dealing with the self-appointed alpha-intern

A reader writes:

It is, of course, summer intern season — which naturally means lots of poorly paid or unpaid 20-somethings trying to make a good impression for the sake of their future careers, myself included. Where I’m working this summer, there is a fellow intern intent on creating for herself an unspoken “captain of the interns” role. This involves volunteering for any and all projects that come from the very top of our department complete with re:all e-mails letting other interns know she’s taken those assignments. (Note: the protocol is simply to sign tasks out from a common project book that everyone from department heads to entry-level hires fill with work where anything unsigned is fair game for whoever wants it; the protocol is definitely not to email everyone to call “dibs.”) It involves “tongue in cheek” whining when someone signs a project out of the book before her that she wanted (it doesn’t rise to the level of “complaining” I suppose, but it’s sufficient to convey her expectation/hope that people will leave certain types of projects for her). It involves asking “just curious” questions about the status of other interns’ work to ensure that she’s working at a faster pace. And less importantly, but still amusingly, it involves social “alpha” behavior such as gossiping with the handful of interns who are from the same school as her (one of whom is basically so whipped that she barely talks to anyone else, takes all lunches and breaks with the “alpha,” etc.) or sending out an “out of office” email for her 2 vacation days, as if the entire office is as concerned when she is gone as when a department head is out.

Now, I’m 100% certain this is far from the only story of teacher’s pet activity wrapped in professionalism out there, especially when internships often inherently invoke a feeling of competition for possible hire. I’m also aware enough to acknowledge that the alpha in this story is hardly a terrible employee — from a boss’s perspective, I’m sure her “enthusiasm” is for the most part appreciated. And I wouldn’t say it’s impacted my own work beyond a level of minor annoyance: I’m certainly not going to avoid assignments in the project book that interest me solely because she’s trying to claim territory she’s unentitled to, and my focus is as it should be on just understanding what my bosses are asking of me, doing my own work well and getting along with everyone (including being civil to her). I fully realize speaking up in any way about her to anyone at the office would simply come across as petty, and I figure the best way to shine is just to do superior work in my own right without making a big deal about it.

I’m nevertheless curious: Do you have tips on dealing with people whose work attitude is all about power dynamics like this?

She sounds obnoxious, but also fairly harmless. The most effective tack with that combination is to just see her as free entertainment.

After all, she’s hardly going to be the last Tracy Flick you work with. In fact, you are probably going to have coworkers in your future who will be so insufferable that they make her look good by comparison. So it’s useful to learn early how to watch these types with amused detachment rather than to let them get under your skin.

(And if you aren’t already reading Jane Austen, now’s the time to pick some up. If you can see her an annoying side character in a Jane Austen novel, your life at work will become far more pleasant.)

That said, if you really want to engage, you can try flatly correcting some of her behavior — for instance, in response to the emails calling dibs on work:  “I think the protocol is to sign up in the project book.” Or in response to the whining that someone else takes a project that she wanted:  “Well, there are five of us.” But there’s not much point, other than the momentary satisfaction you might derive from it.

Really, your best bet is to take it as lesson in how to adjust your outlook on irritating people and see them as entertaining caricatures, which has the potential to stay with you longer than anything else you learn this summer!

Read an update to this letter here.

{ 105 comments… read them below }

  1. Josh S*

    OP, I think you’re already on the right track. Laugh and move along. Keep at your own work, and just allow yourself to be entertained by this person. (Doubly so if your fellow interns implode in response to her.)

  2. Rana*

    I’d also say, in addition to Alison’s excellent advice, that you shouldn’t assume that this person is viewed as positively by your bosses as you might think. They too may be observing her behavior and thinking quietly to themselves that what’s tolerable or even desirable behavior in an intern could become quite annoying were she to become a full-time employee.

    1. Emily*

      Or even talking/emailing among themselves about the behavior they’re observing!

      Just like there are interns that take the “alpha” approach and those that don’t, there are full-time employees and bosses who are going to buy into it and those who will see right through it.

    2. saro*

      I know that I would hire the competent, efficient and un-irritating intern! Inter-personal skills are very, very important to me. I don’t mind opinionated individuals but make it a point to try not to hire bullies or so called ‘alpha-interns’.

  3. Chris V*

    The problem with outgoing, aggressive people is that these traits are often seen as signs of leadership. When someone assumes the role of group leader, managers often promote that person into a real leadership position. If you don’t want this person as your future boss, then you need to undermine her or turn her followers into your followers.

    1. Anonymous*

      Much as I hate to admit, this is what happens in real life. Unless a thorough incompetent, these stunts usually pay off. And those minding own business, working hard end up looking foolish!
      Cynical but true.

      1. Anonymous*

        I’ve worked with several outgoing, aggressive people who put on many stunts to make it look like they know what they’re doing. Other team members and even managers actually think those people are going above and beyond. I’ve learned that minding my own business and focusing on my own work, sadly, doesn’t help the situation at all. I’ve learned that working hard AND speaking up when issues arise is the best solution.

    2. Tamara*

      I agree with the first 2 sentences here, but not the last one. Undermining another employee and/or turning “followers” against them is unprofessional. While it might have desirable short-term effects, in the long run it will only make you look petty and will develop poor habits that will inevitably come back to haunt you. The best thing to do is work hard; exhibit strong, healthy leadership skills; excel at your job better than the other person; and make sure the bosses are aware of your work/skills. Be just as vocal, but do it in a way that is productive, efficient, and positive. If you don’t shine over someone who is vocal about things like being territorial over jobs or forcefully supervising peers, then you’re probably not in a very well managed company to begin with and it’s probably not where you want to extend & build your career.

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        Exactly. If you’re great at what you do, you’re not going to be at the mercy of Chris V’s melodramatic warning of “this person becoming your future boss.” Do great work, and you’ll have options. Don’t, and you’ll be at the mercy of all kinds of crappy situations.

        1. Jacob N.*

          I would totally agree with Alison here.

          I worked at two different internships while I was in graduate school. The biggest thing that I found that predicted success was to, like Alison said, be great at what you do.

          There will be the other interns, and, yes, sometimes those from the same school tended to band together, or one or two tried to be an “alpha.” That being said, just control what you can do, and do the best that you can.

          I would just focus on impressing with your work, and the rest should take care of itself. The problem would lie in getting so caught up in this person’s work that your own work begins to suffer.

      2. mh_76*

        and those things (“…work hard; exhibit strong, healthy leadership skills; excel at your job better than the other person; and make sure the bosses are aware of your work/skills. Be just as vocal, but do it in a way that is productive, efficient, and positive.”) are what “alpha” people do instead of hogging work, attempting to claim territory, undermining peers, etc.

        1. Long Time Admin*

          And if you work on a team project, or even with just one other person, share the glory (as long as it’s genuine). Alphas don’t do that, and good bosses know people don’t like working with them. You won’t come across as “alpha”, but as “superior”, and with leadership qualities. Big difference.

          1. mh_76*

            I agree with the first sentence but not with the rest. Alphas do share. This intern is a brat, not an alpha. Alphas are “‘superior’, and with leadership qualities” and are respected among most peers. Brats like this intern are not.

    3. Anonymous*

      +1. It happens. I’ve watched these “alphas” get promoted time after time. Both times I’ve seen it they weren’t even competent either

      1. EB*

        I’ve seen the alpha-blowhards promoted time and time again as well, so I learned from them that I also need to self promote and take initiative as well

    4. EngineerGirl*

      Chris V, this is very bad advice. Never undermine anyone! Not only is it wrong, but it will hurt you. What if you get caught? Out the door with you! More importantly, people that undermine spend all their precious energy undermining when they could be using that same energy to perform with excellence. People that don’t undermine will usually have a greater volume and quality of work than people that spend all their time bringing others down.

      Guess who will eventually get ahead?

    5. Liz*

      If the worst thing that happens to you in life is that some “alpha” takes on more projects than you do at work, you are pretty lucky.

      The OP is worried that the alpha is making others around her look like lesser employees. Maybe that is happening (and maybe the “alpha” really has leadership qualities that others do not) but if the OP jumps into some sort of fight for followers (?!?) then she WILL look terrible. And it will be her own fault.

      This is very counter-productive advice.

    6. Lori*

      Outgoingness and aggressiveness are signs of leadership. (In most cases, also those are subjective terms.) All she is doing is jumping ahead and wanting to do all of the projects. What exactly is wrong with that? If she can handle them, as OP seems to say she can, then it’s not like she will be churning out crappy work. It’s also not her businesses to make sure she is being “fair” and giving everyone an equal chance. Plus, when she claims the work that’s not it’s supposed to be claimed, so she should just be ignored. The OP needs to man up and stop “hating” on this girl. She sounds annoying, but why do you care if she has a posse? That’s completely irrelevant. Learn how to stick up for yourself like she is doing, and stop complaining about it.
      Now if I was the OP (I am an introverted yet very aggressive/assertive individual) I would have flat out 1. replied to her e-mail claiming work and EVERYONE she sent it out to, non-chalantly saying “[They] told us [on the first day of work] that we are supposed to sign up in the project book.” 2. Whenever she sends out emails saying she will be out reply and say “can you please take me off this automated list-serv. thank you.” That is, if her work does not require your involvement so you don’t need to know if she’s in or not.
      I think that is what Chris meant about undermining her.. so in that case I agree with what he said. But you don’t need to convert her friends, that’s just too much.

  4. P*

    I always leave work at 5, I have a family and spending evenings with my kids is better than working late. I’ve never neglected a project to leave on time and will stay late, come in early or work from home when the need arises. I have no problem meeting my deadlines. However in my old office there were a cluster of people that would stay late daily and while not admitting it, the clear reason why was to show anyone else still there that they are the hard workers. I was packing up one day right at 5 and one of the “stay laters” commented that it must be nice to be able to leave at 5, that they just had too much to do and couldn’t afford that luxury. I responded with a comment about how I must have better time management skills than they did. The comments stopped after that, plus a year later I took a new job that was a couple of rungs up the ladder. That was six years ago and she’s still at that old job, I’ve since advanced twice at my new company.

    1. Paige*

      +1 What a clever response! I have to admit, it made me laugh. I’ll be using this if the need arises in the future. Thank you for sharing.

    2. saro*

      My mentor told me to say that to colleagues who said things like that. I didn’t say it but wish I did say, “Well, I am clearly more efficient than you are!” Love it!

    3. Hello Vino*

      P – I’ve been in the exact same situation that you’ve described! I, too, would leave right at 5pm and never had an issue meeting deadlines. A coworker would frequently stay late, not because she was working harder, but because she spent most of the day surfing the web or gossiping with other coworkers. At first, it gave management the impression that she was more committed at the job, but they soon realized what was really going on. I left this junior level position after a year and have advanced quickly at my new company. This coworker is still stuck in the same place.

  5. Charles*

    “free entertainment”

    YES! that’s exactly who you should view this type of co-worker.

  6. Naama*

    One of my fellow interns right now is so very, very much like this, only more of a frat boy stereotype. The “free entertainment” thing works best if you think of it as collecting stories to tell your friends. And oh man, do I ever have stories…like the time he told the rest of us we should be honored that he liked us, because he usually hates people. Or how he brags about his endowments, financial and, uh, physical.

    1. Lori*

      He’s a “frat boy” and he goes around saying he usually hates people? He doesn’t sound like a frat boy, he sounds like he’s weird with no social skills.

  7. moe*

    I think there’s a kinder explanation for most of the behavior OP has witnessed. It seems pretty clear OP is seeing all of the intern’s behavior through a filter that it’s about “power dynamics,” but there’s actually not much here.

    Regardless of what the protocol is (and is that official, or just something everyone does?), all she is doing is–volunteering for things communicating about projects. (Can’t you guys jump in if you’d prefer to grab a project?) She’s asking questions about other people’s work. She’s letting other people know what kind of projects she’d like to do, and doing so in a “tongue in cheek” way. She’s informing people when she’s going to be out of the office (I’m really confused what the problem is with this one). And she’s socializing with someone she knows before from her school–maybe not the best idea, but “whipped”? Really? They know each other.

    There’s a lot of snark in the original letter, but I’m not seeing any egregious behavior on the part of the intern. Building it up by thinking of her as “captain of the interns” and attributing such awful motivations to really quite normal (if a little annoyingly go-getter) office behavior requires a lot of energy and won’t help OP engage positively with this person.

    Just do your work and cut out the judgment and snark. It won’t help you. And if you and the other interns are gossiping about her, cut it out now–you will look far, far worse when that starts getting around.

    1. Anon*

      My two cents on the out of office email: if it’s a large organization, an intern sending out a mass email to let everyone know she’ll be gone for two days, does seem just a little presumptuous. If it’s a small one, then I guess that’s okay? But still she’s just an intern. I mean why would a VP in X department care that a particular intern in Y department is taking two days off? She could just let the people she interacts with frequently know and then set up an automatic reply to any emails she might get while on vacation. I think the OP’s gripe here is more about knowing your place in the food chain.

      1. moe*

        Oh, I misread that–thought it was an “out-of-office” auto-reply type email. Got it.

    2. Kit M.*

      Yes, the “whipped” thing bothered me. The OP ascribes a lot of motivations to the intern that seem like things you couldn’t really know without telepathy (or maybe the Obnoxious Intern is making comments to the effect of, “I’m working faster than you! Haha!” I don’t know.) Taken all together, she sounds like an annoying person, but I suspect that the reason the OP is so critical is because she fears the bosses are impressed. And fear, of course, leads to anger, and anger leads to attributing malicious motives to relatively innocuous activities.

    3. Liz*

      Love this – thanks! Although sending an office-wide email as an intern would be weird, unless it is a very small office.

    4. Steve G*

      I think your assessment is inacccurate. I was in a temp pool at the HQ of a major telecom/tech company in my early 20s. You knew your role was to be at the complete bottom of the totem pole. You:

      1) Knew nothing you were working on was so important that you needed an out-of-office,
      2) Because your work wasn’t so urgent but was more transactional, you wouldn’t need to be getting cc’d on other people’s emails

  8. S*

    I think that the take charge of the team behavior can really backfire. People like this intern usually see it as something employers want to see, but most of the time I’ve had it described to me in interviews I feel like it comes across as hard to manage and not a team player. I don’t want someone on my team who puts themselves up as the person in charge and goes around making sure other people are doing their job and insists that others change their behavior so she/he could have things the way they want. Yes there will always be people like that, but I wont hire someone who tells me “I wasn’t in a position of authority but I made sure other people were doing their jobs, ensured they saved the best projects for me, and had them come to me with problems.” Especially because most people who told this story in interviews included how one of their “team” didn’t like it and the self appointed boss had to go to the real boss to resolve the conflict. That is not a desirable quality in an employee.

    1. EngineerGirl*

      The intern is confusing bossiness with leadership. Really, a true leader is the one that can influence, irrespective of position. Good management recognises that.

      OP, if you really want to “win” consider being a positive influence to the team. Bring them together in unity, cause them to work more efficiently.

      What most young people don’t realise is that influence, not title is what make the day. You will get to a point in your career where you need cooperation from people that don’t report directly to you. The bossy person will be unable to accomplish anything (in fact, they will alienate) by bossing those that are not direct reports. Conversely, the influencer will convince others to work for the good of the project.

      1. mh_76*

        Agreed – that’s not “take charge of the team behavior”, it’s selfishness to the extreme…maybe to the point of narcissism.

        1. Alisha*

          I don’t want someone on my team who puts themselves up as the person in charge and goes around making sure other people are doing their job and insists that others change their behavior so she/he could have things the way they want.

          Neither did my old boss. He hired two guys in a row (because they were buddies from the earliest days of the dot-com boom) who acted this way. Both were in their 40s and hated my guts because I was a decade younger than both, made 12K more than the one, and had more authority and people reporting to me than either of them. Both bullied me.

          The first, who was fond of printing out others’ designs, schematics, flowcharts, and business plans, circling what he felt were “mistakes” in bright-ccolored marker, and hanging them on his wall, was fired after an epic blowout with my boss, where he laughably tried to claim that without him, the company would crumble. The second, who was unsatisfied at heading up sales/accounts, first appointed himself “boss” of a couple technical people who weren’t under his area of influence – and then tried to make himself my boss, which was hilarious given that I directed a team and department and he did neither.

          That second guy drove me to becoming ill (physically and mentally), because standing up to his bullying day after day was hell – and I was loath to get my boss involved because of their friendship and out of fear of looking weak. When I left the company though, Mr. Self-Appointed Dictator got demoted and got his office taken away. Now, he’s back to being a business analyst, like when he was 25, and he has to share an office with two other guys. Acting this way is not worth it. You may win in the short-term, but keeping it up for 40 years without repercussions is impossible.

      2. khilde*

        “What most young people don’t realise is that influence, not title is what make the day.”

        If anyone else likes this sentiment and wants to work on their own influence as a means of leadership (versus the title), then I highly recommend you check out the book, “You Don’t Need a Title to Be a Leader” by Mark Sanborn (of “The Fred Factor” fame). I taught entire class based on his principles in this book and it’s excellent, excellent stuff for employees at any level.

    2. Sara*

      I don’t want someone on my team who puts themselves up as the person in charge and goes around making sure other people are doing their job and insists that others change their behavior so she/he could have things the way they want.

      If only my managers felt this way. The person on my team like this, who does no actual work of his own, has been repeatedly promoted over the last two years and is now an AVP :(

  9. The Engineer*

    Very timely topic as I currently have two interns working for me. Comments here (other posts) and other related sites have helped me understand that interns are not standard employees. They lack more than just an understanding of what I need them to do, they also lack “working” experience. Engineers tend to have very flexible schedules (generally exempt employees) and I allowed a lot of latitude/discretion to them on hours. I have had to correct somewhat in that regard. There was/is some subtle hierarchy issues between them. I recently kidded one about not letting the other sit up front when we go somewhere. I agree with their assessment that it was not a problem, but was glad to see the “back seat” intern step up and be a little more assertive since then. I guess my main point is that interns left without closer than typical management will develop “issues”. Best for the manager and the intern to not let it go on too long.

    1. Long Time Admin*

      Good point.

      How will they learn acceptable office behavior if no one teaches them?

      The working world is not like school, and they need to learn all the ins and outs of the business world.

      1. Jamie*

        “The working world is not like school, and they need to learn all the ins and outs of the business world.”

        This. It also worth noting that people who are particularly successful in school may have a rude awakening when they enter the working world.

        One can develop some specific personality traits when for years people have treated them as somewhat special or brighter than most of their peers. All of a sudden you aren’t up against just peers, but people who are just as talented but have years of experience and training.

        For some it’s the first time they really experience insecurity or intimidation in this area – and it can be tough to process. Some deal with it well, some take a while to adjust. Just something to keep in mind.

  10. MovingRightAlong*

    A group I used to work for had an internship program that sounds similar to yours in that every department interacted with them because they worked on assignments for everyone. One year, an “alpha” much like your description was hired. He at first came across as enthusiastic, but as the staff observed (and discussed) his behavior, he was labeled an obnoxious bully. People questioned whether his enthusiasm was genuine, or if he was just trying to show up his fellow interns. But the answer didn’t matter as much as his inability to play well with others.

    You may feel like you’re so low on the food chain that behavior like this will go unnoticed and that only the work you do counts. But if this company places any value on interns (and a good company should, because otherwise why have them?), then you have to think of it as an extended job interview. Chances are, someone’s watching and sizing up who they’d want to work with in the future or if you’re worth giving a recommendation afterwards. The people who shine through, despite this alpha in their midst, are just going to look that much better. So stay amused, get your good work noticed, and don’t be petty. You’ll look like a good hire.

  11. Student*

    If it’s primarily her emails that are getting on your nerves, and you have no reason to believe that she will ever send you a useful email, then just block her emails. It will save you the headache and keep you from being tempted to pay extra attention to her.

    Also, if there is an intern that only talks with this other intern that annoys you, maybe you should see that intern as “shy” instead of”whipped.” It’s not very charitable to assume weird interpersonal power dynamics with so little basis, and if you keep that attitude up you’ll probably have a harder time interacting positively with other co-workers. Try to resist the temptation to make little boxes to assign others to when you have virtually no interaction with them, and keep an open mind instead. Try asking the shy intern to lunch with you some time and you might be pleasantly surprised.

    1. Anon*

      This! I can definitely lean towards the shy side and if I knew someone previously at work, I’d connect with them first, because duh there’s a relationship already in place. The “whipped” girl might just be too shy to hang out with anyone else yet, but would love if someone else asked her to lunch.

    2. T*

      I agree with all of this except blocking her emails. I work with someone similar to this “alpha intern.” I can say that if I missed an email that actually had useful information in it- like asking for help with a project (or I should say demanding help with a project with this guy) than he would make it a point to make the whole department aware that I ignored his email and that I must not be good at my job.

      I was fortunate enough to have amazing co-workers my first four years working professionally, but now have to deal with a person JUST like this on a daily basis. It is actually a good thing that you are now learning how to deal with people like this at an intern capacity because it is temporary! At the end of the summer, chances are that you won’t have to work with this person again. I am unfortunately stuck working with this person until he or I move on.

      Keep your chin high, do amazing work, and try to ignore the annoying alpha intern!

  12. Ponies!*

    Ugh. Alpha intern types do inspire insecurity in others (I’ve been there). Am I doing enough? Should I be annoyingly energetic and pushy, too? Do our bosses actually *like* that?

    My first reaction is to say no, your bosses don’t like it. Think of your bosses as you, only a few years from now. A few years of experience and an executive title don’t make you blind to this type of thing.

    But, sadly, the truth is there are plenty of bosses who will promote and promote and promote this type of person. Alphas make themselves the obvious choice to those managers who aren’t really paying attention. There’s not a lot you can do about that, though, other than accept it and move on. And frankly, those aren’t the kind of managers you want to work for anyway.

    And as Alison points out, this is SO just the beginning. Believe me, in your career, you will run into people in positions of (sometimes significant) power who are so unbelievably awful or incompetent that it makes you want to just quit and go home. How on earth did someone look at them and say, yes, they need to be in charge of people? It boggles the mind.

    I feel like I’ve been beating this drum a lot lately, but this falls into the category of “annoying things I can’t control that I’m better off laughing off/completely ignoring.” You’ll be so much more content if you take this approach in your work life.

    1. Alisha*

      I’ve worked in one mega-corporation, but otherwise, at small businesses, and have observed that the alpha asshole does a lot better at mega-corps because it’s easier to hide incompetence. And many line managers (or higher) at big companies have no idea what their reports are up to anyway. But at smaller companies, there’s not enough budget for dead weight or naked aggression because everyone has to work together and operate tight and lean, so the people who are all talk and no substance get sussed out – and thrown out – a lot faster.

      1. A M G*

        This. My coworker is the alpha and my boss is eating it up. And no, he has no idea what is going on in his department. I was promised 2 promotions and was denied each of them because ‘ alpha’ want willing to let go of the tasks and let me do them as part of my new job. No promotion.

        Now, my boss is on the radar for being incompetent and alpha is bringing his flaws to light. He took so much credit for his direct report’s work that the guy got laid off. Now he haso to do the job he took credit for and doesn’t know how. Everyone is miserable and leaving. I am waiting
        it out, and when the show really starts, I am going to make some popcorn and watch the fireworks.

        I have finally learned to laugh it off. When Alpha says something wrong in meetings, I pretend to be s

        1. A M G*

          oops…pretend to be confused by the correct facts. Forces him to say he was wrong. We have started laughing at him behind his back and he is routinely set up for failure, cut out of key information, and left out as much as possible. The executives are not happy with him, and neither is HR. He has done it to himself.

          1. Liz*

            This actually sounds as if you did it to him. I’m not sure that’s great kharma, and it could backfire by making you the next target. Why would you really take pleasure in doing this to someone else?

            1. A M G*

              believe me, it goes far beyond anything I have done to him. He has been the subject of HR investigations for bullying, creating hostile work environments, and constantly takes credit for others’ work. He refuses to communicate, share info necessary for others to so their jobs, even when the people who need it are his direct reports. 5 people–and counting–have left because of him.

            2. A M G*

              when I went to my boss for help, I was blackmailed in an attempt to keep me from going to H R. I take pleasure in laughing at him because I can’t quit the job and H R allows this to continue. The boss who allows it is imploding anyway, and I am trying to ride it out so I can continue to support my family under better circumstances.

            3. A M G*

              Also, other people are doing this all the time without my involvement so that they can get their jobs done. It’s not me instigating everything. He is a nightmare for many others, but has the blind faith of a clueless, absent boss who readily admits to doing anything to avoid conflict.

              1. Liz*

                There are only two possibilities when you jump in the pen with a pig: You are as good at dirty tricks as he is, or you aren’t. He has a lot more practice than you do at being horrible, so he has the edge. And you lose sympathy and sleep by joining in his games.

                I really don’t think it’s worth it, and I don’t think appointing yourself as his punisher is going to work out well, no matter how big a jerk he is.

                1. AMG*

                  Perhaps not. But I am tired of getting pushed around without any way to defend myself. So now, when he comes after me, I don’t just take it for the sake of professionalism. I make it a hassle for him. I document everything, and I sleep better. He changes targets frequently, so I just make it harder to mess with me.

      2. Ponies!*

        I have worked exclusively at mega-corporations, and definitely agree that the large numbers of people mask incompetents!

  13. JT*

    I’d urge calling out the break in protocol of not using the project book. This intern is “cheating” other interns of opportunities by breaking protocol, so it should be pointed out.

    1. KellyK*

      I’d only bother doing this if there aren’t enough meaningful assignments to go around. If “alpha intern” is building an awesome portfolio while you’re making copies and doing filing, then yes, absolutely. But it might sound whiny, and if you’re still getting decent projects that are a good learning experience, it may not be worth it.

  14. Rob*

    This is something that the OP definitely does not need to worry about. It appears that the ‘alpha intern’ pulls her weight, but if the manager is worth anything, they don’t buy all of the brown-nosing. This attitude may get the alpha intern some places in her professional career, but it will also be a major stumbling block in other areas.

    As almost everyone else has said: just laugh this off, keep doing what you need to do, and you will be fine.

  15. Anonymous*

    I believe in continuing to be civil and getting your work done. Do not engage in her alpha intern-like behavior. If she sends everyone an email saying that she wants “L” task or if she had set her eyes on “Q” task only for someone else to take it, don’t write back. She wants to be noticed, and if you don’t notice her unless she directly talks to you, then she will get bored or hopefully calm down a little bit. Don’t be discourteous and don’t be a spoilsport. Just be yourself but don’t engage in this behavior.

  16. mh_76*

    This intern isn’t an “alpha”, she’s a selfish brat. “Alpha” implies that someone is a natural leader, a good worker/good at their work (but -not- a work hog), and has earned the respect of their colleagues. I see two opposite alternatives for you to try: 1) ignore her like some of the other commenters suggst -or- 2) conspire with your other fellow interns to pick a day on which you all beat her to the project book…then ignore her completely. If she asks about the progress of your work, give her vague answers at best (“in progress”, for example)…or say nothing. A true “alpha” would be a team player, not a selfish brat.

    1. Alisha*

      Since the brat gossips with other interns from her school, I would suggest against trying to conspire with the other interns to beat her to the projects. This personality type often has a persecution complex (think Dwight Schrute/Gareth Keenan on The Office, but I’ve seen enough of them in real life). So she may retaliate if she gets wind of a conspiracy. Just change your settings on your e-mail so that all of her e-mails are auto-delivered into a separate folder (so you don’t have to read them until or unless you want to), and sign up for whatever projects you want, regardless of whether she stomped her little foot and pouted about deserving this or that.

      One thing I like to do when someone who isn’t my boss demands to know how my work is progressing is to say, “I’ll let you know when I’ve finished.” It drives them nuts, especially since I don’t actually let them know when I’m finished, because I don’t report to them.

      1. MovingRightAlong*

        I’d also like to point out, since it’s been brought up twice now, that blocking/redirecting her e-mails may not be an option if e-mail is a major form of communication at this company. Not reading it may mean missing important information (mixed in with the obnoxious information) and makes the OP look bad. How would you even explain that to your boss? “Well, some of her e-mails are annoying and unnecessary so I just blocked all communication entirely instead of just deleting them. And that’s why I didn’t know an important deadline had been moved up.” Or whatever it might be.

        Ridiculous e-mails are sometimes just a fact in your working life. I’m thinking of one woman I worked with who would send out company wide e-mails set on high priority about the soda machine running low or updating us on the hand towel shipment. Things no one else needed to know and definitely DID NOT warrant a high priority setting. However, giving them a quick glance to be sure it’s unimportant didn’t do any real harm. They’re just another thing to learn to laugh at over a beer (or soda) with your friends.

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          Agreed. If I found an intern (or any employee) was blocking emails from another employee, I’d have a talk with that person about professionalism and the fact that you don’t get to choose your coworkers. It would really make the person look immature/unprofessional.

          1. Student*

            I think it depends on the nature of the emails.

            If you regularly get emails from the intern that are really job-relevant, then you shouldn’t block her. Collaborating on assignments, discussing deadlines, and so on are important.

            However, collaborative emails are not a universal feature of every workplace, AND this is intern work. If this internship is halfway over and she sends out lots of useless, distracting crap with zero useful content, block her. You won’t be working with her for years, with potential for that email dynamic to evolve. You’re working with her for a couple of months at most. She’s sending useless junk that clearly distracts the OP. She has no authority over the OP and it’s quite possible that she has no useful information on the OP’s assignments. I’d be more hesitant to block a long-term co-worker, but I’d still do it under certain circumstances.

            I know that I can count the useful emails that my co-workers send me on one hand. I have blocked one of the most spammy people at work who had a several-years-long record of not sending me emails pertinent to work in any way, but often distracting or annoying (he likes to order people to do things that he has no authority to compel us to do – including showing up to work during days off). Now, more than a year after I blocked this guy, I haven’t had any fallout from it, and I don’t spend any time getting angry at his bizarre behavior. My boss knows I’ve blocked him and had no complaints. It was a good decision for me that made it much easier to tolerate this odd co-worker when I do need to interact with him.

            1. Ask a Manager* Post author

              It might have worked for you, but it’s not something to recommend in general. Say the OP blocks this intern’s emails, and then at some point their boss runs into the alpha intern in the elevator and says, “Oh, I’m running out for the rest of the day but forgot to tell your group that I need X by tomorrow. Could you let them know?” The OP then misses that email — and is left explaining that she blocked this person for her own convenience? Not a good idea.

            2. Jamie*

              I adamantly disagree.

              If there is an issue with spammy email, than that can be addressed but missing the one email which was work related because you blocked a co-worker? Inexcusable.

              If someone on my team did that it would be dealt with immediately, and if it happened again I would consider that a fireable offense.

              Most people do not have the luxury of determining whose work related communications they deem worthy of notice and those they do not.


        2. Alisha*

          Just wanted to clarify: My suggestion was not to block the e-mails, but rather, to have them filter into a different folder to be read (for example) after the OP has chosen their assignments for the day, or at whatever time was suitable. It’s often good practice to designate separate folders for different projects or recipients anyway, because once you get into the working world, you will be facing a deluge of e-mails at separate jobs – and folders help mitigate that.

          1. Alisha*

            And yeah, you should probably read them once a day to be safe – deadlines, dramatic out of office announcements, all that. But if she’s sending like, dozens, and interrupting your flow of work and concentration, dealing with them more efficiently can help.

            1. MovingRightAlong*

              I see now, that’s a much better idea than the outright blocking suggestion from others. Filters are definitely your friends!

          2. KellyK*

            Now that is a good idea. You won’t miss anything important, but you won’t have your work interrupted by her drama, because you can pick when you read her emails.

      2. mh_76*

        It was worth suggesting, even though it’s not the route that I would go and isn’t among the better options. If this job were a “permanent” or longer-term job, then I wouldn’t have even suggested it but this is an internship of short and finite duration.

        “I’ll let you know when I’ve finished.” – I’ve used that line before and it does drive them nuts but is a good (and kinder) way to tell that person to get lost.

    2. MovingRightAlong*

      I’ve been assuming the OP used the term to mean “type-a personality”which usually means big, in charge personalities that can be either positive or negative (leadership vs. bossiness) Or in the wolf-pack sense, where the alphas get the best of everything and demand submission from the betas. If a co-worker felt entitled to only the best projects and wanted everyone to be satisfied with her scraps, I’d think of her as a bossy alpha wolf, too.

      I agree, though, looking at these interns from the outside, I’d consider those who showed true leadership skills as “alpha” candidates, because they’d be at the top of my referral list. Which is why I can’t support your second suggestion of an intern conspiracy (although that’s fun to say in a dramatic voice). A true leader doesn’t simply exclude a team member just because the two clash. All that will do is prove you don’t know how to deal with bossy people.

      OP, if you do truly come up with a way to increase the fairness of project selection, then you should propose it to either your direct supervisor (assuming you have one…) or the entire intern team. Because none of you *are* the boss of the others and you don’t get to make executive decisions for the others (which you seem to get from your letter, I’m mostly pointing this out to my fellow readers). You’d be just as much of a jerk if you said, “I don’t like this behavior, so we’re all doing it this way now. Who’s with me?” This is a summer internship, not summer camp. The talk of undermining and conspiring is all very sneaky… not something people usually look for in an employee.

      1. mh_76*

        LIKE – big, in charge personalities that can be either positive or negative (leadership vs. bossiness) – I get steamed when people assume that alpha/type-a = a–h… becaue I have a fair amount of type-a in my personality and am not at all like that bratty intern when working on a team. A leader is someone who inspires others to want to work with/for them and this bossy intern is clearly not that.

    3. sparky629*

      >>>2) conspire with your other fellow interns to pick a day on which you all beat her to the project book

      Lol. I read this as “conspire with your other fellow interns to pick a day on which you all beat her WITH the project book.” I was like hell yeah, that’s how you show that brat that she needs to get over herself.

      Anyway, it was good for a laugh. ;-)

  17. Alisha*

    p.s. I stole that trick, ironically enough, from one of my actual direct reports, who refused to recognize me as their* boss because they felt that they “deserved” to be head of digital 9 months after finishing undergrad. Unfortunately for this person, we weren’t peers, so they ignored me right through their performance improvement plan and out the door.

    *Grammar intentional, to protect the guilty.

  18. Tabrean*

    Yuck. We had one of these types who managed to get onto the board in a volunteer org except with a twist – after she forced herself on everyone she would totally drop the ball. She didn’t do anything other than talk aggressively…a lot. This left the rest of us cleaning up after her and being frustrated with projects that didn’t get done. Her husband, who came with her, was also insufferable though somewhat less so, and when either of them didn’t get what they wanted or were given a differing opinion they’d whine and toss tantrums, I mean to the point of banging on the table and pushing their chair away. The woman used the org to puff up her resume and make her look/feel important, and to our detriment. If you search our org’s mail email in LinkedIn it goes to her personal profile, still even though she resigned.

    I guess my point (not sure I even have one) is two-fold; it could be worse, and more importantly, be careful of these types of people. They are not always entirely harmless. They are the types that will climb the ladder on the backs of others. In my case, this woman and her husband used information given to them to work on a project in a very serious attempt to oust others out of their long-held jobs and/or out of the org.

    Thankfully your situation is self limiting. The internship will end, and she will go her separate. So in this case, using her as entertainment is a good approach to suffer through it, but watch your back around these types. Left unchecked they can do a lot of damage.

    1. Tabrean*

      LOL – I just realized the person I was talking about is now interning somewhere right now. Unlikely, but I sure hope it’s not the same one. :D

      1. Ellen M.*

        “…be careful of these types of people. They are not always entirely harmless. They are the types that will climb the ladder on the backs of others.”

        Good advice!

  19. Anonymous*

    The more I re-read this question, the more I doubt that there are any big issues with the “alpha” intern at all. I believe this is a situation where two people have very different working styles, and do not care for each other personally. That is never an easy combination, but the OP is earning valuable skills for the future while in a short term situation. Can’t go wrong there!

  20. Jess*

    Focus more on your coworkers and bosses than the other interns. I did interned four times as a student (I’m a journalist, it’s par for the course in my industry), and have had interns in ever office I’ve ever worked in, and the ones that stood out are the ones. . . who acted like regular employees. Maybe I got lucky, my first few internships were in incredibly small publications (one of the best was me, the editor, and two reports in a tiny office). It was easy to socialize with them, work with them, and get to to know them well professionally– and more importantly, for them to get to know ME. That was more valuable, long term, than any show-off style alpha behaviour. Years later, I’m still in touch with people I worked with as an intern, and it’s been some of the best professional networking I’ve ever done. My last internship was at a large newspaper, with a herd of other interns. I got the chance to do some really great work that lived in my portfolio for years afterwards, and get references I still use to this day, because I didn’t spend all my time with them. I chatted with the employee at the desk next to me, I got to know my direct supervisor, and I treated it like a job, not a job interview. I showed up, I did my work well, and I fit into the office culture. In the end, I ended up with more opportunities than my striving-to-impress collegues.

    So, instead of stressing who’s sitting with who in the lunch room, screw it and go and sit with the actual staffers. You’d be surprised how many opportunities or ideas get batted around over sandwiches at lunch time. So what if this intern is scooping jobs off the roster? If employees know you and you fit into the office culture well, they just might come to you directly with tasks, invite you into work their doing, or otherwise mentor you. And when it comes to getting jobs? Being a known quantity is far far far more valuable then being King of the Interns.

    So screw what the other interns are doing: focus on your work and pretend you actually work there. Get out of the intern clique and learn that workplace!

    1. mh_76*

      Same if you’re a temp/contract worker in a workplace. That job is your job for its duration, whether that be a few days or a few years. Don’t avoid the other temps/contractors at all but do try to get to know the staffpeople also.

    2. C*

      This is good to keep in mind. As an intern, don’t assume that employees will look down on you or will resent interacting with you just because you are an intern. Feel them out and see if they are open to having conversations/getting to know you, but definitely try to branch out while you’re there. For the regular staffers, working at the same company day after day can get really tedious, and having a new, bright face around to chat with would be looked upon favorably by many people. It could give the intern great connections through the process too, of course.

  21. Jess*

    Also, AAM, maybe it’s time for a ‘So you have interns: how to cope’ post? Sometimes they’re fantastic, sometimes they’re nightmares, and sometimes they’re just intensely puzzling. Any advice on how to deal before the new crop of students decend?

    Not to mention, at least in my industry, there’s been increased bubbling about how dare we not pay the interns: industry standard so far has been most internships are unpaid. All but one of mine were, and then I only got paid thanks to a government grant, not the workplace itself. In fact, I had a few from a local school who’d applied to my workplace actually angrily take back their applications when I told them while they’d learn a lot and we’d make sure they had the chance to grow and get bylines etc, we weren’t paying. What’s up with that? I’m way to young to be having a ‘kids these days’ moment, and yet. . .

    1. Student*

      If your intern posting doesn’t make it clear that the job is unpaid, then it’s misleading. Not all internships are unpaid, and lots of people are looking for paid work. If the intern acceptance process seems like a job interview, but nobody felt like mentioning that it’s an unpaid position until the process is well underway, then I can imagine that the interns are very grumpy. It’s not justification for being unpleasant to you, but it’s not an unreasonable reaction. Most people don’t like to work without pay, and some people can’t afford to.

      So, instead of saying to yourself, “Kids these days!” please go make sure that all of the intern postings clearly indicate that it’s an unpaid internship. If the job is clearly marked, then you can get out your cane and your rocking chair and go yell at kids to get off your lawn with my full blessing.

      This is a real problem with internship postings. I’m in a field where unpaid internships are not common – however, the fear of running into an unpaid internship kept me from applying to any job with the word “intern” in the description.

      1. Jess*

        I’m in a field where 99.9 per cent of internships are unpaid. The paid ones are freakish unicorns for which the intern must thank their lucky stars. Most internships I did as a student, that all my friends did, all my professors at school did, all my coworkers now did, were unpaid. Or paid only in goodwill and the occassional coffee from a coworker taking pity on you. In return, you got bylines, exposure, contacts and a portfolio without which you would never get a job in journalism (no matter how fantastical your grades were). There was actually an internship built into my final year at school, to make sure that even if students couldn’t afford to intern and not work during the summer they would have something.

        Regardless, I wasn’t offended by the question. that’s fine and perfectly valid. I was offended by the attitude when I told them it wasn’t paid– a very huffy ‘well I never!’ stance, followed by a lecture about how ‘valuable’ they were. There’s something going on I think where students are being led to believe that their work is incredibly valuable as an intern. Sometimes it is. Most of the time. . . it’s not. It’s work to have an intern, and I don’t think they should be paid the same as an employee (what these students wanted was essentially the same pay packet a regular employee would take home, for the six weeks they’d work). That’s what I’m talking about– what’s up with this attitude? I’m seeing it a lot in my field, and friends in other fields are seeing it too. Entitled behaviour from people who really, are being done a favour and paying their dues.

        and now I feel cantankerous.

  22. Anonymous*

    Sounds slightly familiar & let me tell you how the story played out. This individual who was unable to do the job tasks, boasted constantly about all his knowledge (which he embarrassed himself bragging about because he did not have the knowledge), jumped on any and every task possible (though he couldn’t perform them)…let’s just say the squeakiest, least skilled, most obnoxious non-team player was selected for the team lead position and is fast tracking into management. So much for the rest of us with more experience, good work ethnic, extensive and specialized knowledge and who work better with others in a far less abrasive manner.

  23. Jamie*

    The examples given speak to a classic over-achiever to me, not necessarily someone trying to out alpha their fellow interns.

    This kind of thing tends to work very well in school, so it can take some time for people to learn to temper their style for the workplace. That’s one of the great things about an internship, is figuring out the unspoken rules of work vs school.

    To be honest, if the intern is backing this up with excellent results and completing the projects she’s grabbing effectively this is someone who will probably end up being an excellent employee.

    Bluster (although I’m not really seeing that in the OPs description) without the goods usually backfires. But if the people grabbing the assignments are doing them very well, a lot of employers will want them to keep grabbing the assignments.

    If I were the OP I would just make sure I grabbed the assignments I wanted first, and not worry about what others are doing.

  24. Anonymous*

    When questions like this are posted, I sometimes try to think of what the person the original email is written about would write to Alison about the same situations.

    Particularly with interns, who are young and learning to navigate their way through the working world, I can see how this person may view their behaviour as being a “go-getter” and great employee. In her mind I could see how calling dibs on preferred projects could be a way to set herself apart and get ahead of the other interns (I’m thinking of this from a reality show contestant “I’m not here to make friends” frame of mind). I can also see how she may have thought that sending the office-wide vacation email was really just being responsible and letting people know she wouldn’t be around if they needed help.

    To me, it seems like OP and the other intern most likely have a personality conflict and don’t get along personally or professionaly, hence the complaining email. I also wouldn’t be surprised if the intern in question is the victim of bad career advice and is following what her parents/siblings/career centre told her to do to be a great intern.

  25. Ivy*

    OP I feel your pain… a little at least. Luckily the intern making attempts at the alpha status in my corp. works in a different department. (Actually I’m the only intern in my department… Luckily for me I think.) I am unfortunately saddled with her in a group project that was given to the interns. I have to sit through meetings with her where she constantly tries to “take charge.” Now I’m all for people taking charge when no one is given the official title (usually I end up taking the lead role (strong personality?), so it’s nice to be able to sit back sometimes and let someone else do the extra work the comes with being in the lead). The problem is is that she doesn’t have natural leader qualities, so she’s trying to force them. What ends up happening is that she keeps cutting me off half way through what I’m saying and just essentially repeats exactly what I said. At least add something new if you’re going to interrupt me. Again, I’m happy I only have to deal with her in this one project. (I also have some more complaints about how inappropriately she dresses and how often she mentions the fact that her father works for the company… and how many cars he has).

  26. Ellen M.*

    “…from a boss’s perspective, I’m sure her “enthusiasm” is for the most part appreciated. ”

    Maybe not; she sounds like she’d be a pain in the ass to supervise and as annoying/difficult to work with as an employee as the OP finds her to be as an intern. I would not hire or recommend someone who behaves the way she is behaving.

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