how to fit into office culture during an internship … when you’ve been disinvited from the staff retreat

A reader writes:

I’m in the midst of a career change and have been interning part time at a local university. It’s been a great experience so far for me — I enjoy the work and my colleagues a great deal, but I can’t shake the feeling like I might not be fitting into the office culture. I’ve only been interning there for a few weeks, and so part of me just thinks that I’m just experiencing regular awkwardness when you’re getting to know a group of people. The office isn’t exactly tiny for a university — there are fifteen full time staff and we also employ about 300 student employees over the course of the academic year, so while it’s fairly intimate and flat it’s definitely possible to go a whole day without seeing folks, particularly with the number of meetings we have. I’m also not able to attend many of our staff meetings due to other commitments (such as my job and another internship), so the scheduled face time with all my coworkers is somewhat limited.

There are some spatial barriers to me getting to know my colleagues as well. I have a fantastic office space, particularly for an intern — one of the full time staff left a few days before I started so they set me up in his old office across from my supervisor. I prefer it to having a cube or a common desk shared by multiple people (often students) throughout the week, but I do feel sequestered. My work habits are such that I like to stay focused on my task areas, and while my office door is always open and I will always greet visitors warmly, I tend to stay in it and busy while there is work to be done. I don’t think this is strange workplace behavior in general, but I worry that I’m not making an impression on most of the staff and that they do not know me. Since one of my goals for this internship is to network and become a known quantity in the office, and also because I’m only interning here until the start of August, this is pretty important to me, but I still need to make getting my work done a priority.

The office culture seems similarly warm but still focused on the work to be done and so I’m a little unsure about the best way to engage with them in a way that is appropriately sociable and professional without seeming weird or forced. I’ve made a point to schedule informational interviews with my colleagues to get their insights on our field, the work they do and their challenges, and any pieces of advice for me as I’m seeking entry-level employment in the area. I think there’s space during those moments to build rapport with colleagues I don’t often see, but it still feels a bit stiff. I feel strange and like I might be monopolizing their time by inviting them to have coffee with me just to chat or having a lunchtime interview. I thankfully seem to have a good relationship with my direct supervisor and the director of the office respectively — which seem to me the most important relationships to build during my time — but the majority of my interactions in the office are with them.

Beyond the general feeling that I’m not quite geling in the office, there is one particular instance that sticks out at me. The director of my office originally invited me to the annual staff retreat when I started — at the time I thought it was a very decent gesture to make me feel included as a member of the staff and an above and beyond one for someone who was only interning in their office part-time. Near the end of last week, the director approached me and stated that after speaking with the staff she’d decided that she’d rather I not be present — she is stepping down after twenty years of service here, and apparently it is likely to be an emotional moment for the staff because it is the last time the whole staff will be together. She assured me that the decision was not personal — one of program coordinators they recently hired is also not attending for the same reason, apparently — and apologized to me. This seems like a legitimate reason to me, particularly since I was surprised to receive an invitation in the first place, but it still speaks to my niggling doubts that I’m not quite “fitting” here in the way that I’d like. I plan on casually asking my supervisor for ways to get face time with the staff beyond those interviews and solicit her advice to becoming more known at our next meeting but I don’t want to look like I don’t have enough social sense to navigate office norms on my own either.

Do you have any insights or advice on normal ways to build rapport and become known in an office when your stay is pretty short and your work is fairly silo-ed? My usual M.O. is to build a reputation of being a good performer without being a jerk, but it seems harder to build that reputation in a way that’s meaningful to colleagues when you’re working short term and viewed as fairly transient. I could also be completely in my own head about this, but I figured this is a common enough worry to be helpful to someone else and that it was worth asking an expert.

Well, you’re actually doing exactly what I would have suggested: scheduling conversations with your coworkers to ask about their work and your field and for advice as you make the career shift. I actually wish more interns would do this (or anyone new to an office, for that matter).

If those conversations are feeling stiff, you might look for ways to work on that. For instance, if you’re running down a formal list of questions, you might inadvertently be creating a stiffer feel than what you intend. You could try loosening up the format of these conversations. You could also try being explicit about the fact that you’re having trouble getting to know people — for instance, you could start off the conversation by saying something like, “I’m hoping to get your insight into X, Y, and Z, but to be honest, I’m also hoping to simply get to know people here better, since my work is fairly silo-ed and hasn’t naturally put me in contact with many people in the office.”

Simply saying that explicitly might better tell the person you’re talking to what you’re looking for and how they can be most helpful to you. It’s easy to think that it should be obvious that you’d like to get to know people better and that you shouldn’t have to say it, but actually, it’s often not intuitive to people at all … and saying it up-front can sometimes change the tone or the conversation or spark overtures that people otherwise wouldn’t have thought to make.

Similarly, you might mention this to your boss too — that you’re having trouble finding ways to get to know people in the office and ask for advice. You might get some insights that help — like that they all grab drinks together after work on Thursdays and you’re welcome to come along, or that Jane tends to be a good connector type in the office and you should reach out to her, or that Karen loves talking about her work with anyone who asks.

Speaking of your boss … Disinviting you from the annual staff retreat was bizarre. And kind of rude. And it’s even more bizarre that she’s not inviting the new program coordinator, who’s presumably full-time and not an intern. Your boss wants to have an emotional moment with the staff because it’s “the last time they’ll all be together”? This isn’t a group of friends graduating from high school and singing Fleetwood Mac’s “Landslide” while getting all teared up that things just won’t be the same from now on. It’s a workplace. And it’s a staff retreat — the whole staff should be there. Someone above her should intervene and tell her to stop using it as her own personal send-off. This is so bizarre that you absolutely shouldn’t take it personally or as a reflection on you.

Anyway, staff retreat weirdness aside, don’t feel awkward about this stuff. It’s normal for it to take a while to get to know coworkers, and especially so when you’re there short-term. But you also shouldn’t feel like you’re imposing if you ask people for a conversation — getting to do that is part of the value of an internship, and most people will be perfectly willing to spend some time talking with you.

Read an update to this letter here.

{ 57 comments… read them below }

  1. Lily in NYC*

    OP, are you a summer intern or will you be there longer? I have two thoughts – 1. I think it takes around three months to feel comfortable in a new job. 2. If you are a summer intern, please don’t take it personally, but employees that have been there a while might have “intern fatigue.” I know I have a minor case of it! I’ve been at my job for 10 years and have seen what feels like a million interns come and go. I used to take the time and really get to know them but now I barely learn their names before they are gone. Our interns have one boss they report to so our structure might be different. Of course I am helpful to them and answer their questions but I no longer make a huge effort to get to know them. (to be fair, I am an executive assistant and don’t get involved with projects so my help is usually of a different nature).

    1. Jen*

      I agree with this – as an intern I always swore I would not be like that to interns once hired somewhere but it can be hard – especially if your job goes through a lot of interns. “Intern fatigue” is a great way to word it. At one of my past jobs we had about 4-8 interns each semester. A lot of them were great – smart people. I was always kind to all of them but they cycled through fairly quickly. It was just impossible to really bond with them and get invested.

  2. KarenT*

    I cannot believe she uninvited you. That is so rude! Not being invited in the first place is one thing, but uninviting someone? Seriously rude. I second Alison’s comment: they are not graduating from high school. That makes your boss sound very cliquey and immature.

    1. LPBB*

      That whole thing sounds weird. I can kind of see disinviting the intern, although that’s weird and rude itself, but not inviting an actual staff member?! To a staff retreat that is presumably going to focus on work topics other than just saying goodbye to a beloved director? Weird. If I was that program director I would feel really awkward and have some serious doubts about my new job.

      Ok, so on re-reading the post it sounds like the new hire was put into a similar situation as the OP — where she was invited but encouraged not to attend. Ugh, this workplace sounds very clicquey and immature.

      1. Jessa*

        However, before inviting someone one should think things all the way through. Disinviting ANYONE is rude, and can be avoided by thinking first. Not inviting permanent staff? that’s wiggy.

    2. RubyJackson*

      Ha. I was once uninvited to a wedding (to be held over-seas) presumably because it was going to be ‘just family’. But then when the bride came back and hosted a local reception for same family, she invited me and asked me to ‘help’ her cater it. I agreed to help her but ended up doing all the catering (and floral arrangements). It was not a fun day.

  3. Chriama*

    My first instinct was that disinviting you from the staff retreat was weird, but then I started to rationalize it and I thought it might be reserved for permanent time staff as a team-building activity. But the idea that they want this specific instance closed off to outsiders because it might be an emotional time is *really* weird. It might be a sign of the office culture or it might be that the director’s own quirkiness, but I don’t think they have the right idea about what a staff retreat is supposed to be used for. It’s to build and more coordinated team, and no way that’s happening if they see it as some sort of insiders-only event.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Yes! And what’s up with not inviting the new full-time staff person too? She absolutely belongs at a retreat. (Can you imagine starting a new job and being told, “Oh, sorry, we don’t want you at the retreat”?)

      1. Chriama*

        Even aside from the employee morale issue, the new staffer could miss out on some really important things, like the department’s strategic vision for the upcoming year. Presumably they talk about work at this retreat, and now this poor program worker is disconnected from everyone else.

      2. Colette*

        Yeah, if I had been happy at the new job before that, I would instantly become unhappy and start wondering whether I’d made a mistake.

      3. Rana*

        Exactly! I can see warning the new person(s), “Now, I’m going to be announcing my departure, and we’ve been a pretty close group, so it might get a bit emotional. I know that’s likely to be awkward for you; how do you want to handle this?” but flat-out disinviting them? Weird, rude, and over-protective in a very strange way.

      4. Long Time Admin*

        One time, when I was in a new company, one of the other secretaries came up to me and told me all about the birthday club the secretaries had, how every month they treated the ones with birthdays that month to lunch, gave little gifts, etc. Then she “invited” me to stay behind and cover all their phones while they all went out for a long lunch.

        I never was invited to join the birthday club.

    2. Judy*

      Yes, we’ve had team-building events(full days with talk of projects plus some games), and they’ve been (almost) fun. And we’ve had going-away events (lunch or dinner), and they’ve been bittersweet. But they are not the same thing.

    3. Yup*

      As I first read the uninvited part, I wondered if it was cost related. Meaning that they were trying to cut down costs and restricting attendance to full time employees. Which isn’t the most diplomatic way to handle it, but I get it. Then I read the part about the goodbye-fest Hugapalooza and my eyebrows went waaaaay up.

      OP, I’d try to ignore the weirdness about the staff retreat — that’s sounds bizarre on their part. (Maybe you dodged a bullet on that one?) The rest of the getting-to-know people stuff sounds very normal for a short-term position, and there are good suggestions in AAM advice and elsewhere in the comments for managing it.

      1. Kate*

        The staff retreat weirdness is WEIRD, but the manager making that call is leaving so yeah, wouldn’t sweat it. Sounds like the manager has a bit of a messiah complex. I doubt the rest of the staff is that devastated over her departure.

  4. kdizzle*

    When I was an intern (many moons ago), I was often frustrated that I was put off in a corner. I was also incredibly silly and naive and had no plans to be invisible.

    I would pick up a stack of empty manila file folders and hurriedly walk around the office past people’s desks. I’d stop if it looked like I could strike up a conversation with someone…and if the converation got too lengthy, I’d tell them that my empty file folders had somewhere important to be, so I had to run. People got used to seeing me, and I felt like a part of the group by summer’s end.

    I’m not suggesting that you do this…but it worked for the younger and ridiculous version of me.

    1. Chriama*

      Is it weird that I think this is a good idea? Obviously you don’t want to socialize instead of working, but would it be unreasonable if you can plan certain activities so they take you past your coworkers? Like if you have several communal printers, go to the one further away from you. Or take lunch a little early and walk past people on the way to the breakroom? (I’m only half joking).
      If your coworkers are allowing you to schedule interviews with them, then you’re probably on the right track anyway. I second Alison’s advice about being transparent about your desire to get to know people better.

    2. annie*

      Actually, I would suggest a version of this – take a look around and see if there’s a regular time people tend to congregate by the coffeemaker, or stand around for the elevator, or make their copies by the printer, or whatever, and try to “bump into” people.
      I confess to also sometimes having “intern fatigue” but often I’m just too busy to stop and chat too much – when I run into interns in the course of going to refill my coffee or whatever, I’m much more likely to be able to break for a few minutes and chitchat.

    3. E.R*

      I am impressed! My favourite boss once taught me (half-joking) the trick of walking around with a stack of papers and looking frazzled so people think your busy and don’t ask for your help, and this is the social, extroverted reverse of that. It took me months of full-time work at my current job to be invited out for a social coffee by a co-worker (not because I was doing the paper thing – that was almost a decade ago) . I was pretty excited. I did not show my excitement, of course. Played it cool.

  5. I wish I could say*

    “This isn’t a group of friends graduating from high school and singing Fleetwood Mac’s “Landslide” while getting all teared up that things just won’t be the same from now on.”


    I don’t recall how I found your web site, Alison, but I forever thankful that I did!

    1. A Teacher*

      Much better than the “Everyone should wear sunscreen song” I think that was the theme when I was a junior/senior in high school…Fleetwood Mac, so much better!

      1. Lindsay J*

        We had Green Day’s song “I hope you have the time of your life” as our prom/graduation/whatever song.

        I thought it was ironic because the actual title of that song is “Good Riddance” and if you read the lyrics you can definitely read some bitterness into the whole thing.

        1. I am*

          Exactly. I hate when that song is misused.
          Reminds me of when HP used “Blister in the Sun”.
          I gather no one in their corporate offices knew the lyrics.

          1. Mike B.*

            Funny; that song was the curtain-call encore to the Green Day musical American Idiot, addressed directly to the audience. Takes on a new meaning now that I think about it.

      2. Parfait*

        We used REM’s “It’s the End of the World as We Know It.”

        And we did indeed feel fine.

  6. JR*

    To quote the greatest movie of all time:
    “You can’t sit with us!!!” – Gretchen Weiners

  7. AnotherAlison*

    Bring the office mates to you. Bring donuts. Send a mass email & direct them to your office to eat them. (You could do it Friday, as it’s summer solstice. . .”something to fuel you up for the longest day of the year.”)

    : )

    1. Kate*

      Yep, at my old job (at a university) a new coworker was stuck at the end of the hall away from everybody. After a week of isolation, she brought in a candy jar and spread the word that people could help themselves. Even in a busy environment, people managed to find time for a candy break, which meant they had to talk to her. Enough of those small interactions lead to actual relationships.

  8. Nikki J.*

    I’ll just come in and vouch here that higher edu is culturally weird all around. I’ve worked at 3 different universities, a corporate office and now small government so I’ve got other environments to compare it to. Universities (on the Student Affairs side) have a very kumbaya mentality as their front, but don’t also act so in house to each other.

    Overall I wouldn’t take it too personally, just learn how to navigate it all and know that if this internship is leading up to a career in higher edu that things are drastically different from university to university. You mentioned that the director is leaving after 20 years, and typically the weirder the department culture the longer the director has been there. Working in higher edu can be very rewarding, challenging and worth it once you have it down. Keep in mind you are there in the summer as well, and life slows down (unless this is in orientation) in the summer.

    1. PuppyKat*

      “….typically the weirder the department culture the longer the director has been there.”

      Love this—so true!

    2. CoffeeLover*

      Can I just say that I couldn’t stand the student affairs staff at my university. They treated students like we didn’t know anything. If you disagreed with something or asked for clarification on a policy they would get extremely defensive and almost hostile. It was pretty ridiculous considering the place was rampant with idiotic policies and people that had no idea what they were doing. Not to mention the fact that communication between departments was non-existent. No one knew what was going on and you’d be transferred about 5 times before anyone could tell you anything…. Rant. over.

  9. The OP, writing on his lunchbreak at his other internship*

    I appreciate the feedback and pieces of advice from all – I had pretty much decided that I was just experiencing the standard “settling into a new job” awkwardness, but it’s good to hear that from someone else.

    The outside perspective on the office is helpful to me, particularly as I reflect on whether or not the university is one that I’d be interested in working in. To the readers who’ve described it as sounding cliquey, in retrospect that seems very apt; without giving too much away, it’s one of the most prestigious institutions of higher learning in the country, and I have definitely observed the ways that’s impacted the culture there.

    The other school I am interning at has a very different profile – it’s a small, urban liberal arts college (not an elite one) serving underprivileged and adult students – and my interactions with the staff there are significantly different. A large part of that is a function of its size, but my experiences there are making me wonder whether I would fit into that culture – or one like it – better.

    I’m chalking this all up to a learning experience and trying to not hold it against the office in the more prestigious school (which I still do like on the whole, despite the weirdness). For those of you who mentioned “intern fatigue”, I know exactly what you’re talking about! Prior to my career change, I was working in industry and interns came and went all the time – but it’s still weird to be on the other side of it. I’m expecting to have an update at some point with a happy resolution to this business.

    1. Rana*

      I can confirm that there’s often a significant cultural difference between the two types of institution you describe – I’ve worked at both, as has my husband, and both of us came to really appreciate the warmth and camaraderie you can get at the second type.

      The other sort of institution can be wonderful, if you fit in, but, yeah, it’s often a lot more “cliquey” and if you’re not the right fit, that can really work against you (again, I’ve worked at both ends of that spectrum – some where I felt right in place and loved it, others, not so much).

  10. Elle*

    The only input I can add is that your submission and comments were very… thorough. That’s not a bad thing necessarily but I could imagine finding it a bit exhausting if each conversation were that exhaustive.

    1. Rana*

      I have to admit, as an ex-habitue of academia, it didn’t strike me that way at all – at least not in writing. But I can see how it could be exhausting in a conversational setting. ;)

    2. Just Me*

      I enjoyed reading his submission and comments, as I found them very well written. I thought to myself, what a nice entry compared to the “evil OP”s rambling submission of an interview expose on a previous day, which lead to a poor dead horse being beaten to death.

    3. The OP, writing on his lunchbreak at his other internship*

      Hahahaha! When I sent the original email I actually thought “this has gotten way too long.”

      Not that it matters, but nope, I don’t speak anything like I write and am usually a man of few words. But I’ll keep that in mind for my written correspondences in future.

      1. Long Time Admin*

        Hah!! It’s a constitutional right to be insensitive, rude, and boorish.


  11. Ruffingit*

    Since you’re at prestigious university for a short time as an intern, I don’t know that I’d put that much effort into forming relationships. I know, I know, that sounds terrible, but from what you’ve described it seems you fit into the culture better at the other internship you’ve got at Nottheivyleaguesignificantlylessinsaneingeneral internship. Honestly, I think I’d put my effort and energy into getting to know people at the latter institution better.

    The whole being uninvited to the staff retreat thing is just weird and it seems like it’s a whole lot of work for a small return to try and get to know these people. I’d continue with informational interviewing just for your own professional growth, but getting a better social grip might be better saved for the second internship where it appears you fit in better.

  12. The OP*

    I understand where you’re coming from, but for my purposes I’m as equally served by networking at both places even though one school fits me better. The bottom line is I’m going to network with anyone who has the cachet and professional relationships to help me get where I want to be. I’m building relationships at either institution not so much to help my chances in getting hired there, but more to be introduced to as many folks with hiring authority at other universities in the area. My job search is – like most – geographically bound and it would’t help me to leave stones unturned in a tight market.

    But my heart will certainly be more in building relationships with folks at the less prestigious school. And it’s certainly helping to shape what I’m looking for in an employer in the future.

  13. Long Time Admin*

    As someone who has worked as a temp, and someone who has hired and worked with temps, I can tell you that this is actually typical office behavior. Generally, no one really puts a lot of effort into such a short time relationship. You seem to be expecting an awful lot from a part-time short-term job.

    I think another problem might be your informational interviews. If you’re firing questions at people instead of having real conversations, it will turn people off. They might feel like you’ve ambushed them (I’m not saying you have, but think about how these meetings went). You should also make your intent clear when you invite them to have coffee or lunch with you, so they’re prepared and “in the mood”.

    I have also been uninvited to off-hours events, and it’s rude on their part. It feels humiliating and is hurtful. The world is full of insensitive people, though, and things like this happen from time to time. Shake it off and resolve to never treat anyone else that way.

  14. Brett*

    Something else occurred to me about the uninvites.

    What about the other employees? Do they know that the OP and the other new employee were uninvited? Because if I am one of the other employees and I see that those two people were invited to the retreat and did not come, I will definitely see them in a different light. Even if I don’t know that they were invited in the first place, if I don’t know they were uninvited I would have to wonder why they choose not to come on the retreat.

    And that makes a complicated situation. Because if other employees know you were uninvited, that clears up any confusion about not being at the retreat. But at the same time, informing them that you were uninvited seems like extremely poor office etiquette.

    Should the OP let other employees know were not allowed to attend the retreat instead of it being a personal choice?

    Should the new permanent employee let other employees know they were not allowed to attend the retreat instead of it being a personal choice?

    1. Rana*

      That’s a very good question. It might not be a bad idea, especially for the non-intern. Something like the following, said casually to one or two of the other staff, maybe? “Oh, I do hope you all have a good time at the staff retreat. I really wish I could come, but Jane said I shouldn’t since she expects it will be awkward for me as a new hire/intern. If anything comes up that I should know about, could you let me know?”

  15. The OP*

    I actually just am returning from a coffee meeting with one of my colleagues – it does seem like there was some miscommunication somewhere here about my attendance at the retreat. I didn’t ask about the new hire, but my colleague told me that she was surpised not to see me at the retreat. This surprised me because my understanding from my director was that the consensus had been reached about my attendance in a staff meeting – which I was pretty sure this colleague had been present for. I could of course be mistaken – it’s a busy time for the office that does involve some extensive travel (conferences, programs abroad, etc.).

    I don’t think that I lost much – if any – professional capital by not being there, whatever the case was. I was also glad I was able to talk to said colleague, because I was candid about my wanting to connect more with my colleagues and she was able to give me some insight into the office culture that will help me navigate it. She’s a good connector, as well. So it’s sounding like this is all “typical starting at a job awkwardness” with the weirdness of the retreat aside.

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