reader advice on managing interns

Good advice from a reader on managing interns:

I’m an avid and regular reader. I work for a small tech-startup (18 full-time employees). At the beginning of the summer, while considering our short term business goals, we decided to aggressively expand our normal intern program (3-5 interns) to 27 interns. I supervise 21 of them.

It’s been an interesting summer, with lots of lessons learned like:

* Offering a flexible schedule at the beginning of the summer is a mistake with college students/high school graduates who don’t have good self-management skills.

* Similarly, offering a points-based system with flexible self-direction is not the best first step.

* College students do not understand what “sexual harassment” is.

* I’m 31; sometimes 20-year-olds feel like peers. But allowing yourself to become friendly with those young interns leads them to try to include you as their peer group — not view you as a manager.

Things I will do differently with the next round of interns:

* Set strong expectations of hours worked, specific workplans, and outcomes at the beginning. Loosen the reins gradually with successful interns as they earn it. Continue to highlight successful interns’ accomplishments so that others know whom to observe and emulate.

* Cut losses quickly. If you think an intern isn’t going to work out, fire them after you’ve tried a reasonable, short-term performance improvement plan.

* Make sure to set workplace conduct expectations very clearly at the beginning — even the most mind-numbingly obvious ones, like no shouting. I’m not a mom, but if I start acting like a mom then they will expect me to be their moms. And to behave that way.

{ 70 comments… read them below }

  1. Z*

    Out of curiosity, are you saying the interns are claiming they’re being sexually harassed when they’re not (say, over a dress code), or that they sexually harass others and don’t realize it? (I’m guessing the former, but I’d be interested to know the details.)
    By the way, this is a good list. And when I think back to when I got my first “real” job two years ago, I want to go back and give myself some mind-numbingly obvious advice.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Hopefully the OP will weigh in, but my assumption — based on my own experience with interns (and hell, my own experience being that age) is that they don’t realize that their own behavior could be construed as sexual harassment or as creating a sexually hostile workplace for others — dirty jokes, discussions about porn, not realizing it’s not okay to hook up with a manager, etc.

      1. YSLibrarian*

        Maybe but…I have teen/young adult aides that assist me in children’s services at my library. I sat down one of my aides to talk to her about why she couldn’t have her boyfriend follow her around at work – and found out that she was being harassed by several male patrons. She had been too embarrassed and shy to say anything, and they hadn’t “actually done anything” but she felt threatened enough that her boyfriend was upset and came to warn the guys off. We dealt with the situation immediately (those patrons are no longer welcome at our library) and now I add a lecture about telling the supervisory staff whenever you feel uncomfortable to my training for new hires.

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          That’s definitely an issue too — people new to the workforce who don’t realize that no, you don’t need to just put up with someone harassing you.

        2. some1*

          I had a similar experience when I worked a retail job when I was 19. A co-worker kept asking me out, asking mutual acquaintances to ask me if I’d go out with him, made sexual remarks to me, & told me graphic details about other girls (& he had a live-in GF who dropped by constantly too). The reason I waited so long to tell my mgr was because I thought it was my fault because when we first worked together, I willingly participated in general conversations with him about dating, meeting people, etc, so I felt like I had set the precedent before the conversations became uncomfortable to me. This is actually pretty common :(

      2. Arts Nerd*

        I would expect it to be Alison’s interpretation.

        My experience at a campus job in college where I was supervised by another student: he collected my phone number “for a contact list” and proceeded to call, and call, and call… my favorite conversation with him included “well, it’s not like we’re going to rape you.”

        Not knowing what to do, I just resigned. The University staff member had an idea of what was going on but decided to ignore it since the older student was so knowledgable in his work. It was a wonderful job, and I truly regret how that panned out.

        1. Arts Nerd*

          Oh, and the other experienced student supervisor asked me out for 6 hours on the clock (I was afraid to leave because he was supposed to train me on closing–how ridiculous that seems now!)

          1. YSLibrarian*

            Yeah, it probably is Alison’s take, esp. seeing that it doesn’t sound like these interns are working with the public. Your experience stinks – I’m sorry you weren’t working for us! The worst thing that ever happened to me in one of my student jobs was I had to work and close alone, since nobody but me showed up regularly…

      3. Kelly Meeker*

        This is the OP. In our case, with such a large group of interns, they tend to replicate the college social environment when joking around, etc. That flirtation and sometimes crass behavior may be funny at school, but definitely is inappropriate for the workplace – and in many cases that was news to the interns when I spoke to them about it. We actually did set them all up with an online sexual harassment prevention course, but some interns needed some very specific guidance on what behavior was and was not acceptable.

  2. Emily*

    +1 +1 +1 Three cheers to this reader and to AAM for sharing the wealth of this advice.

    I’ve managed a summer intern—my only opportunity for management experience—for five years straight, and this is the first summer I’ve had a really disappointing experience. Previous years’ outstanding performances might have left me lax this summer, but I won’t forget again that hiring/training a new intern requires starting alllll the way back at square one. The ‘mom’ advice rings particularly true. Hearing myself use phrases like, “I’m not your mom,” when the intern responded to critique with “sorry, Mom!” was a wakeup call.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Oooooh, I had an intern say that to me once. It is Wildly Inappropriate and needs to be addressed in the sternest of ways. Seriously, you can’t even let them joke about that — it’s really demeaning and betrays a total misunderstanding of work and supervision on their part, which will hurt them if someone does’t correct it immediately.

      1. Jamie*

        This! I’ve had this happen, too and also stopped it immediately. Not cute.

        Although, at various times I’ve had my kids come in and work part time over school vacations…it’s oddly appropriate when you actually are mom :).

        1. ChristineH*

          Agreed. I had a coworker say that to me…this kid was like 10 years younger than me. I wasn’t managing him, but he was just so immature and I think I said something. His response was something like, “Yes mommy!” I find that type of remark to be very sarcastic and is not appreciated.

        2. Anonymous*

          Well, to be fair, it could also just be absentmindedness, similar to how people might say “yes, sir” or “no, ma’am” on reflex.

          1. Anonymous*

            (cross-posted with ChristineH) – I definitely didn’t have that in mind! If that’s the case, then yes, I agree it’s incredibly rude.

            1. Laura L*

              Me too! But that’s pretty common for elementary school kids to do that, esp. if their primary caretaker is their mom. I’ve even had kids I’ve babysat call me mom on accident. In front of their moms!

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          I would subject them to an incredibly uncomfortable (for them) conversation about the difference between a mother and a manager, and ask what they thought the similarities were, and explain that such a comment makes them look like a child who doesn’t understand professional expectations.

  3. Anonymous*

    Don’t neglect to let the interns know what they are allowed to do and entitled to expect from the work world. I was quite strictly raised, so discipline was not my problem, but was also socialized not to put myself forward (familial and cultural expectations). I tended to be overly diffident and not take initiative, even where I had the ability and knowledge to tackle tasks.

    1. class factotum*

      I had to be told that it was OK for me to call anyone older than me by the first name. I was mister and missusing everyone who was over 30 in my first job.

      1. ChristineH*

        I’ll be 39 in October and I’m STILL like that with my parents’ friends since I grew up calling them by Mr. Jones and Mrs. Smith. Even professionally, I’m sometimes afraid to call someone above my level by their first name unless they introduce themselves as such.

        1. class factotum*

          Yep. My friends parents are Mr and Mrs unless they ask me otherwise. But my mom’s friends whom I meet now are first name.

          At work, with foreign customers and contacts, I default to Mr or Ms for the first encounter. There are enough potential landmines working across cultures (by email) that I don’t want to miss an easy one like being too familiar.

          PS I am 48.

      2. Anonymous*

        That reminds me of the time I had an undergrad knock on my office door, and say “Excuse me Dr X, but can I talk for a minute.” It took me several seconds before I remembered that I was “Dr X.”

      3. TheAssistant*

        At my office, it became A Discussion because using first names (for people I had never met! Who had been at this particular office for longer than I had been alive!) was so uncomfortable for me.

    2. Anonymous*

      This was how I was as well. I think one very important thing to remember when managing interns is not to treat all of them like they’re rowdy kids; because a lot of them will step outside boundaries and they can take your whole attention, so it frequently turns into a deal where the main priority is to teach what a work environment is like. That leaves the better behaved interns with not very much to get out of the whole experience, and not a lot to show at the end of all their hard work.

  4. Charlotte*

    As a 26 year old, I struggle so much with how these employees who aren’t that much younger than me don’t know these simple things. Ah, well, unsolved mystery. Anyhow, one thing I would add is careful selection procedures to head off some of these things on the front end: excellent reference checking, consider checking social media sites (usually a pretty easy determinant of professionalism and common sense at this age), hearty interviewing techniques, etc.

  5. JT*

    Managing 21 interns? Wow.

    I’ve got a slightly different perspectives on hours and work outcomes. I’ve had interns ranging from a few exceptional high school students through recent masters grads working for me, as well as being an intern three times while working toward masters degrees. At most I’ve had three interns at a time, but generally have just one or two.

    For unpaid internships at least, I think we should expect regular hours, but be flexible in what those hours are. Most of my interns are with us 2 to 3 days a week regular business hours on a fixed schedule. If they have to switch days, that’s OK as long as they warn me in advance.

    Regarding work outcomes, we have to be flexible, because some interns are just slow in getting things done. Office work is new to them, and they’re not so productive. As long as they’re consistently trying, that’s OK.

    I start interns off with simple tasks and see how effective/fast they are on those. Then give feedback. If they’re really good, I can rely on them for stuff that is time-sensitive. If they’re slow, I don’t give them work that has a tight deadline. I don’t accept bad work, but it’s not realistic to have a long-term schedule of outputs at the start of an internship – even some smart, well-meaning interns can’t get as much done as others. That’s part of why they’re interning – to learn.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      I’d say that it depends on the type of work they’re doing. For some roles, you’ll know that it’s reasonable to expect them to produce at least ___ each week, or whatever. For other types of work, it might be more nebulous. But there are roles where you can lay out expected outputs at the start.

    2. Anonymous*

      Agree that unpaid college interns need to have flexibility in their schedule. Make sure they’re still putting in their time commitment, but understand that their paying job (if they have one) and their classes can easily throw in a monkey wrench and those have to be addressed first most of the time.

      When I was a college intern they had a minimum number of hours per week we had to have in, and if we needed to move schedules around it was ok as long as we got in our hours and gave them notice. We could call in completely as long as we came in an extra day (and committed to a time to do this when we called in, not later). This worked really well for everyone. Only one person abused the system and they made it mandatory for him to come in for special events on weekends for him to be allowed to stay on.

  6. Anonymous*

    Yikes, I can’t imagine how one person could manage 21 interns (or 21 people in any professional role)…particularly when interns tend to need more mentoring and attention from their boss and full-time peers. 1/3 more interns than full timers sounds like a recipe for trouble.

    I’m curious what the OP has them doing?

    1. Aaron*

      I, too, would like to know this. Part if the bargain as an intern is that you get experience in a real workplace. Though I’m sure everyone was pleased to have a paying job in this economy, there’s simply no way these people were effectively integrated into the ongoing team. “Temp” sounds like a better job description, and I’m not surprised that many people did not have good outcomes in this situation.

      1. Jamie*

        I wonder if it’s a political campaign. In college I worked on two where the interns outnumbered paid staff, and it was a great experience.

          1. Jamie*

            Oops, I missed that. thanks!

            Then I too wonder how this many interns could benefit from so few staff.

            1. snuck*

              Small tech start up could have them doing things like software testing, setting up training documentation (and testing it), low level/low priority programming tasks etc Data entry/cleansing, simple tech support and cold sales calling also springs to mind.

              A lot of IT work can be stand alone/self directed – maybe this is where they are expected to sit with nominal supervision?

              1. Jamie*

                To meet the criteria for an unpaid internship:

                “Besides requiring employers to provide students with valuable learning experience, the Fair Labor Standards Act has a number of other guidelines for unpaid internships, including that “the training is for the benefit of the trainees,” and “the trainees do not displace regular employees, but work under their close observation.”

                From a sun-times article about a fashion ntern suing the former employer.


                IT work is self directed, in large part, but for an unpaid internship to meet legal requirements they can’t be.

                1. Jamie*

                  I just reread and saw the OP didn’t mention that the internships are unpaid. If they are paid and more akin to an entry level job disregard my last post.

              2. Kelly Meeker*

                Hi! This is the OP. They are paid interns, to be clear.

                There are also three of us jointly supervising the intern crew. They are working on business development and marketing projects, alongside full-time staff members.

              3. Lily*

                I worked at an IT firm doing compatibility testing. In that division, there was one staff person and everyone else was an intern.

      2. Anonymous*

        I agree completely. There are actually more interns than employees, how much could they be getting out of this?

        And I’m under the impression there’s no way they’re paid, at that volume and at that size company.

    2. Data Monkey*

      I also don’t know why you would decide to jump from 3 – 5 interns to 27 in one cycle. That sounds like it would be really messy (and I guess it was!).

      I also have had to manage interns and have been an intern. It is much easier if you make incremental changes by increasing the number of interns over several cycles. Then you can figure out what worked and what didn’t work. My office definitely had to change our processes and how we did training/supervision as the number of interns gradually increased from cycle to cycle.

  7. Lee*

    My first boss taught me that “it’s easy to get easier and hard to get harder”, so starting off with a relaxed attitude can really set the wrong tone from the beginning.

    If you start out more sternly and relax as people start to perform well, then it’s okay to ease up a bit!

  8. Boina Roja*

    I like the cut losses quickly part! Often interns are allowed to stay longer then they should because the manager thinks stuff like “he/she is young and has a lot to learn” or worse “I don’t want start up the hiring process all over again just for an intern, it will only cost more money”. Quite risky, as it may lower the morale of the entire group of interns.

  9. bemo12*

    Am I the only one that’s concerned that this company has more interns then employees?

    I understand that an internship is supposed to be mutually beneficial, maybe even more so for the intern, seeing as they are getting real world experience, but how much can they actually learn if there are so many of them and so few actual employees?

      1. Rob*

        Even if it is a paid internship, they are paying the interns far below the rate they would pay a normal employee and are reaping those financial rewards accordingly.

        I’d be interested to hear what the interns are doing. It makes me think the company is taking on a large project and need a lot of temporary help.

        Enter, interns. Big project completed. Company makes big bucks. Rinse and repeat for next summer?

        1. Chelle*

          Yea but those all point to hiring temps not interns.

          I padded my resume in college with internships, knowing that the recession was coming. So I’m opposed to internships by any means.

          I am opposed to internships, espically unpaid ones, that are only benefitical to the employer.

    1. Anonymous*

      I’d suspect so. In any case, even if we disregard the intern part, a manager that has over 20 direct reports who all started at the same time sounds like a disaster in the making.

  10. Ask a Manager* Post author

    Regarding the questions people have raised about the number of interns, the nature of the internships, their legality, etc.: These are legitimate questions and perhaps the OP will weigh in to answer them, but she really just wrote in offering some helpful advice, which is indeed helpful.

    Personally, if I were a reader of this blog and saw someone get jumped on for things that weren’t the point of the letter, when the OP’s intent was just to offer some useful advice (which is indeed good advice), I wouldn’t risk writing in myself with advice, ever. No one will risk it if you guys do this :)

    The questions have been raised and they’re legitimate questions, but the pile-on isn’t necessary.

    1. bemo12*

      I semi-agree with you, but maybe the reason she was having problems this year managing interns is because her company “hired” too many, put her in charge of too many, and weren’t giving them clear directives or meaningful work.

      I’m wary of taking “how-to-handle” intern advice from people who’s companies are obviously abusing the system. Especially something like, “fire them quickly”, maybe the OP should look at her own company, rather than blaming the interns so quickly.

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        Maybe, but all her lessons learned are sound ones. And you often learn the most important lessons when you’re in challenging situations. (And this isn’t just her advice; it’s mine too — I posted her letter because I agree with everything she wrote.)

        For what it’s worth, I disagree that it’s obvious that this company is abusing the system in some way. We don’t have nearly enough information to conclude that.

        1. bemo12*

          Are you suggesting that 1 person should be supervising 21 interns and that a company with 18 employees should be taking on 27 interns?

          1. Ask a Manager* Post author

            I’d want to know more information before passing judgment. For all I know, each intern only worked 1 day a week or something. (I’m not endorsing that either — I just don’t have enough info to pass judgment … nor do I think it really matters for the purpose of the advice she’s giving here, which I agree with.)

    2. Anonymous*

      The letter might’ve had broader appeal and the lessons more applicability if there was more context provided. I think there was some piling-on because people smell a fish in the details that were provided, not because people don’t like reader-given advice.

      For this letter, it’s a bit like getting relationship advice from someone who says they’re an expert because they’re on their third marriage. Doesn’t mean the advice is bad, or even that they aren’t a genuine relationship expert, but without some context it’s going to raise more eyebrows than anything else.

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        I printed the letter because I agreed with the advice. If I’d removed the first paragraph before running it — and only printed the advice itself, not the intro — I don’t think anyone would have disagreed with any of it.

  11. Laura*

    One of the biggest takeaways I got from this post is the importance of internships! I tout them all the time and this is why! College students need the experience of working in an office environment (even if they are filing papers for a summer). These social norms are essentially, and this is why, I prefer those with internships over those with great summer camp leadership experience (for an office role). I am not putting down the importance of dealing with young children at camp, but I think there is immense value to a summer in an office environment.

    Kudos to all of those who have to deal with the intern, just to prepare them for their next job!

    1. Anonymous*

      It’s possible this company is trying to be a good corporate citizen by trying to help as many young people as they can out of the “can’t get a job without experience, can’t get experience without a job” Catch-22 that’s particularly harmful in the current enployment market. Startups and small companies frequently care quite strongly about their local communities.

  12. megan*

    I supervise college student employees in the context of student development, and this post is spot-on and a great reminder. Thanks!

  13. KT*

    Love the last point about managing workplace conduct. You really do have to spell a lot of things out. A lot our interns come in so eager and with great skills but don’t know how to conduct themselves in a professional setting.
    Oh, the things I’ve had to say:
    “You can’t come to meetings and tell people they are pretty.”
    “Don’t tell me (or anyone else) they smell good.”
    “It’s not okay to call in sick because your AC is broken and you were really hot last night.”
    “WEAR A BRA!” This, of course , had to be paired with “stop telling people you are not wearing a bra.”

  14. Lily*

    Do you like these?

    “please give me your instructions in writing. If you don’t write down the details, then I can do it the way I want.”

    “If you make me (do that), I’ll be very unhappy!”

    She said she thought my instructions were suggestions and we agreed that I would add a deadline. Then she said, “could you please do X by Y” was still not a command, which is grammatically true.

    “I didn’t do what you told me to do, and I’m very happy about it …”

  15. Anonymous*

    I’ve found this post really interesting and helpful. Thanks.
    I’m in a situation where I am a new people manager – never done people mgt before; new job; new country and culture; new team mgt in a greenfields team that did not have a strategy and started one week prior to my intern – and originally my position did not include mgt responsibilities but in the first week they asked me to add to my PD.

    I’ve made some wrong calls on priorities and didn’t know how this very complex organisation works. Additionally I work in OD strategy, so was trying to figure out new ways and strategies and a lot of work was progressive rather than having a clear direction. While I know a lot more content than my intern, my credibility has gone out the window and now the inter is resisting and undermining passively. Not enough to pin point specifics it is very difficult to explain.

    I tried all the mgt things that I’ve seen – use the carrot not the stick, try and get the person engaged, explain the why, show them the bigger picture, ask their opinion on thing so they feel included but all these attempts have been counter productive. I’m now getting better results from being very directive (almost harsh), explaining briefly about the why but having to be almost..’because I told you to’. The intern has also, very early in the piece, decided that they would prefer recruitment to organisation development. So does not want to learn. In all things I’m trying to explain how something will benefit her in the future but there is a part of me that is, this is the job that you are paid for, deal with it!

    I’m at my wits end and don’t really know how to pull this back. She is a great person but I don’t know what to do….would love any suggestions to help me out.

  16. Lily*

    What is the problem?

    “I’m now getting better results from being very directive (almost harsh)” so do you simply feel bad about this? One person’s “almost harsh” could be another person’s idea of clear instructions.

  17. Anonymous*

    Yes, you are right. My natural inclination is to be very collaborative and invite opinion etc and for me, anything else seems negative. However I think have realised that you are exactly right. She just needs clear instructions and a boundary to respect. She doesn’t view it as harsh at all. I think what I’m learning is that all people need different things. Which is a bit of an ‘uh duh’ moment, ‘hello its not rocket science but common sense!’ but I’ve realised that she doesn’t need what I’ve always admired and respected in my managers and what I aspire to include in my skill set, because that is what I needed, not what she needs.
    Since writing the post above, I sat down with her and had an honest discussion about how we can work better together as well as some of the behaviours that I was seeing and did not like and/or want in my direct report. She in turn shared her motivators and what is frustrating her so I have a much clearer understanding of what I can do now to manage her. After having this discussion I think I’m a lot more comfortable in getting a balance between who I want to be as a manager vs what she needs.
    Thanks so much for taking the time to respond and your comment. It really helped clarify for me as well.

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