude can make it a bit too satisfying if you’re not careful.

    4. Stranger than fiction

      Yeah, I had similar thoughts, along the lines of “addressing it in the moment”. In addition to a bigger talk like Alison suggested.

      Reply
    5. LurkingAlong

      But the OP in the letter says: “She seems to think that all explanations to this effect simply reflect a lack of will or energy to solve the problem on the part of the office. We’re generally pretty responsive to intern feedback and we’ve accommodated a number of the more reasonable complaints”. This indicates a stubbornness and intractability on the intern’s part which means that she won’t respond well to validating her concerns and will probably use that as further fuel that she should continue.

      Reply
        1. LurkingAlong

          I agree that context and validation is important when a person is an eager problem solver but I believe the OP’s point is that this intern is not a problem solver but wants to appear to be one by constantly bringing up issues and not acknowledging limitations when they are explained to her. It’s analogous to people who speak up in meetings just because they think it makes them more “visible” but do not add to the conversation and prolong meetings senselessly. Once or twice is not a problem but when it happens constantly then you have longer and longer meetings and people discounting the worth of these meetings or that person’s input. I don’t think the solution to these people is to validate their input every time because I think it sends the signal that they should continue doing it.

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          1. As Close As Breakfast

            And really, if her idea/suggestion/whatever violates regulations, why would you want to validate that? I get that she doesn’t realize that it violates regulations, but that doesn’t mean it’s a validation worthy suggestion. If the idea/suggestion/whatever violates regulations, I would think that makes it inherently not-a-good-idea. Definitely tell her or lead her to figuring out the regulatory issues that make her idea not great or impossible or what have you, but no validation seems necessary in these instances.

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            1. (Mr.) Cajun2core

              I believe that some ideas are still good ones even if they violate regulations. I believe that there are some regulations that are stupid and don’t need to be in place. In other words, tell her that you would implement the idea if it wasn’t against regulations.

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              1. Kristal

                Sometimes the regulation is fine AND the suggestion is fine. At my work we have a VERY large single-stall bathroom, and frequently people suggest it should be two stalls, since people end up having to form a line sometimes. I agree that two stalls would be great! But we were measured for that when we moved into this space, and though the bathroom looks huge, it’s legally too small to be divided into two stalls and still comport with (I think ADA) regulations. No one is wrong! That’s just a fact about our seemingly-huge bathroom. But if someone kept telling me/us that we really need to find a solution, I’d get irritated pretty quickly.

                Reply
        2. BethRA

          From what the OP is saying, she’s already being given context for the “no’s” – and it’s not helping. That’s not always the case, with this intern I think it’s time for fewer explanations and more boundary-enforcing.

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      1. The OG Anonsie

        Eh, maybe. If so then the LW can address it then by referencing the earlier conversations and being more direct in telling her to tone it the heck down.

        I don’t think, from what the LW has indicated, that we can really guess that the intern is going to be so impossible to work with that the LW should jump to a total shutdown. I think a big part of the conversation here shouldn’t just be about feasibility, but priorities, which is probably another large knowledge gap this intern has. Sometimes yes, you’re right, renovating the office would be slightly better for this and we could theoretically devote the time and money to it. But there are other way more important things we need to worry about that have much bigger consequences than the inconveniences of the office. Talk about the constant suggesting, correcting, complaining, put it in perspective, be constructive, and move to a less explanatory response later if needed.

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        1. (Mr.) Cajun2core

          Good point about the priorities. Maybe if that were included in the conversation, that would help her understand.

          Reply
      2. (Mr.) Cajun2core

        I may have not read it well enough. If it is just a “no, because we don’t have the money”, then I believe the response of “Yes, great idea, I wish we could, and if we had tons of money I would, but sorry, we just don’t have the money” would help. I think validating the idea (if warranted) could go a long way as opposed to just “Sorry but no.”

        And even saying, “Yes, that is a great idea and I wish we could do it, but we can’t because the federal government would find us. I think the regulation is stupid.” (assuming all of that is true) would go a long way I think as opposed to “Sorry, we can’t because of regulations.”

        To me, it is about the way the response is worded, not just providing the reason.

        Reply
        1. Ask a Manager Post author

          I think I would get more nuanced and direct than that so that the message is really driven home. More like: “Any time we spend money on something, we’re choosing not to spend it on something else. So in this case we’d need to decide to spend less on programs like A or B and we’d need to be able to justify that to stakeholders like X and Y. A lot of things sound appealing in practice, but you always need to weigh them against what you won’t be doing in order to make them possible.”

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          1. FormerEmployee

            I think it would be especially helpful to point out that one of the programs that could be sacrificed to implement her suggestion is the internship program.

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          2. Candi

            YES!

            I’ve come across too many people who think companies have big Scrooge-style money bins that they can dip into whenever they want. I made a point of teaching my kids This Is Not So. They have a lot of money, but a lot of that money’s already spoken for!

            Teaching the intern about company budgets and priorities would be a massive favor to her.

            Reply
    6. Anon 12

      One way to phrase the feedback instead of pointing out that she is too inexperienced for many of the suggestions to be good ones, and a twist on the ROI conversation, is to tell her that actionable suggestions are the ones that will get traction and not be perceived as “noise”. Then define ‘actionable” – something that is far enough down the spectrum from identifying a problem to bona fide solution that it will immediately benefit co-workers of all experience levels. Help her understand that stream of consciousness suggestions aren’t helpful but gestated ones are.
      My other thought is an observation that there are many people who do not perceive that they are complaining. My spouses’s family is like this. They truly believe that they are simply engaging in some kind of thoughtful, if one way, discourse and are offended to characterized as complaining. I find it odd, it’s a weird social blind spot.

      Reply
    7. Yorick

      I think this would be a good approach if she was raising one complaint, but it seems to be constant. She needs to be told more generally not to do it.

      Reply
    8. Ihmmy

      I have definitely been a mini Dementor before. One of the best things my manager did was sit me down and say “Ihmmy, sometimes you need to stop pushing with this stuff. A lot of work has gone into [decision making] that sometimes you won’t have the context for, especially since you’re new. We don’t want to stop suggestions and improving, but not everything can be acted on”

      Reply
      1. Not So NewReader

        Agreed. She is not there to revamp the place. And she needs to refocus on the work at hand instead of every. single. problem around her. Then she needs a pep talk about the importance of a positive attitude and what goes into having a positive attitude.

        If it were me, I would tell her, “Any place you will ever work, will need major revamping. And you will probably be told NO most of the time. Our challenge is to continue being valuable productive employees in spite of all the preventable obstacles we must work around because the obstacles probably will not get fixed.”

        Reply
      2. SimonTheGreyWarden

        I see my husband in this. He’s a great “ideas guy” and he does come up with great thoughts for how to streamline processes and improve work flow. When he implements them for himself, it’s awesome. However, he frequently complains to me about submitting these ideas through the work channels appropriate for them and how none of them are ever acted on. He’s been told by his supervisor that some of his ideas are really good and would be useful, but they can’t be implemented because of Business Reasons. However, my husband doesn’t see that as end of discussion; he sees it as an opportunity to try to revise Business Reason so that his idea could be implemented.

        Reply
    9. Anna

      The OP said they made changes where it seemed to make sense and where the suggestions can be done, but not all suggestions are equal and again, the OP would know best what is valid and what isn’t. Making suggestions that are only useful if the world is a different place (“if it weren’t for regulations, money, etc.”) means they are by definition not helpful.

      Reply
    10. Turtle Candle

      Hm. I find a lot of value in the validate-and-redirect approach in a lot of cases, but I’m not sure that I’d use it here. It’s useful when people are making appropriate suggestions and I don’t want to discourage them from suggesting things in general, for example, or when someone who is making an appropriate number of suggestions is getting frustrated because they feel repeatedly shot down. But in this case, it’s the volume of complaints/suggestions that are the problem, and I’d be concerned that giving an impression that her suggestions are good will just make her feel like she can/should continue to make them with the same frequency. Sometimes, even if the suggestions are valid (which, in this case, it sounds like some are and some aren’t), you need fewer of them because they can be distracting/derailing/time-consuming.

      Reply
      1. Not So NewReader

        OP might be able to offer some suggestions for the types of ideas that do get implemented.

        Most places I have worked would eventually allow me to make no cost tweaks or adjustments that improved work flows.
        Other ideas that were implemented were ideas that saved the company money in some manner.

        Reply
  6. H.C.

    The moment I read that her attitude is rubbing off on fellow interns, I got a flashback of that dress code manifesto…

    Reply
    1. Not Tom, just Petty

      I read this letter before lunch and have been thinking about it. The dress code debacle popped into my head, too. In that case, it was borne of nothing, but this case is different. You are giving this intern authority by implementing ideas. That’s great synergy and all that, but you need to control the explosion.

      Reply
  7. Lil Fidget

    Also, OP, I might suggest when talking to an intern, try to be as specific as possible about the right frequency for suggestions: “I’d like you make sure that you are making no more than one suggestion of a change in a week, and the rest of the time you’re listening and absorbing what’s going on.” When people are lacking in perspective, it’s hard to implement things like ‘complain less’ or ‘listen more.’ It’s also easier to go back and say,”Dementor, you offered four new suggestions this week about changing the software, the layout of the office, and the dresscode. We talked about the right level being no more than one a week. What’s happening?”

    Reply
    1. (Mr.) Cajun2core

      Brilliant! I fully agree with this. If you don’t want to go this far, you can even suggest that she write down all of her suggestions and present them to you all at once in a single weekly (or however you feel best) meeting.

      Reply
    2. Green Goose

      I really like the specific example advice, “One suggestion per week”, this could even be rolled into weekly check-ins, so that she has a platform for discussing what is going well, and what is challenging and then it can set a standard that those type of “suggestions” and only to be discussed at a specific time.
      I had two interns recently and one of them had never worked before and when I had to have a conversation with him about work etiquette/behaviours that he needed to change he was genuinely perplexed because he did not view his behaviour the way that others in the office did. So I had to really spell it out for him about what he needed to change.

      I think a combination of reminding the intern that the point of her internship is to learn, absorb and gain experience and not to evaluate an office’s processes. And usually when companies want to change processes they hire experts and consultants who have years of experience.

      There may be push-back from her, so I’d be prepared to have a longer conversation in private with her in case she doesn’t get it when you first explain the issue to her. (I’m projecting from my own experience with my intern trying to explain how long bathroom breaks should and should not be (i.e. disappearing for 40 minutes at the end of the day was not okay), and how if you show up five minutes after work starts, that is actually considered late in the working world, because he was just not understanding it)

      Reply
        1. Lil Fidget

          Ah good point, I was remembering mine who were there M-F for 12 weeks. Yes, you’d have to adapt the schedule for these interns.

          Reply
      1. The Supreme Troll

        Lil Fidget, contrary to the other commenters, I have to respectfully disagree with you here. I think saying that she is not allowed more than one suggestion per week is treating her as if she is a young child or a pre-teen, not a grown, over-21, adult. There is a good chance that your intern could take this as a personal insult, and possibly shake her confidence on speaking up when things really do matter to her boss & her coworkers.

        But, yes, the OP should try and do her best to get her intern to change the way that she sees the office world. The OP should also stress the importance of listening more not just to the words & actions of the people that you work for and work with, but also try to comprehend these things. The intern needs to learn to analyze what she is observing in her workplace, so that she makes careful suggestions that actually apply to problems that her team is facing.

        Reply
    3. zora

      This is exactly what I was thinking. Quantify it immediately and give her an allowed number, or an allowed amount of time to make ‘suggestions.’ Like: You have 30 minutes once per month to talk to me about suggestions for changes, you will need to prioritize the most important ones into those 30 minutes. (or whatever)

      Reply
      1. Anna Held

        I like this, especially since it seems as though she’s escalating her complaints to higher ups. That needs to get shot down. It’s Not How Things Are Done most places, and since she’s only an intern, I’d say that’s definitely the case. I’d point out (maybe in the second conversation, if you have to have one) that it doesn’t matter how good and right and pure your ideas are, if they’re not presented in the right way at the right time to the right person, and especially if they aren’t backed up with knowledge of potential hurdles and the greater context, they WILL be ignored.

        Reply
    4. M-C

      Great suggestion, you cannot be too specific about stuff like that when someone has never worked before. Once a month 15mn seems more than ample for someone who’ll only have been there 4-5 days. As long as you specify there should be no -other- discussion of suggestions. It’s entirely possible this poor intern is a victim of the parental over-approval and doormat behaviors that are all too common these days.

      But we’re missing some important information here – the OP doesn’t actually say they’re the intern’s supervisor for instance? If they’re not, then speaking to that person should be the first line of business. And I’d absolutely talk to their school supervisor as well, they’re really the ones who should be addressing issues directly because they’re the ones who placed the intern and they most certainly need to know what was lacking in their instruction.

      The thing that I really don’t understand is this ‘we’re stuck with this intern for 4 years’ attitude. Surely that can’t be true? Even if unpaid, the intern is working -for- you. And if they’re not working out for whatever reason, there has to be a way to get rid of them. I’m not saying not to try and improve the situation with the many other good suggestions here, with some kind of really concrete plan, but I can’t believe you’d actually be trapped with this one, and for this long.. Getting more realistic about that might be helpful in terms of calmly finding ways to address the problem in a more long-term way.

      Reply
      1. Candi

        The intern is being paid. According to some of the links posted in the past, most internships fall under “must be paid” these days. (Really, what did bad management think would happen when they exploited internships to fill in entry level slots back when?)

        Kicking this woman out of the internship likely means she has to start over from square one IF she gets a slot in the program on round 2. Since this woman is a good worker with a lousy attitude, that’s a tougher call then if she had a bad attitude and had poor work.

        Reply
  8. Not Tom, just Petty

    Devil’s advocate for the other interns here.
    They are not responding to her rabble rousing, they are responding to your apparent support of it.
    It would be hard enough if Dementor were a rock star who took over all the work and got everyone’s attention for good reasons, or because she was someone who was not getting it and was given more attention or face time to catch her up, but to see that she gets attention by being over the top? Oh, that must be what I’m here to learn to do.
    They are jumping on her band wagon because she is the one getting attention. I think I would, too. I would determine that you want people to be outspoken and come up with these broad stroke overhauls, because nobody is saying “no, this isn’t how you do it.”

    Reply
    1. Browser

      Agreed. If you are letting her run rampant and not getting her in check, why wouldn’t the other interns do the same? No one’s telling them she’s wrong.

      Reply
    2. Interviewer

      She’s also getting attention because you’ve implemented some of her suggestions. Therefore, she continues, and the others feel empowered as well.

      Reply
      1. Wendy Darling

        I was on a team with sort of the opposite problem… I had a pushy know-it-all coworker who was forever suggesting changes that were impractical, impossible, or did not have the desired effect. But a stopped clock is still right twice a day and a coworker who makes enough suggestions will occasionally accidentally fall upon a good idea.

        The problem was that every time one of her ideas was implemented she took it as validation that she was in fact smarter than everyone else (every rejected idea was just proof that no one understood her genius), so she was even MORE of a pushy, bossy know-it-all for weeks afterwards. As a result any time she suggested a change the entire team leapt upon it and tore it to shreds because unless her idea actually brought about world peace it wasn’t worth dealing with her being a smug jerk for the next 4-6 weeks.

        It was sort of a horrible dynamic and everyone was much happier when her contract was not renewed.

        Reply
    3. Lora

      I’m also gonna say that there is some field dependence here: my mom was a commercial artist for 45 years, she made designs for various interior decorating type products, you’ve definitely seen her work in hotels and corporate buildings and the occasional hospital/nursing home. In her field, coming up with lots of ideas just to have a handful of them accepted and implemented is de rigeur. It’s my impression that this is common in many marketing and artsy type of fields, that you will have to come up with multiple “pitches” to get one or two accepted, sort of like musicians come up with a whole album’s worth of music but only a few songs end up being commercial singles. And the ones that are accepted may well not be technically or aesthetically the “best” so much as “least offensive”.

      Reply
      1. Stranger than fiction

        That makes sense but it sounds like these are not product/service ideas but rather tools, processes, etc. (And remodeling the office!)

        Reply
  9. Cassandra

    One thing Alice is clearly missing — and I have a sneaking sympathy for her, because it took me a long time to get a handle on this myself — is a sense of change management and constraints. She doesn’t understand yet that one can’t just snap one’s fingers and office remodelings magically happen. She doesn’t know in her bones that regulations are inescapable constraints on how things are done. She doesn’t grok process (or why it exists) at all.

    If you have the time/patience/opportunity, OP, one way to start remediating this is pushing Alice to build realistic theories of change and/or project plans. You’ll have to do a lot of Socratic questioning of these, of course, as Alice’s first attempts will contain all the magical thinking you’ve already pointed out, and Socratic questioning takes immense patience. “Okay, where is the money for new paint and furnishings to come from? The boss? Okay, how will you approach her to ask, and what if she says no? Okay, how will you convince her to change her mind? What will you do if the budget simply doesn’t exist for this?” and so on.

    Once Alice experiences an “Oh, huh, that’s actually hard” epiphany, she’ll become a much better employee. You may not be able to engineer that, OP — Alice may simply not have the maturity yet. But maybe you can try? Or suggest it to Alice’s program as an area where Alice needs to improve?

    Reply
    1. fposte

      My concern there is that that has the potential to suck up a lot of the OP’s time. I wonder if there’s a way to streamline that into a checklist that Alice needs to follow. Some addition things I’d have on the checklist would be “identify competing company needs, quantify ROI, and quantify level of priority.” Just because it *could* happen doesn’t mean it’s the best thing to prioritize.

      Reply
      1. Matilda Jefferies

        Both of these things were what I was trying to get at in my novel below – this should teach me to be more succinct! The OP should definitely make Alice do the work of dealing with her own concerns, and definitely decide how much time she is willing to spend on managing her. But I do think there’s value in redirecting her behaviour if you can, rather than trying to shut it down entirely. Good luck, I’d love to hear an update on this.

        Reply
      2. Language Student

        If OP could get Alice to do work on the checklist herself, that could really help her understand the scope of things. Possibly give her a checklist and get her to comment on why each item on it should be considered before making a suggestion? Or give her time to try and develop one herself (though I imagine she’d need a lot of guidance) which might help it sink in more.

        Reply
      3. Cassandra

        Oh, absolutely! Structuring this is both helpful to Alice (who won’t understand how to structure such things) and eases the load on OP.

        Reply
    2. Been there

      Agreed , I was going to post as a separate reply, but I think it could fit with your suggestion.
      ———
      Here’s another suggestion for after you have ‘the talk’ with her. If she suggests things like ‘ughh we need a whole new software system’ I would turn it into a learning moment. Ask her questions on how she proposes that happens.

      Dementor: We need a new system this one is crap!
      You: That’s an interesting idea, it isn’t budgeted, what program/headcount/whatever would you suggest we cut?
      Dementor: umm surely there’s something
      You: Where would you prioritize this in relation to X, Y, and Z? (assuming x, y, and z are important core items)
      Dementor: I don’t know but we should do it
      You: What are the regulations that we have to be aware of for reporting and what functionality would we need in the new software?
      Dementor: Regulations?!
      You: Which users have you spoken to or asked about their experience and use of the software?
      Dementor: Ummm… they use it all the time they are used to it.
      You: Based on your experience as a new user what would help you to learn this more efficiently
      Dementor: It’s terrible and hard to learn
      You: Do you think that all new software might have a learning curve?
      Dementor: well yeah, probably
      You: So would be solving the right problem by getting new software? Does getting new software make sense if we don’t have the budget and something else wouldn’t get done, if we could solve the real problem, the learning curve, in a different way?

      For sure it’s a time suck, but it’s at least a better time suck than constantly being barraged with ‘helpful suggestions’ this is also good if done in a group setting.

      Reply
      1. Snark

        I really like using the Rhetorico-Socratic Dialogue approach with people on the dumb end of the Dunning-Kreuger curve, and you’ve mapped it out beautifully. Just asking leading questions and tasking them to go answer them can be a tremendously effective way of ramming home the difference between what you think you know, what you know, and what you need to know to be this much of a butthead about it.

        Reply
      2. Guacamole Bob

        Software is an interesting one. I gradually learned over several jobs that software usability is highly correlated with the number of users, and so industry or company specific systems tend to be much less user-friendly than more common off-the-shelf software.

        Students are used to using mass market software that’s pretty well-designed, and maybe some recently-developed web apps. Many workplaces are full of legacy systems or highly customized or industry-specific software packages, and they tend to be much clunkier and less intuitive. Add in the enterprise-level issues that students aren’t used to dealing with (running things securely across a network), and it can be a hard adjustment. Students coming out of school are used to a phone app or web page that works seamlessly, and don’t realize that re-creating the company’s custom software from scratch to be that user-friendly would take three years and double the entire IT budget.

        For example: my industry has two major software options for a specific task, and they are both kind of terrible. Agencies often get fed up with one and jump to the other back and forth every few years looking for improvements, but we’re basically just stuck. There are some indications that some startups may be looking to enter the market with much more usable tools, but it will be a while before they’re sophisticated enough to replace the legacy options for my agency’s purposes.

        On a daily basis I also use a business intelligence tool no longer supported by the company that produced it, a clunky database with a Microsoft Access front end, and databases that require multiple dialects of SQL.

        Reply
        1. Demented OP

          You nailed it here. I’m actually sympathetic to her on the software issue–everyone hates it, but it’s an enterprise-wide system and changing it is waaaay above my pay grade and would cost millions of dollars, so that’s one area where I’ve just been like “This is not changing. Let’s talk about ways to help you be more efficient with the current system.”

          Reply
        2. Turtle Candle

          Ooh, yes. And part of it, too, is that off-the-shelf commercial software/apps have a vested interest in making themselves at least reasonably pleasant to use, because if they’re unpleasant to use people won’t use them, and then you’ve lost a sale. Whereas enterprise-level software… I remember once a coworker said, “Ugh, you’d have to pay me to use [software]” and I said, “Well, they… are, actually” and she burst out laughing because of course it was true. It has to be usable enough to do the job it’s designed for, but it doesn’t have to go out of its way to be appealing, because people actually are literally being paid to use it. And when there are alternatives, they aren’t much better. (We hopped from one help file management program to another because it was supposedly easier to use, but honestly, it’s six of one, half dozen of another. The problems in product A were not in product B, but product B had problems that product A didn’t, so….)

          It kind of sucks, because it’d be nice if all the products we used were pleasant to use and well-designed, but sometimes that’s just not going to happen.

          Reply
    3. Yorick

      I mean, Alice has actual work to do, and I don’t think she should be encouraged to run down rabbit holes on every single thing that she thinks would be an improvement (or even some of them – she just needs to stop this behavior)

      Reply
      1. Snark

        It only needs to happen a few times. When they get the sense that there’s real effort and potential embarrassment involved in advocating for sweeping changes in situations they barely understand, they pipe down.

        Reply
      2. JulieBulie

        I’m thinking that this is something she should be doing when she’s finished with her actual work. In other words, all the time she spends complaining now can be spent on this very practical and/or wheel-spinning stuff instead. First thing she will have to do is prioritize which thing she wants to research first. THEN she will understand that flinging random ideas onto the table is not the same thing as solving problems.

        Reply
    4. Safetykats

      I had a new employee – a young woman with a lot of energy but also a hyper-critical attitude – who was a lot like Alice, so it’s nice to see all these suggestions. I ultimately dealt with the issue by giving her the task to improve one of the procedures she thought was so terrible. I also gave her a working group comprised of the people who used the process described in the procedure, and clear instructions as to obtaining and incorporating their feedback. I told her that the success of her effort would be judged based on her ability to ensure the process and product satisfied all members of the working group, as based on their feedback to me. I think she learned more from that exercise than she would have learned from any Q&A session with me.

      That said, I would not have made that effort for an intern who was only there one day a week. It was worth the investment for an employee, and the group did come up with some good changes. I’m not sure what actual value an intern who is only there one day a week can bring to the company, so I think this internship program must be more about education or recruiting than getting any actual product out of the interns. On that basis, I would really advocate that any intern who is too disruptive should just be let go.

      Reply
    5. Not So NewReader

      Regs are a huge topic. First regs are multiplying like bunnies. Next the regs are getting more and more straightjacking. For example, I can see the collapse of small rural libraries because the amount of regs is crushing. There is not enough manpower or money to support this level of micromangement in thinly populated areas. In a similar way, I have seen small business owners just close up shop. It’s not worth working 26 hours a day trying to do the work of an army of people.

      It might be helpful to talk about regs and the importance of following the regs but also how other things slide because remaining in compliance is more important.

      Reply
      1. Candi

        What bugs me (well, besides regs having the force of law but only being examined by the courts or Congress if someone’s proactive about it), is the number of regs that don’t get reviewed at all, just enforced, until they hit someone in the face with being outdated, impractical (in which case replacement is an option), or irrelevant to the area they address. (Area as in geographical, industrial, etc.) Also how many are permanent without being reviewed for long-term necessity or practicality in the areas they affect.

        The government telling business to freaking behave has unfortunately proven necessary, but it needs to be done intelligently and with the understanding that the world is quite fluid.

        Reply
  10. Tuxedo Cat

    I agree with the advice, especially with pushing back on the idea you can’t get rid of her. That shouldn’t first or second inclination, but it seems off that an intern can’t be let go if they’re not being good employees.

    Reply
  11. Zen Cohen

    Part of this is a pretty classic and stereotypical grad school attitude that I have been guilty of myself, and which I had to unlearn after I left academia.

    One of the ways you learn is by first deconstructing others’ work through a critical lens However, it can be a difficult tendency to move past when you enter the working world. My partner and I are both former academics and have both received critical feedback about starting with a harsh critique of a whole system instead of trying to find the best way to make the current system work. It’s a hard habit to break!

    Reply
      1. Lora

        STEM has the opposite problem.
        Dementor: When I was in Famous Lab we used RandomPerlScript to do XYZ, it was great!
        Me: Hmm, I’ve looked at RandomPerlScript, it seems like it only works up to 100mM concentrations because it uses XYZ coefficients only – you know that over 100mM you have to use ABC coefficients instead, right? Half our buffers are over 100mM so it isn’t really helpful to us.
        Dementor: What’s an ABC coefficient?
        Me: *walks them through math, demonstrates on instrument*
        Dementor: Uh. Well we always used it in Famous Lab even for buffers over 100mM. And Famous Lab did it so it should be fine!
        Me: Yeah, we need a much higher level of precision for this process. It’s fine for academic work but this is a lot more rigorous. We’re affecting humans, not mice, and everything has to be within clearly defined tolerances.
        Dementor: (very small voice, realizing the reason Famous Lab couldn’t get half their experiments to work properly) oh.

        Reply
    1. Wendy Darling

      I’m kind of a natural complainer. My entire family honest to god communicates by complaining about things, often as a means of finding common ground with people. For me, what I’m trying to say is “Here we are together in this non-ideal situation, but through our own resourcefulness and resilience we will be okay!” I had to learn that what other people hear is “I think this sucks and I am unhappy.” It’s still a work in progress.

      To an extent it’s something I’ve harnessed productively, because I tend to look at things and go “this is super annoying, how can I fix it?” My most rewarding jobs have been figuring out where users of my company’s product are having a lousy time and fixing whatever the problem is. But I’ve definitely had to work on not accidentally being too complain-y, and also on understanding when a problem isn’t worth fixing. I generally have a decent grasp of how much I don’t know about things, which I think helps?

      Reply
      1. Turtle Candle

        Oooh, that’s a really good observation. I have at times fallen into the ‘complaining as bonding’ trap myself, and you’re right that the way it feels on the inside is very, very different than it looks from the outside. (In one particularly nasty instance, I drifted away from a particular group of friends because I realized that if I didn’t have anything to complain about I had no idea what to ever talk to them about, and I didn’t really like what that was doing to the way I approached topics/relationships.)

        Reply
      2. AMPG

        Oh, man, this is totally me, and I alienated some people for no reason at all when I was younger before I learned this lesson.

        Reply
  12. Amber Rose

    Sometimes I wonder if it wouldn’t benefit some people to be told, bluntly, “You suck all the joy out of the room and people flinch when they see you approaching. People do not talk about you using positive terms. This is not a good way to go on with life.”

    I know it’s not professional or kind, but man. To borrow a very old phrase, some people need to be whacked with a Clue-by-Four.

    Reply
    1. fposte

      I think about the useful concept I’ve seen articulated here, that getting along with other people in the office isn’t an addition to your job, it *is* your job.

      Reply
      1. NW Mossy

        YES. This intern may be a genius full of spectacular ideas, but her manner of presenting them is more alienating than winning.

        If this were my employee, I wouldn’t hold back that ‘dementor’ comment – I’d frame up like “Your method of raising your ideas is out of sync with professional norms, so much so that people are using the term ‘dementor’ to describe your approach. That’s hugely damaging to you professionally both here and in your future career – let’s talk about how you’re going to change gears.”

        Reply
      2. Not So NewReader

        “You are being compensated in part for your willingness to get along with others.”
        If a person has failed to get along with other people, then they have failed an important component of their job.

        Reply
    2. Artemesia

      I think the feedback needs to get close to this. I would frankly tell her that she is building a reputation that will not see her well in her career nor will it get her positive recommendations when she is job searching.

      And while some of this is normal naivete and easily managed by the supervisor giving the kind of feedback suggested first by Alison, in my experience, there are a handful of people like this for whom it is a personality defect. They are overbearing, self satisfied and lack empathy; it is very hard to manage this kind of person because they already have a firm narrative in which they are superior and unappreciated. I once had a freshman student like this in classes (everyone’s classes) whose FATHER actually lectured the faculty at parents weekend, that they needed to listen carefully to Sonny since he had much to teach them. You can imagine how much laughter that elicited from a gaggle of PhDs.

      Reply
      1. Snark

        Well, unfortunately, at this stage in our society’s evolution, we’re being pretty bad about not rewarding overbearing, self-satisfied people who lack empathy and feel superior and unappreciated.

        Reply
    3. Anna Held

      Actually, I think it would be very kind. It just isn’t “nice”.

      Most of the questions on this and every other advice column out there is about when and how to tell someone what they won’t want to hear. Actually, the writer asks “if”, the columnist and commenters say “yep, it’s time!” Often, I think, it would be a kindness to tell someone baldly but gently that they’re screwing up or something needs to change. We just don’t want to have the hard conversations, and are worried about being nice.

      Reply
    4. JulieBulie

      “You are developing a reputation as a high-maintenance employee. That’s not the reputation you want at this stage of your career.”

      Reply
    5. Anononon

      I just told a client yesterday that mental health conditions were not an excuse for being rude and that she was being rude to me. Sometimes the best approach is the blunt approach.

      Reply
    6. writelhd

      I just have to pipe in to add that “whacked with a Clue-by-Four” is my new favorite expression. As I work in construction, it’s especially appropriate and I cannot wait to whip it out to the amazement of my colleagues at the next appropriate moment…

      Reply
  13. KC without the sunshine band

    At one organization I worked for, we had a policy that if you had something nice to say, tell everyone/anyone. If you had a complaint or something not nice to say, tell your boss, your spouse, or the owner of the company. When everyone adhered to this policy, things worked very well. So when someone new showed up that didn’t want to adhere to the policy, that person ended up leaving because they didn’t fit our company culture. Loved that policy.

    Reply
    1. Half-Caf Latte

      I could see this backfiring- Alice going right to the company president with her “improvements”, and feeling totally justified because the rules said he wanted to know!

      Reply
  14. Observer

    Please talk to her grad school adviser. Don’t wait for their attitude to resolve itself. For one thing, you can’t be sure taht it will. For another they need to know what she is doing and how much of a problem it is. Even if you really can’t get rid of her (and I would not be 100% of that, for the reasons Allison mentions), it is still important that they a very clear understanding of the problem. Also, if they are doing their jobs correctly, they will try to help her to understand why her behavior is problematic and could hurt in the long term. If it penetrates, you will benefit as well.

    Reply
    1. Green Goose

      I think that the OP should talk to the intern first and if her attitude/behaviour does not improve then they should go to the grad advisor, but its good to give Alice a chance to improve before having others alerted. I do think that before the new batch come in that the school/grad advisor should incorporate this into their orientation to remind students (who potentially have never worked before) what the aims of the internship are and what is/is not appropriate.

      Reply
      1. Artemesia

        I disagree. The advisor in a decent internship program needs to be in partnership with the supervisor in the field. This information should have been shared weeks ago with the advisor who is ultimately responsible for the learning of this intern.

        Reply
    2. Demented OP

      We actually alerted the program quite a while ago–however, they initially weren’t getting the same feedback about her from the other faculty, just our site, because the other faculty weren’t spending nearly as much time with her on an ongoing basis (seeing her in classes, not in an office). And, truthfully, our office did/does have some things it can improve on w/r/t the intern program, so the difference was a matter of volume and frequency. (For example: feedback from a different intern: “I wish they hadn’t introduced responsibility Z until we were a little more used to doing A & B, but generally I’m having a good experience and learning a lot.” Alice: “This office focuses way too much on Z and I think the program should reconsider having interns there.”) [Based on this feedback we waited till month 2 to introduce Z this year]. So the program folks, who have no day-to-day presence in the office, basically thought that we were the problem. However, other people eventually started expressing concern about her attitude and the program folks have now recognized that she’s an outlier on the bell curve. However, she’s in no danger of being asked to leave the program and she has to have an internship to be in the program. So it’s not that we couldn’t push back on having her if she were really catastrophic or incompetent, but the general understanding with the graduate program is that we try coaching first. Trying to get rid of her without extensive remediation efforts would have substantial negative effects on our relationship with the graduate program.

      Reply
      1. M-C

        But if the program knows there’s a problem, they should meet you at least halfway in making clear to the intern that she -has- to change. Maybe you should schedule a session with the program supervisor and the intern, to let her know that she isn’t being satisfactory, exactly how, and precisely what you expect to see done differently? It’d drive it home a lot more that she is putting many things in jeopardy with her attitude.

        Reply
      2. Observer

        I agree that getting rid of her would not be the first thing to try. But it is something that should be a possibility if things get too bad.

        I’m glad that you are in contact with the school. It seems to me that in addition to letting the information from others do your work for you, you might want to be a bit more specific in discussing this with them. For instance, you might want to point out that you’ve taken the critique about introducing Z under consideration, and have changed when you introduce it. Or that she’s been getting huffy about your org not redoing the office or not changing procedures that are in place due to regulatory requirements. While it’s good that she’s improving, it’s important that she learns that this kind of complaining is not a good way to handle stress. It’s on her program to address that with her in a more global way.

        Reply
  15. Matilda Jefferies

    Similar to what (Mr.) Cajun2core said above about ROI, there might be a learning opportunity here for her, if you’re up for managing it.

    First, designate a time (half an hour a week?) where you agree to sit down with her and talk about all her “solutions.” Which may sound like a lot, but are you spending more than half an hour a week dealing with this issue now? It might help to condense it a bit. Then you get her to agree that she will *only* bring up concerns with you, and only at this meeting. Have her make a list.

    Her other job is, before your meeting, to go through her list and pick three issues to discuss. You may have to show her how to triage them a bit:
    ~ Is this still a concern? (IE, as opposed to something that was bugging her last Tuesday but has resolved itself in the meantime)
    ~ Will it still be a concern next week, next month, next year?
    ~ How many people does it affect? Inside, outside the organization?
    ~ What is the actual impact of this issue? Dollars, time, morale, whatever.
    ~ If the concern is addressed, what would that look like?

    She may not know the answers to all of those questions, and that’s fine. The goal is to get her thinking about the big picture, rather than bringing up every single thing that annoys her. (And as (Mr.) Cajun2core suggests, if it turns out that this is too much work for her and the meetings never happen, that’s not such a bad thing either.)

    So she’s done all the above, and narrowed her list of twenty things down to three that she would actually like to discuss with you. Then you can have your meeting, and help her work through some of the other considerations. Time, cost, organizational impact, regulatory issues, and whatever other big picture things you would be aware of that she might not. THEN, after all that, if she still has the time and interest, you can send her away to start coming up with solutions to the problems she has identified. If you’re up for it, teach her a bit about project management, SMART goals, and so on.

    You want to be clear that the goal here is specifically *not* to solve the problem, but to evaluate problems in a larger context, and get some idea of how feasible it might be to solve them. That’s a valuable skill that I think we could all stand to learn – and hey, you might get some good actionable ideas out of her at the end of it all!

    This could be a lot of work for you, and it might be more than you’re able to take on (especially if it means that you’re spending disproportionately more time with her than with the other interns.) Worst case, even if you just get her to make a list of the problems and bring it up with you at a designated time – even if there’s no other outcome, at least you have made managing her a bit more manageable.

    Reply
    1. (Mr.) Cajun2core

      Thank you for the shout-outs and the compliments and I every much like your ideas. They are well thought out and brilliant.

      Reply
    2. Tuesday Next

      I think giving this kind of dedicated attention to her complaining would just encourage the idea that she’s doing something valuable

      Reply
      1. Matilda Jefferies

        Maybe. But on the other hand, I really do think it’s a valuable skill to have. So if the OP can get her to tone it down a bit (okay, a lot!), then it might be better than shutting it down entirely.

        Reply
        1. Gyrfalcon

          I think it’s an immensely valuable skill to have, because nobody, from the intern to the CEO, should be spending so much time firing off random complaints about things that should be changed.

          Even when an executive is brought in as a change agent, there are ways to go about identifying, prioritizing, and providing resources for change that are constructive, and ways that are destructive.

          If this intern absorbs that the only reason she shouldn’t spout off her endless complaints is because she’s an intern, it may improve the rest of her four years as an intern, but she’ll revert to bring hell-on-wheels to deal with as she moves up the ladder in other jobs and thinks “now I know more and I’m not an intern, so I can go back to complaining.

          And heaven help her employees if she eventually becomes a manager still carrying her mistaken idea about making complaints.

          Reply
  16. animaniactoo

    I would start by validating that some of the things she has brought up are very good. Speak to specific pieces. Acknowledge the motivation and go-gettingness behind it, etc.

    And then explain the concept of “political capital”.

    That even if *every single one* of her ideas and criticisms is valid, bringing up SO MANY – even with proffered solutions – is exhausting her political capital.

    If you want people to listen to you, you have to not just be a go-getter. You have to be someone that people are willing to listen to and will take seriously because of that.

    The way to do that is to understand that you basically have a “budget” of the number of times people are willing to listen to you – and not just you but ANYBODY. If you overdraw the budget, people are less willing to listen even if you’re going to be right about every single time.

    So the goal is to establish a reputation first. A reputation of somebody who looks at things and very selectively chooses what to address. Who listens and gives some benefit of the doubt to others and their experience. Who backs off quickly from things that aren’t that important in the grand scheme of things and are met with quick and relatively hard pushback.

    The more solid that reputation is, the bigger your “budget” of political capital is. Not inexhaustible, but certainly larger than someone who pushes for everything all the time – because their good ideas get lost in the noise of the constant onslaught. Which means they’ll lose more political capital each time they raise something because they are getting more overdrawn on their budget rather than breaking even or letting a little interest accrue against a future push for something that’s actually worth spending it on.

    So evaluate each idea. Is this worth spending political capital on? Why or why not?

    Reply
    1. Gloucesterina

      This is a great set of terms to introduce–reputation, political capital. I might consider adding collegiality to explain some of the pieces that add up to a solid reputation.

      Reply
    2. JessaB

      yes kind of the spoon theory of political capital. You have x bits of capital where do you want to use them. Once you use them up depending whether you use them for good things or not, you can’t get more very easily as you’re new here. You have to be around a long time to get more. So when you spend them not only are they gone, but people are less likely to listen to you later at all. Because you have no capital left.

      Reply
    3. Tuesday Next

      One of the points I wanted to make. Her frequent complaining is making people think “how do I get rid of that annoying buzzing sound?” not “she should be our next CEO!”

      Reply
    4. Demented OP

      I think this is a really good framework and I’m going to add it to my armamentarium of ways to explain the difference between “bright young go-getter with lots of ideas” and “office dementor”.

      Reply
  17. Argh!

    If there’s time, you could give her an assignment to design a plan for renovating the area, with a budget and some guidance on costs, then let her imagination run wild. The final product could be part of the learning output, and you could coach each section as a separate assignment. Not everyone will have a career as a soldier. She may have a career as a general.

    In some future role, this person may indeed be the perfect person for a particular situation, and with some authority and a budget could be a true leader. Dousing visionary tendencies would be a loss. She needs to be coached on drawing the line between imagining a better world and being a complainer.

    Or you could have group brain-storming meetings with all the interns, starting with “In a perfect world, starting from scratch, what would xyz process look like?” That would put the emphasis on the positive rather than the negative, and you could be a part of their group response rather than them doing it behind your back. In school they learn ideals. That’s in direct conflict with reality much of the time, but part of what you are supposedly getting from having them around. Otherwise, you’d just hire grunts off the street, right?

    The fact that you have implemented suggestions by interns means you don’t really want to shut her up. You just want her to work within boundaries, which is totally do-able.

    Reply
    1. Amtelope

      I think assigning her to fully research one of her suggestions might be a good idea, but I don’t think the office renovation is the place to start. That seems to me like one of the more tone-deaf of her suggestions — it’s out of line for an intern to complain about the layout of the office (unless it’s unsafe), and weirdly unrealistic for an intern to believe she is going to have a say in whether the office is remodeled.

      I’d be open to working with her on “here’s a specific process that I think could be improved, can I research whether it’s practical and desirable to do it X way instead of Y way?” but not “I hate the way this office is set up, you should buy new furniture and repaint.” AHAHAHA no.

      Reply
      1. Argh!

        I just picked that at random. I didn’t mean it as a task that would be acted on, but as something that would be similar to her classwork. Any project that requires her to figure out how to put her ideals into practice would teach her another point of view.

        Reply
    2. Observer

      This person would make a terrible leader and is not showing “visionary” tendencies. Good leaders actually listen to feedback, and take reality into consideration often enough that when they look like they are not, people are willing to listen. Visionaries who actually get things done don’t dismiss anyone who disagrees with them as a naysayer. They take the time to learn who are the real naysayers and who are people with useful, even if unpleasant, information.

      What exactly would you expect to accomplish by giving her an assignment to redo the office?

      Reply
      1. Argh!

        Not to redo it, but to develop a plan. Someone who sees only the end result in their mind and not the various steps to put it into practice needs to learn that part of project management. And yes, visionaries can be obnoxious before they learn how to work with other people effectively. People who only see obstacles and not possibilities are the foot soldiers of bureaucracy, not the generals.

        Reply
        1. Observer

          Except that that’s not what is going on here. They actually HAVE made changes based on SOME of her issues. But that’s not good enough. And, she’s never going to be a decent leader until she learns to accept that she doesn’t have all the answers.

          Reply
          1. Argh!

            Right, so there was a false impression made that needs to be un-made. It’s not all on her that this situation developed the way that it did.

            Reply
      2. Matilda Jefferies

        I think what you accomplish is getting her to think more critically about the types of problems she brings forward. Instead of walking around going “Ugh, everything around here sucks!” she can start to develop an awareness of why some things suck, what it sometimes takes to resolve them, and why we sometimes choose to live with the suckiness. Get her to take some ownership over it, rather than just complaining for the sake of complaining or expecting magical results.

        Reply
        1. Argh!

          Yep. Even if the reason something can’t be changed is just a matter of time and priorities, having her estimate the time and expense helps her see things from management’s point of view.

          Reply
      1. Argh!

        I didn’t suggest rewarding her for being a jerk, but rather working with her on her own terms to bring out the best in her while also teaching her something about the work world.

        Reply
    3. Candi

      There’s an Evil Overlord rule that goes something like, “When a messenger comes in dusty, bloody, and/or disheveled, I will not ignore or dismiss them until my current entertainment is over. It might actually be important.”

      Right now, she’s so busy with her grand ideas that she’s not listening to the messenger. And she really, really needs to.

      Unfortunately, the Evil Overlord list, the Cellblocks on the same site, and TV Tropes’ additional pages are not recommended professional/educational reading.

      Reply
  18. EmilyG

    I hope OP can work things out with this intern but be on the lookout for the attitude that “you can’t handle their sharp-eyed truth-telling” because that is a real dealbreaker in my experience. It’s a combination of insubordination and being a smartass. At a certain point, if someone keeps finding fault with things that everyone else (including the boss) can live with or understand the reasons for, maybe it’s not the right job for that person.

    Reply
      1. Candi

        The stuff they’re learning will help them for their lifetime, the same way a solid foundation means it’s easier to build that statue.

        Reply
    1. Turtle Candle

      I really liked that phrase of Alison’s, because it hits the nail on the head. And while enthusiasm and go-getter-ness can be redirected for positive use, “you just disagree with me because you’re a stick in the mud or are less intelligent than me or are a minion whereas I’m a visionary” is absolute poison, in my experience. It’s a one-two punch of deflecting all criticism (especially bad at a point in your life when you’re supposed to be learning from those with more experience) and insulting the people around you. And really hard to shake people out of when they get going down that path.

      Reply
  19. Snark

    I’ve worked with someone like this, who is a veritable fountain of incisive* suggestions** on how we could*** do things better, faster and cheaper****.

    *also half-informed and riddled with un-examined assumptions about needs and priorities
    **Phrased as exasperated, know-it-all demands
    ***Absolutely must, unless we lack the moxie, gumption, creativity, and can-do spirit to attack sclerotic bureaucracy
    ****If only it weren’t for pesky regulations, laws, acts of congress, ethical constraints, and legal precedent

    Reply
    1. Demented OP

      I actually LOLed at this, along with Alison’s “sharp-eyed truth-telling.” It helps a lot to know that others have dealt with the same “You can’t HANDLE the moxie!” approach. Thank you.

      Reply
      1. Snark

        And now I am imagining Jack Nicholson barking “YOU CAN’T HANDLE THE MOXIE” and I am giggling uncontrollably, so the gratitude is returned.

        Reply
  20. Stranger than fiction

    Is anyone else picturing Christa Carlisle from American Vandal? (As in that’s how I would picture her in an internship)

    Reply
  21. Demented OP

    OP here– It’s been a few months since I originally wrote to Alison, and fortunately the intern in question has calmed down a lot as she enters her second year in the program. One thing we did was switch up her schedule so that she’s no longer with the same group she was with previously–there was one other intern in that group that had sort of the same attitude and they really fed off each other: “Oh, this sucks.” “Yeah, it does! And you know what else sucks? This other thing!” “Yeah, you’re right! Actually this whole place sucks and everyone here is terrible!” (Not verbatim, obviously). She’s with a much mellower group now and so she doesn’t get wound up in the same way.

    I think another big part of Alice’s problem was just feeling overwhelmed by the challenges of her program in general (which is, frankly, very demanding), and she was focusing all of that stress on particular things she could identify that bothered her. As she’s gotten more comfortable and feels more capable (and has moved up to doing some specialized work that is especially interesting to her) I think she’s feeling calmer about the whole thing.

    To be clear, we were talking to her about specifically why certain proposals of hers wouldn’t work (many of which boiled down to “Someone other than me should be taking on this intern-level task while I do something more complex and interesting “) but I think it took an unusually long time for her to realize that everyone else also has a lot to do and that even the senior people aren’t just swanning around being intellectual and making work for the interns.

    I regret not sitting Alice down and having a talk with her earlier in the year and using something like Alison’s language, but I think it will be useful–Alice was an extreme case, but it’s not unusual to have someone with a few of the same symptoms in any year’s class (although this year’s group is great), and I think I’ll recognize the issue earlier and have a better toolkit for dealing with it in the future.

    Reply
    1. Helpful

      I think you can still be on the lookout– it concerns me that moving groups is part of what mellowed her out. That simply shows that her coworkers can bring out this undesirable trait and it may just be latent. Sounds like you’re doing a good job, but don’t be afraid to have those hard conversations. They are helpful long-term to your intern, not harmful.

      Reply
      1. Greengirl

        It actually doesn’t surprise me that moving groups improved the situation. People can feed off of each other in terms of bad morale. Complaining or venting becomes normalized which just encourages more of it. I saw some of this happen in a workplace where certain people who were more mellow leaving meant that the less mellow people had a majority and that encouraged more unproductive complaining. When the more mellow, mature coworkers were still around there were more checks on what was and was not appropriate to make a stink over.

        I’m glad to hear that Alice is improving.

        Reply
        1. Turtle Candle

          Yes; I’ve had intermittent problems in my life with complaining-as-bonding, and really, the most effective way to break the pattern is to change up who I’m interacting with so that my more negative tendencies aren’t actively reinforced. It might be better if I could resist even in the presence of complainers, but the stopgap solution is better than nothing.

          Reply
    2. Been there

      It was a great question. I’ve had a few Alice/Dementors on various teams. I’m glad it seems to be working out. Very astute to figure out the dynamic of her and the other intern.

      I had my own Alice, who was challenging, she was pretty blunt in her comments that her current role was not where she wanted to be*. She also had the same desire to work on other more interesting things. I was equally blunt in my consistent (why yes we had the conversation more than once, why do you ask?) message that I would support her aspirations to move up/over into a different role, but while she was in her current role she had to focus on her core responsibilities.

      I’m happy to report that I did find her a role that interested her and was big enough for her :) She also took to heart my comments and did fulfill her role on my team while she was there.

      *It really was a bad fit for her. She was a larger than life go-getter in a background support role

      Reply
    3. Snark

      “Someone other than me should be taking on this intern-level task while I do something more complex and interesting!”

      I have had interns and very, very entry-level people say things like this to me at various times, and I war with an almost 50-50 split between the urge to tell them to sit down and the desire to pat them fondly on the head. Oh, honey.

      Reply
      1. Turtle Candle

        Yeah, I winced at that too! I had a new colleague some years ago who clearly wanted to be The Team Visionary, and didn’t want to have to do the “boring” work of technical writing like writing step-by-steps or helping with the proofreading. His idea was that he’d come in and suggest grand redesigns and then the rest of us could do the “little stuff,” like write 90% of it and handle the commits and merges and make all the manual updates and so on.

        It wasn’t that his ideas were even bad (some were, but a lot of them were good). It was that we resented the idea that all this necessary day-to-day work was somehow above him (but not above us, even though we had much more experience and knowledge of the product).

        He didn’t last long when the boss made it clear that he was going to have to do his share of the routine stuff too.

        Reply
        1. Demented OP

          Yup. The nadir was the day when she suggested that she take on responsibility in her 1 day/week for developing a program that anyone with experience would immediately recognize as needing at least 1.0 experienced FTE and possibly more, 200K for budget, and periodic outside consultant support. I had actually just seen a well-funded effort at the same thing by a friend of mine with vastly more expertise and experience fail due to the fact that it’s really difficult to do that particular thing. (It was, coincidentally, also the day she suggested we completely remodel the office.) Naturally, she thought we were just being obstructionist when we said no (and yes, I talked about my friend’s experience).

          To be clear, I actually really like this intern and she is very good at and very passionate about the core elements of our work, and I believe all of this stems from naivete and a desire to make! things! better! I! can! do! it! on an unrealistic timeline and without any understanding of the nitty-gritty details involved, but there were a few months there where it seemed like every week we were trying to reel her back in and point out that making phone calls and documenting things correctly are necessary functions too, and that even visionary programs involve a fair amount of tedious detail.

          Reply
    4. (Mr.) Cajun2core

      Okay, the “Someone other than me should be taking on this intern-level task while I do something more complex and interesting” attitude changes *everything*.

      Reply
    5. Anony McAnonface

      My boss has the opposite problem. He doesn’t like to hand off “boring” tasks to subordinates and I’m trying to pry them out of his hands. His time is more usefully spent doing other things and should not be spent on admin tasks. There are two admin assistants, let us do our jobs!

      Reply
      1. M-C

        Sometimes I like to spend time on stupid-looking tasks because it allows me to think about the larger problem(s) in the background, without seeming to be slacking off (to myself or to others). They occupy the surface level while allowing the deeper level to do its thing. Be sure you’re not interfering with that Anony..

        Reply
        1. Anony McAnonface

          Oh no, he’s been told by his boss, my grandboss, that the admin should be doing those tasks. I didn’t even know he wasn’t handing them off to the other admin until boss got his knuckles rapped by grandboss over it, and then both of us admins were shocked the other one hadn’t been given the task.

          Reply
    6. Old Admin

      And can I say I absolutely *love* the OP’s screen name!

      DEMENTED OP !! *yay* \o/

      I need to calm down more. ;-)

      Reply
    7. AdAgencyChick

      Hi, OP! Thanks for the update!

      “(many of which boiled down to “Someone other than me should be taking on this intern-level task while I do something more complex and interesting “)” I had one of those at my last job. Sympathies.

      As a friend of mine once put it, when you are thoroughly inexperienced, your primary value to a company is in being willing to do the boring lower-skilled sh!t no one else wants to do, while you learn more about the field and the company.

      Reply
  22. Student

    You can always, always get rid of her. There is always a process; if there isn’t one, there should be.

    Not saying you are there yet, but don’t just throw up your hands and say, “I’m stuck with her and have no real ability to enforce consequences, might as well roll with the punches.” If you cannot handle her, because you really lack any authority in this arrangement, throw her to somebody above you. Talk to her grad professor directly. Something!

    Reply
  23. Guacamole Bob

    I work in a kind of dysfunctional local government bureaucracy. It’s very easy to come up with ideas for how things should be better, but changing them is very hard. I’ve learned that it’s better to start from the assumption that people are competent and have good intentions. You will sometimes be proven wrong, but you’ll be better off assuming they have good reasons for the things they’re doing than assuming that they just don’t know any better.

    Also, there is always a reason that things are the way they are. It may be a good reason or a bad reason or even an infuriating reason, but you will get further if you make an effort to understand why things are the way they are. Lots of members of the public like to gripe about my agency, but most of the things they gripe about have reasons behind them once you’re on staff and start asking questions: archaic hardware that we don’t have the budget to upgrade, complex regulations from multiple regulatory bodies, clauses in a labor union contract, ADA requirements, higher priorities for a very limited budget, etc.

    OP, could you coach your intern to start by asking questions about how things work, instead of jumping immediately to suggested fixes? Questions from an intern may be less abrasive, and she will quickly start to learn that you aren’t just a bunch of lazy incompetents waiting for her to come along and save the day.

    Reply
    1. Argh!

      When I first arrived at currentjob I was scheduled to meet with HeadBossBigCheeseGuy, who warned me that we do a lot of things in a non-standard way and that I should trust him that there’s a reason. Over time I realized his executive staff were extremely resistant to change, so he chose his battles.

      Reply
      1. Alice

        So, the reason why they do a lot of things in a non-standard way is… that his executive staff are resistant to chance, and HeadBossBigCheeseGuy doesn’t have the time/energy/capital to change that? I don’t think I would be happy working there.
        But to his credit, he brought it up early.

        Reply
    2. Tuesday Next

      Yes, this. You have to be a little clueless to believe that none of the people working here have identified this problem or come up with a solution, but you, the intern or brand new hire, have unique and remarkable insight which you will graciously share.

      Reply
  24. Jana Appleseed

    I wonder if some well-meaning internship advice like “solve a problem for them and you’ll make yourself invaluable!” has gone wrong here. But yeah, you need to address this, for your sake and hers. If her work is good, though, and you genuinely want her to succeed, a couple of things that might help:

    —Does she just need more to do? Can she be given slightly more responsibility? (It’s hard to say what that might be without knowing your field, but maybe playing an entry-level staffer role instead of an intern role, or pitching a project of her own to take on.) Maybe she can channel some of this energy into her own work.
    —Is there any way she can be exposed to the decision-making process — maybe sit in on a meeting with you and your bosses, with the understanding that this is an intern ride-along, not a chance for her to make her case?

    Obviously it’s not your responsibility to cater to her emotions. But meddlers sometimes are just meddlers, and sometimes they’re go-getters who want more control and input than is realistic for them to have. Finding a small fenced area where you can let those tendencies run in a productive way could end up being good for you and your organization.

    Reply
  25. The New Wanderer

    I disagree with the advice to have the intern spend any time working on her complaints. If she’s only there once a week, she should be focusing on the work she’s supposed to be doing. The learning opportunity is for her to figure out how to operate in an office without being a complainer, not for her to figure out for herself why the complaints and her solutions to them are not relevant/unworkable/etc.

    But I may be influenced by my experience watching a new employee “invent” all these solutions to our (technical) problems that had already been evaluated for years, mostly by the rest of the team, which she would have known if she looked into it before immediately going to higher-ups with her proposals. Yet the manager indulged her and had her work on dead end projects of her own design so she’d remain enthusiastic rather than actually have her focus on the work the team needed her to do. She didn’t stay long enough to learn anything from that.

    Reply
    1. sometimeswhy

      Oh, you can sit next to me.

      I am sixteen kinds of tired of inexperienced people who invent projects/problems/standards but don’t focus on the actual tasks assigned to them. If they are interning, double that. I do not care how well someone topiaries llama wool, if they’re supposed to be learning how to feed them to a strictly regimented and predefined diet, all they’ve just shown me is that they can’t follow directions and are unaware of professional norms. Save llama styling for instagram and do what I asked for the love of camelids.

      Reply
    2. AdAgencyChick

      Completely, completely agree.

      It would be a kindness to explain to her — ONCE — why she should not be doing what she’s doing, along with telling her to stop doing it. After that, if she’s pissed off, she can go ahead and be pissed off — QUIETLY — while she’s getting her actual job done.

      Reply
  26. knitcrazybooknut

    A technique I’ve had to use might be useful here. Start asking her to email any complaints she might have directly to you, with the added requirement of having her research all sides of the issue she’s bringing up: legal issues, problems other coworkers might have with her solution, corporate policies that might be in play, anything else she might not be aware of. Let her be responsible for thinking through all possible ramifications of her complaint and solution. Sell it as a problem-solving exercise for her, to develop her skills. Honestly, I think it’s an excellent use of an intern’s time; there’s so much you don’t know at that level, and to have the space to try and think of these things and research them would be eye-opening.

    I’ve used this to try to track the thought processes of a new hire so that I can see where there might be holes in our training processes. If they have a question, I have them email me with that question, and all of the steps they’ve taken to try and answer it themselves. It serves multiple purposes: They have to stop and think about the steps they should have taken in the first place to answer it themselves; they have to document what they have done to figure it out; they haven’t interrupted me or the rest of my team to answer it; they’ve documented something that they may have already been trained on multiple times; and they have shown me what their thought processes are so that I can effectively train them in the future.

    Reply
  27. LAI

    I’m afraid I may have been an Alice. In my first professional job, I used to constantly make comparisons to my previous experience (as a student employee) at another company, saying “at Teapots Inc., we did X” and implying their way was better. I remember a coworker finally telling me in a snappy tone “This isn’t Teapots Inc.!” I also still cringe when I remember how, on one occasion, I wrote a multi-page report telling another program director how to redo their program entirely. I had been asked to serve on a committee to provide feedback but I took it waaaaaayy too far and was talking about things that I really didn’t know enough about. I don’t think anyone ever explicitly told me what I was doing was annoying, but I eventually figured it out on my own.

    Reply
  28. Gazebo Slayer

    I blame the advice young people just starting out in their careers often get – that they have to find some problem the employer has and ~solve~ it, that they have to be ~visionaries~ who ~revolutionize~ their field to get anywhere, that they should “disrupt” their industry. (Anybody else remember when “disruption” was a bad thing? Like, when it was the word applied to the kid throwing paper airplanes at the teacher?)

    Lots of professors, parents, “experts,” and crappy givers of job advice are constantly telling young people to prove how special they are and how much smarter they are than their coworkers. My college was always telling students that we’d go into our fields and change them and that we’d know better than our coworkers who’d been there for years because as Teapot College grads we were super smart and special. Maybe this intern has taken this kind of thing to heart a little too much…

    Reply
  29. zapateria la bailarina

    along the lines of removing her from the program… i think if this behavior continues after you’ve addressed it, you should contact the school’s program manager and explain what’s going on. this is something that affects them as well, because her behavior is a reflection of the school and the program she’s in, so they’ll want to know about it and will presumably want to do something about it to avoid any damage to their program’s reputation.

    Reply
  30. Suzy Q

    This young woman sounds absolutely EXHAUSTING. I wish you the best in dealing with her, OP. I am SO glad I am not a manager anymore. I wasn’t good at it, anyway.

    Reply
  31. Anyway

    It’s important to be careful here to avoid throwing the baby out with the bathwater given that some of her ideas are good. I don’t think she should be criticized for proposing things, it’s better to encourage her to be realistic about them.

    I’m currently working with two colleagues who are the complete opposite of the person described in the letter. They do everything exactly as they have been told, without changing anything. They don’t complain about it.

    Work with them is very difficult since they lack the capacity to think outside the box and find solutions to the new problems we are facing. They just follow the rules. It’s driving me up the wall. There are actually better, less complex, more efficient ways of solving most of these problems but they chose to follow the old system instead.

    Proactiveness and creativity are good. Unrealistic expectations aren’t.

    Reply
  32. Not That Jane

    One of the projects we’ve done at school sometimes is “If you could make our school the ideal learning environment for you, what would it look like?” In my experience, it rarely gets any really useful or creative thinking from students because they are not able or willing to think about stakeholders and constraints. So their projects always say, like, “Let’s build a giant soccer field and have soccer hour instead of silent reading every day!”

    I think this intern could benefit from having a talk about stakeholders and constraints, and why you cannot ignore them.

    Reply
  33. MassMatt

    OMG, another workplace with a untouchable, guaranteed employment for people, no matter how dysfunctional! This person is an INTERN, she should be learning/listening, yet she is sucking all joy and happiness from those around her (dementor). Yet, there’s “no way” to fire her unless she drops out of the program? For FOUR YEARS? And you are paying her? This is nuts. And people are suggesting spending 1/8of her time entertaining her chronic complaining? (Yes, someone suggested “maybe 1/2 hour a week”–she works once a week!). You don’t manage a chronic complainer by devoting more time for them to air complaints.

    Reply
  34. Anon anon anon

    This sounds like a culture clash between academic and professional cultures. In higher education, students are rewarded for pointing out problems and offering possible solutions. Because this is an internship tied to a school program (for which she is paying tuition or receiving funding), the line blurs.

    I think a lot of people make the mistake of acting like students early on in their first professional job. But it’s easy to catch on when you have a job description and you’re being paid, not receiving any kind of academic credit.

    So I think this would be a good opportunity to have a conversation with all of the interns about norms in school versus different kinds of professional settings.

    Honestly, some people do want to be in charge and be the one to solve all the problems. Those people tend to do better being self employed, working at a very small company with a loose hierarchy, or finding a rare larger org that values that kind of attitude. It’s good to identify that tendency early in your career and plan accordingly. And I think that could be part of the conversation – that different types of professional paths require different types of behavior and that this is a good time to think about what’s the best fit.

    Reply
  35. FormerEmployee

    I have to wonder how this person is so out of touch. While the interns are all over 21, I bet they aren’t a whole lot older than that, which makes them “technical adults” to me. Doesn’t this person have any interaction with real adults in her life? Don’t any of them work? (I’m thinking parents, aunts, uncles, etc.) I mean, I did a number of dumb things when I first started working because I didn’t know all of the unwritten rules, but I certainly didn’t suggest that they remodel the office to suit me, the new employee.

    Reply

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