the care and feeding of your interns

Have a new crop of spring semester interns starting work? Here are three tips for managing them effectively.

1. Recognize that your interns are working for no or little pay and find out what they’re hoping to get out of the experience – and then think about how you might be able to help them. If they’re hoping to get some experience writing and you wouldn’t normally have them doing any writing, see if there’s a way to allow them to write a few small things (which you’d then edit). Of course, sometimes this isn’t practical; it depends on what exactly they’re hoping to get experience doing. Most often though, interns are simply looking to get “experience” and that can mean anything from answering phones to proofing a policy brief.

2. Assume that your interns won’t know some basic things about how offices work and give more guidance than you might with a regular employee. Make sure you’re your expectations and goals for their time with you are really clear, and check in regularly to monitor how their work is being executed so you can make course corrections if needed and act as a resource.

You also might need to explain things that would go unsaid with someone more experienced. I’ve even had to explain to interns that they need to call if they’re unable to come in (not just not show up without notifying anyone). Keep in mind that a lot of the value of an internship is that it’s how students learn these basics about the work world — so that when they’re in a “real” position, they already know how things work. Ideally, you’ll be someone who enjoys teaching this kind of thing; if you’re not, at least see it as part of the “pay” you’re providing them in exchange for their work.

3. Don’t cut your interns too much slack just because they’re not being paid much. You probably won’t be holding them to precisely the same standards you’d hold your regular staff to, but you should hold them to something close to that — because otherwise the time that you put into hiring, training, and supervising them won’t be worth it to you, and they’ll lose a lot of the value of the experience themselves.

Sometimes managers feel like they can’t hold interns very accountable or give them direct feedback about problem areas because they’re not getting paid much, but because of the time investment on your side, it’s generally better to have no intern at all than to have one who you can’t rely on or whose work is so careless that it has to be redone.

{ 16 comments… read them below }

  1. Under Stand*

    Typo in point #2

    “…employee. Make sure you’re your expectations and goals for their time…”

  2. JT*

    Good article.

    I have interns working for/with me at my job in a global nonprofit organization and am also interning a day at week at another organization, so I see it from both sides.

    I think interns, or at least good interns, should like clear and frequent feedback. And the feeling that they are either learning something new or contributing in the organization in some way.

    One thing I missed in my last internship was lack of connection to staff apart from my direct supervisor, so at my job I try to have interns attend as many meetings with me as possible, just to get exposure to different aspects of our organization.

  3. Liz*

    This is a really helpful post on something I really struggle with as a team manager. I am constantly in fear that my interns aren’t getting anything out of their experience. So much so, that I think sometimes i give them BETTER tasks than I give staff because I want them to be fulfilled. I’m trying to reign that in and realize that part of what they are learning is that every job has some not fun stuff associated with it. Thank you.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      And remember, too, that the people you most care about retaining aren’t your interns, but rather your full-time staffers (assuming that they’re good and worth retaining). So while it’s good to pay attention to your interns’ fulfillment, it can’t be at the expense of your regular staffers!

    2. Anonymous*

      Like what AAM stated above, most of the time, interns just want to and are willing to do anything to get their hands on something. When I did an unpaid internship, I was rarely given any work to do and the work I did do only took like 10 mins, which I had to make it last a whole week. I didn’t mind copying, answering phones or anything. With that said, any practical experience would help interns to, not just the most glamorous projects.

  4. Jamie*

    I like the point Alison made about teaching them the basics of office protocol – it can be easy to forget that we weren’t all born knowing how to navigate the workplace.

    And it’s the little things they don’t cover in school.

    1. If your print job used the last of the paper, refill the tray even if you don’t need any more copies right now.

    2. Initiative is great, but until you are granted authority don’t take it upon yourself to make “improvements.” Suggestions, fine (if made politely) but there may be reasons things are done a certain way – you don’t have all the information. Maybe you’re right and then you get the green light to make changes and everyone will love you – that’s why you ask.

    3. Show respect for the hierarchy; fake it if you have to. Don’t roll your eyes when the COO is speaking to you and don’t joke about how you’ll get something done tomorrow if you aren’t too hung over. You can be friendly to the people for whom you work, but you aren’t friends. Learn this distinction early and you’ll be way ahead of the game.

    4. Watch and listen. I’m sure you have fabulous ideas and tons of theory – but if you watch and listen more than you talk you’ll learn both what to do, and what not to do. I dare say at this stage in the game you may learn more from the knuckleheads at work than the performers…take advantage of the cautionary tales.

    and most important of all – and I cannot stress this enough…get this tattooed if need be, but…

    5. Just because you have a Facebook page and a smart phone does NOT qualify you for IT. DON’T TOUCH ANYTHING! (without consent)

    1. KayDay*

      “5. Just because you have a Facebook page and a smart phone does NOT qualify you for IT. DON’T TOUCH ANYTHING! (without consent)”

      haha. This could also be directed at the managers, however. Just because your intern (or any employee under 25) has Facebook and a smart phone does not mean they know how to fix the server when it goes down, or how to retrieve that document that you forgot to save. Please stop asking!!

      Also, for #1. The do not teach clearing paper jams from industrial sized copiers in school.

    2. Henning Makholm*

      (1) is fine if the printer is such that you can easily see when collecting your print job that it has used the last paper. For all the tray-fed printers I’ve worked with, the “out of paper” light only comes on when you try to print something after the last paper has been used. One would have to explicitly yank out the tray and look for it being empty.

      1. Long Time Admin*

        It you’re making more than 100 copies, CHECK THE PAPER TRAY! It only takes a few moments, and even an engineer could do it! (I can say that because I work with engineers and some of them do refill the paper trays.)

  5. Anonymous*

    I love this post!

    Reminds me, when I was at the beginning of my internship, my manager asked me that he needed help cleaning/organizing the papers off his desk and dusting his shelves with a big grin on his face. I said, “sure” since I didn’t have anything else to do and plus, I secretly thought his office did look like a mess and I’m such a neat-freak, thank goodness. About a week later, I mentioned it to him again since he hadn’t let me help him out yet. To my surprise, he said he was only teasing me. It was after this that I actually started to get some good projects to do.

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