should I give a former intern feedback about her bad attitude?

A reader writes:

I’m meeting a former intern for coffee and need some advice. She is finishing up law school asked me to meet with her to discuss her post-grad job search. While she was working for me, she was a solid worker but has a really crappy personality/attitude. It seemed like she felt she was either too good for the assignments (which were all substantive) and she was a complainer. Making it worse, she has a “frowner face” that makes her seem standoffish.

However, she still completed all assignments well and her work was good. I do think her personality is holding her back. I was a reference for her and the hiring manager at another organization — who I have a relationship with — called and immediately asked about her personality. Apparently it came across during her 20-minute intern interview. I told the person that her attitude is problematic but that her work was solid. Had she not asked, I wouldn’t have brought it up in the reference check.

That said, I’m struggling on if I should discuss this with her when we meet for coffee. On the one hand, if there was something holding me back, I’d want to know. On the other hand, I’m not sure if she could make changes. There isn’t anything she can do about her “frowner face” and her problem seems to be less of an attitude issue which I think could be corrected, but more of a personality issue which can’t really change. Do you have any advice?

Well, you’re right that she can’t change her face and it’s not really the sort of thing that’s fair to judge her on, but you can certainly let her know that she came across as unhappy while she was working for you — not because of her face but because of the complaining and the acting like she too good for her assignments.

And the complaining and acting above the work are big things that will hold her back if she doesn’t change them. No one should really be acting like that, but it takes a special amount of chutzpah for an intern to do it.

These things also aren’t really personality things, like being outgoing or funny or standoffish. They’re specific behaviors that people can change if they know they need to. “You need to complain less” is very different from personality-focused feedback like “you need to be more bubbly” — and far more helpful.

Now, ideally you would have given her feedback on this stuff while she was working for you (and maybe you did). But since she’s asking for help with her job search now, it’s fair to say, “There’s something I wanted to mention that I observed while you were working with me, because it has the potential to hold you back if you don’t know about it. While we were working together, I got the sense that you were unhappy with your assignments and felt you should have been given more challenging work, and I was surprised by how often you complained about things like X, Y, and Z. You did good work, but these soft skills really matter, and at a lot of employers, they can even trump your work quality. I want to see you do well, and I think this might be an area for you to approach differently.”

She may or may not appreciate this in the moment — not everyone has the grace to take feedback like this well– but you’d be doing her a service, and probably a more valuable one than just providing regular old job search advice.

{ 111 comments… read them below }

  1. Sydney*

    You should definitely give her this feedback, in the nicest way possible of course. I had an attitude problem a few years ago, and my boss sat me down, and basically said, “Your work is great, Syd, but you need to be more positive about your tasks and work in general.” I didn’t realize I was being so pessimistic and sending negative vibes, and I worked to change it. It took me awhile to start self-assessing and work to better my attitude, and it’s made me a much better person and employee.

    Oh, and I have a frowny face, too, and you can indeed do something about it, which is to make sure you smile more. I’m not saying it’s right, because we shouldn’t have to “change our face” for other people, but whatever helps you get ahead. I try to combat my frowny face by smiling at people often, especially when saying hello, and by trying to keep my lips turned up a bit when I’m around new people. It’s stupid that I feel like I should do this, but whatever, I want to move up in the world.

    1. LPBB*

      I got feedback like that in a performance review and it was very painful, although the person doing the review was a former social worker and she did it in the nicest, most positive way one could do that. About a month later, a friend pointed out how negative I was being.

      As hard as it was to hear at the time, it was truly a wake-up call. I really had not realized at all how negative and complainy I had become. Those two incidents really made me take a long look at myself and work on my attitude and what I was communicating about myself.

      I’m still not perfect and if I’m not careful I can slide back into those bad habits, but I am so much better and so much easier to be around than I was. I was complimented later by the same manager who had to give me that review and ended up becoming practically her right-hand.

      This will be hard for her to hear and she may or may not be willing to accept it. But if she is motivated to improve, it is definitely something that she can change.

      1. Sydney*

        It was really painful for me to hear, too, but I am so glad it happened. It took me about two days of blaming my boss before I realized He Was Right and I needed to change. The road is tough, but it’s incredible how much a positive outlook can change your whole world.

        1. Jessa*

          Exactly, especially if you can manage to give it in a very nice manner. This one is going to be hard to take for your former intern. But it needs to be said.

    2. Anonymous*

      Yes, when I was young I had a problem with the “frowny face” too. I guess I thought it made me look “Deep and mysterious.” Ah, the drama of youth!! :-) What got me to change was my best friend telling me I always looked mad. I was taken aback, because I am a very upbeat person as a rule.

      After that I have made a conscious effort to assume a pleasant expression and 40 years later not only do I usually have a smile on my face (and I get comments all the time on how friendly and approachable I am) I also have no frown lines or wrinkles!!!

      So yes, the “frownies” can be overcome if you make an effort.

      1. Min*

        Unfortunately, some of us have mouths that naturally turn down more than usual at the corners when our facial muscles are relaxed.

    3. Bea W*

      The upside is that there seem to be some benefits that come from smiling. Supposedly smiling releases more feel-good neurotransmitters. It can also cause other people to view you more positively and as being more attractive when smiling, even if you don’t have a naturally frowny face.

    4. Bwmn*

      The frowny face issue was totally an issue I dealt with as an adolescent and also received a very painful talking to about my appearance and perceived demeanor.

      At first smiling more felt very unnatural, but eventually became part of what I associated as part of a necessary work/public face. For some wearing make-up is a big part of feeling professional, for me it became ‘putting on a smile’. At first it felt really forced, but when I left my last job a huge part of the feedback I got from my peers and supervisor was that I had such a positive attitude and was wonderful to work with because it was nice to be around someone who smiled. While smiling vs not smiling didn’t seem to be a huge part of my overall attitude – I’m thrilled that I have at least one reference that will say “positive attitude and great to work with”.

  2. Katie the Fed*

    I would probably be more specific than “you need to complain less” because complaints CAN be good in the right context and done correctly. Complaining that you don’t like the assignment – bad. Suggesting that it might be more useful if the assignment focused on X, Y or Z – can be good if used sparingly. Reiterate to her that her job is to learn the business and field – this isn’t the part of her career when she’s going to have the best assignments or be praised for everything – her job is to learn and take direction.

    1. fposte*

      But I also think it’s a question of the balance of her expressions–if 90% of the time her contribution is a negative one, that’s going to weight her down even if they’re legitimate complaints.

      1. Katie the Fed*

        Yes, I agree – that’s why I said they can be good, if used sparingly. People tune you out if you complain too much. But used wisely they can be helpful.

    2. Anonymous*

      But something like “Suggesting that it might be more useful if the assignment focused on X, Y or Z” is NOT a complaint.

      Like AAM, I am a fan of the straightforward voicing of concerns and offering potential solutions or asking for feedback rather than complaining.

      1. Katie the Fed*

        Right…that’s why I was presenting it as an alternative to complaining. I’m advocating teaching/mentoring the employee to be more constructive.

  3. Ruffingit*

    As odd as it sounds, the intern may benefit from an acting class that could help her work on her expressions and possibly some therapy to deal with her attitude. Not saying the OP should necessarily say that she should go to therapy, depends on their relationship if that is something she feels open to discussing, but there are many ways to change negative things like facial expressions, speech patterns, etc.

    1. Katie the Fed*

      One of the things I learned in a leadership class was the art of saying “yes, and” instead of “no, but…”. It’s actually a really helpful technique.

      Jane, I’d like you to write a memo on X.
      Yes, and maybe I should also try to include some information on Y.
      Great idea, thanks!

          1. AP*

            I meant that people new to the work world often need to be reminded that if something can’t happen for whatever reason, it’s not enough just to say no, you should give an alternative (the “but”). So-

            “Can you get me on a nonstop flight to Moscow tonight?”
            “No, the last one just left, but there’s one with a 2-hour layover in London leaving at 8.”

            “Intern, I need Starbucks now!” “It just closed, but there’s a 24-hour Dunkin Donuts down the block if you want that.”

            1. Sam*

              I used this in a job at a zoo as well.

              “Do you have hippos?”

              Instead of “no, we don’t”
              “We have rhinos and elephants, etc…”

      1. Frieda*

        I’m also a fan of “Yes, but…,” which is used instead of “No.”
        Boss: “Can you get this month’s TPS report to me by Friday?”
        You: “Yes, but then this batch of chocolate teapots will miss their ship date to our biggest client. Is that OK?”

  4. Laura*

    When I read “frowney face”, I immediately thought “Oh! She has Resting B*tch Face”. ( ) As a fellow haver of said face, practicing in a mirror can help her change the effects in the office as well as catching glimpses of herself while out and about so she at least knows what people are talking about.

    1. Jamie*

      Yep – I have one of those – used to bother me…now I just use it to my advantage.

      Although, weird aside, I recently had my caps redone and I was so happy with my new look I could NOT STOP SMILING. Me. For days. At everyone. I felt like Courteney Cox in the ad for Cougar Town where someone accuses her of enjoying something and she says she isn’t, she’s just proud of her teeth.

      It was an interesting sociological experiment. At first people didn’t quite know what to make of the new perkier and more animated me. I got a vibe akin to suspicion…then people settled in and felt way more comfortable chatting. A lot. Like plunk down in my office and just talk, people who never do that.

      I’m all about being approachable for work stuff – and I am – but I don’t need that many new friends!

      That whole smiling all the time thing really does make people treat you differently…and take you less seriously in some respects. It was interesting couple of days, but I’m glad I’m me again.

      1. 22dncr*

        In the 80’s I decided I was tired of being part of the negative crowd (my family). I’d read where if you just make yourself smile it changes the connections in your brain. I had an hour commute home so I smiled the whole way. After about 6 weeks of doing it it became natural and strangers (this was in Cali where this NEVER happens) would come up to me and start talking to me. I do it all the time now.

        1. Elizabeth West*

          Hmm…. *makes note*

          It’s hard to meet people here–and while I’ve heard that from other people, maybe I have a frowny face too. Or it could be because for a long time, I’ve really needed new contacts and was squinting all over the place (getting some now). People used to tell me that in high school–“Why were you walking down the street scowling?” “Because I can’t see where I’m going!”

        2. Julie*

          It’s true! I’m from LA, and if you talk to a stranger or walk anywhere, people look at you like you’re dangerous and not to be trusted to act normally. To be fair, it might be better now – I haven’t lived there in a while.

          1. 22dncr*

            Oh Julie – it’s still that way. Every time I go visit family in Cali I’m struck by it anew. Another reason I’m glad to be back in Texas.

            1. AH*

              Off topic, but you think that’s a quality of California? I did my undergrad there and I always thought people were so outgoing and friendly. Then again, I’m from the Northeast…

      2. Kelly L.*

        I also have Resting Bitch Face, and sometimes it serves me well. In one academic job I had, it helped keep me from being taken advantage of by students–they thought I was a Mean Old Lady (at the advanced age of, oh, 28) and didn’t try to pull many fast ones on me. I later got a moonlighting job in retail and had to relearn how to act bubblier for the customers. (I also got reprimanded for the gruff way my voice sounded, which was mostly because I was trying to be heard over a 90% broken intercom, but that’s another story.)

    2. Sourire*

      Have never seen that video. LOVE it! My name (smile in french) is actually a reminder to myself to smile more because I am a sufferer of RBF.

      That bit about random strangers telling you to smile really hit home though. It’s so rude. I don’t go up to you and just shout out commands like “Dance!” or “Cry!”. Why is it somehow acceptable to tell someone to smile?

      1. snippet*

        Exactly! I have a frowny face too, and I HATE it when random people (usually men…I am a woman, not sure if it is relevant) tell me to smile. Love your analogy about “Dance!” or “Cry!”

        1. junipergreen*

          OOF. Yes, I feel like the mandate to “Smile, honey, it ain’t so bad!” is given by men to women (at least, none of the guy-friends I’ve polled have experienced it). It’s awful – I feel like asking why I should put on the pleasant face, while that gruff looking fellow across the street isn’t being asked to “look sweet.”

      2. Rana*

        Oh, gosh, the “smile” thing. I don’t get it as much as I did when I was younger, but I’ve found responding with a somewhat maniacal grimace works really well. ;)

  5. anon*

    I have what you might call a “frowner face”, or more commonly known as “bitchy resting face”. The corners of my mouth are naturally down-turned, so when I’m just in a meeting and I’m listening intently, it can look like I’m pissed off or annoyed. I’ve had people comment, “are you ok?”, “what’s wrong?”, and while at the time it was frustrating, I took them as hints to be a bit more aware of facial expressions when I’m around others. It’s probably not something you should address with your former intern, though, since her face is what it is, but she may pick up on those hints herself.

    As for the attitude, I’ve been that person before. I feel embarrassed about it, even though those bad attitude days were back when I was in my early 20’s (I still cringe thinking about some moments). I was known for producing good work, but I complained a lot about little things and had an entitled attitude. The best thing that happened to me was a former boss took me aside and called me out on it. Of course, it stung when he gave me the feedback, but it was the kick in the behind I needed to shape up my attitude. I haven’t looked back since.

    The way Alison phrased it is perfect. Sure, your former intern may not take the feedback positively, but I think it’s worthwhile to try.

    1. Katie the Fed*

      Yep, I got called out for being a complainer once too. My complaints were actually valid, it’s just that my leadership didn’t care/had no intention of fixing anything, so it was pointless to complain and gripe so much. The better solution for me was finding a different job. I did learn what battles were worth fighting though.

      1. Ruffingit*

        Totally been there. There is value in realizing that the answer is not fixing the place you are, it’s finding a new one.

    2. Ellie H.*

      My neutral expression looks worried so I also get “What’s wrong?” and “Are you ok?” a lot. It’s the single thing I find the hardest to be charitable about. I just want to murder everyone who asks me this. I was once sitting on a park bench outside the library placidly reading a newspaper, and a woman who had crossed the street away from me crossed the street back again to come ask me if everything was all right.

      I honestly don’t think it’s the obligation of us to try to change our expression. Others should respond to someone’s actions words and behavior (including body language and demeanor of speech, which usually isn’t ambiguous in the same way that neutral face expression may seem to be) not their facial expression.

      I think not having a can-do attitude and seeming resentful of work expected/entitled is a totally valid concern (and totally separate from her facial expression which should be immaterial).

      1. Cathy*

        Right there with ya, when people order me to “Smile!” I want to punch them in the face. I’m not frowning, if I was you’d see that furrow wrinkle turn into a furrow crevasse!

        I wish I could remember the source but a while back I read about a scientific study disproving everything we think we know about body language. (ie the only reason we view crossed arms as closed off is because we’ve been told that’s what it means…in actuality, the person could just cold or any one of a dozen different things.)

        1. fposte*

          Though I do think there’s a difference between a random order to smile, which is generally sexist jackholery, and somebody senior to you giving you information about ways in which you come across that aren’t helping you. It doesn’t mean you have to paint on a smile if it’s just your natural facial expression, but it does mean you might want to be aware of being accessible and positive in other ways if you’re looking to do better than you are.

          1. Jessa*

            Also if you have a cubicle, a mirror somewhere helps. You don’t have to smile per se but there are things you can do that open up your face from the frowny look more.

            If you wear makeup you might want to go into one of those places that does makeovers and see if they can lighten up your look around your eyes and other things that can make you look more open and happy. There are tricks that can make you look less frowny and down. Particularly if you have dark areas around your eyes.

    3. Julie*

      I also cringe when I remember how ignorant I was about how to behave at work. At school you are (hopefully) working on things that you’re interested in, and then you graduate, get a job (again, hopefully), and find out that the work world can be very different than the school world. There were definitely times when my managers had to tell me things that are now obvious and second nature, but at the time, they just didn’t occur to me. And some things I learned the hard way without anyone saying anything to me, like the time I was doing a temp job, hurt my foot (at school, not at work), and decided that I should just not wear shoes to work the next day. I was on vacation the following week, and – no surprise – the client didn’t ask for me to come back when I was available again (so embarrassing to think about that now!).

      I have a lot of respect for managers who choose to have these kinds of difficult conversations with employees because it’s not easy.

      1. Cat*

        You’re so right. In fact, your comment just made me have some awful flashbacks to my first professional-ish summer internship. It’s easy to forget how things that seem so obvious after even a small amount of time in the workforce are totally unintuitive when you first start. (Which is not to say that you should hire interns who behave unprofessionally, but there’s something to be said for having the awkward conversation with them.)

        1. Ruffingit*

          This would make a great open thread – things you wish you knew about work when you were starting out.

          1. Jessa*

            Totally great idea for a thread. If Alison has a ticklist of ideas for future ones, I hope she puts Ruffingit’s idea (via Cat) on it.

        2. AP*

          When I think back now to the outfits I used to wear during my college internship! Always professional pants, but I remember some very thin camisoles that may or may not have had lace edging…eesh. And this was in a super business-professional environment, but no one ever said anything.

  6. Sascha*

    My resting face is such that people think I’m either sick, or just received news that a loved one died. I have tried to practice different facial habits (that sounds funny lol) but I found myself getting really stressed over it and having a tight, tense face most of the time. Then people thought I was about to vomit or in some type of pain.

    My method for combating the off-putting resting face is to demonstrate friendliness and interest in others. Make a point to talk to your coworkers and actually listen to them. They will soon learn your face is not a reflection of what’s inside (unless you really do need to vomit or someone just died…). As for people you don’t see often, like clients, you can fake it for a bit if necessary, but I prefer to just be friendly and open when I’m talking with people, and even strangers quickly see that it’s just mah face.

    1. Jamie*

      My boss used to ask me all the time if I was okay, or if I had a migraine…because my at rest/focused face is also my migraine face. I finally, in a light and casual way, told him I know he means well but he’s giving me a complex because it’s just my face.

      I make an effort when I need to, but I’m not going to concentrate on keeping my expression sunny and peppy when I’m alone staring at a bank of monitors. You stick your face in my office in passing and you take what you get. :)

    2. voluptuousfire*

      I also have bitchy resting face and naturally I’m quite friendly and I also find that helps avoid the “are you angry?” questions.

      Also one thing I found that helped was getting my eyebrows shaped. Up until I was about 22 or so, I had really heavy, very Morrissey type eyebrows. I finally went to a place and got my eyebrows shaped and waxed and it made a huge difference. It really opened up my face. Now my resting bitchy face is 50% less bitchy looking. :) Getting rid of the heaviness took away from that “always pondering something heavy and sad” look my face always used to have.

    3. Anonymous*

      I also have a sick/sad resting face. I am super pale with dark circles under my eyes. I have to wear makeup (at least under eye concealer) every day or people will ask me if I’m OK non-stop.

    4. Elizabeth West*

      Heh, your last sentence reminded me–I vaguely remember reading somewhere an anecdote where an interviewer asked Ringo Starr why he looked so sad all the time. He replied, “It’s just me face.” :)

    5. tcookson*

      My resting face, apparently, makes me look like I’m worried or sad. I’ve had people tell me that I look like I’m about to cry. Even my husband, to whom I’ve been married for going on 18 years, has asked me a couple of times if I’m alright, that I look like I’m about to cry. I hate that, especially since we’re all supposed to be so jolly positive all the time.

  7. Del*

    Ohhh, the woes of chronic b*tchface! I’m another of those — my mouth is contoured with a strong downturn, and combined with my tendency to stare fixedly into space when I’m thinking deeply (a major part of my job, haha), I basically look like I’m either trying to glare a hole in the wall or contemplating the deaths of all my loved ones!

    And I’d like to agree with some of the above comments — while critiquing her on her face is a pretty delicate thing, there are still ways that people with “frowner face” “chronic b*tchface” etc etc can compensate for the vibe they are giving off, and it is not a bad thing to do! Approach it delicately, and focus on the impression she’s giving off, rather than the shape of her face. Something like, “I don’t know if you’re aware, but you can look unhappy when I suspect you really aren’t, just neutral, and it can affect how people perceive you.” In other words, make it about impressions, not about shapes and contours. The same way you would approach it if someone had a very forceful way of speaking, a very sharp voice, and so on.

    For my part, I make an effort to smile at people when I meet them, keep my tone particularly sweet and friendly when I’m greeting/chatting/etc, and if someone speaks to me while I’m doing the deep thought scowl, I will often acknowledge that I probably had an unwittingly ferocious expression. It all helps compensate for the b*tchface impression and let other people know that I’m not actually a supervillain in disguise! Just that my face does :c when my mind is going c:

  8. Sarah*

    I also have a frowny face when I’m thinking about other things. This happened to me TWICE in college in Boston…I was walking on the street and a homeless person told me to smile! I’m not necessarily sad/angry, I just look so.

    My husband was a part of a leadership development seminar through work and part of his coaching was to discover his everyday face (I’m sure they had a clever term for this). But it’s essentially what you look like when you’re not engaged in conversation. The coach argued that you needed to discover it and work on it so that you appear approachable, open. This could be a good lesson or her too.

    1. Anonymous*

      Eh, the “smile” comment is actually a very common ‘cat-call’. So it might have more to do with trying to get under your skin than actually commenting on your BRF. Or it might have been both! I just know that I don’t have a frowny face and I used to get that comment all the time when I was younger and more vulnerable looking.

      Not that your other points aren’t valid! They totally are. Just that your particular examples from college are very common means of approaching and unnerving women.

      1. Jamie*

        I have gotten the smile thing at work. Almost without exception it’s been by a man who had issues with women not being submissive or subservient enough. Rare occasion by a much older woman who would do the “so much prettier when you smile” thing…but I have never had it said to me by anyone who I felt respected me as a professional and as a person.

        As fposte mentioned up thread – “sexist jackholery” (which I am totally stealing). I do not look for sexism, but this smile thing has always been in the context that as a woman I wasn’t being sweet or decorative enough.

        1. Jean*

          + A Lot!
          I first encountered this idea–that it is downright offensive to coax, cajole, badger or otherwise pressure young women to smile–in the work of the late feminist Shulamith Firestone. (See her obituary at www (dot) 2012/08/31/nyregion/shulamith-firestone-feminist-writer-dies-at-67 (dot) html?_r=0 ). I don’t remember reading it in “The Dialectic of Sex”–my memory says I found this in an anthology–but this was almost 40 years ago!

        2. Librarian*

          +1,000,000 – As a public librarian, I often have men come up to the desk and say, “Smile!” and wait for me to acquiesce before asking their question. I decided a year or so ago to completely ignore the request and just say cheerfully, “Is there something I can help you with?” I don’t address the command to smile at all. I can tell it annoys them, but that’s the purpose. I make sure I am polite and cheerful enough that they can’t claim I’m being rude, but it gives me a small bit of pleasure to refuse to act on their (sexist) command.

        3. Lisa*

          YES! My boss would never tell my male colleagues to smile, so why does he do it me? The reality, if I want a raise and keep my job, I better smile and be a team player.

      2. Sarah*

        It was a man and then a woman. I think I was just deep in thought. It’s still a depressing thought when homeless people tell you to cheer up.

  9. Lily*

    How does someone who “felt she was too good for the assignments” behave? You can tell her not to roll her eyes or sigh or … when given an assignment.

  10. Wilton Businessman*

    She is asking for your help and sometimes the truth hurts. This is probably not something that is going to go well because she’s probably looking for an opportunity and not advice.

  11. Mena*

    When you meet for coffee, listen to what your old intern is asking. Is she asking for feedback? Is she asking for direction? This will signal whether she’s even open or listening to what you may have to say.

    And I would avoid commenting on her natural facial expression and instead focus on perceived attitude. The key here is ‘perceived.’

    “Sally, sometimes I got the impression that you were annoyed with the projects that you were assigned. Your work was always solid but the impression I’d get was a bit off-putting. This might hold you back, especially with folks that don’t yet know that you do great work.”

    A little less assusatory but helpful feedback.

    Good Luck. It is nice of you to want to take the trouble to partake in what may be a difficult conversation.

  12. R*

    I have resting bitch face too. However when I am excited, happy, animated, interested etc my face is not at rest and I look much more approachable. I find that exaggerating my interest and mood just a bit makes me look a lot more animated so I try not to just look neutral when I first meet people. Once they get to know me better then it hasn’t been a problem.
    This seems to be a separate issue than complaining about assignments. Complaining is a behavior she can control, showing interest in projects is a behavior she can control.

    1. Ally*

      Yep! Me too. My boss at my job while I was in college told me one day that I needed to make more friendly expressions on my face because I looked angry all the time. I was shocked! I consider myself, especially at the time, a very friendly person. My feelings were hurt too. But I looked in the mirror with resting face and realized wow, I look really bitchy! I had always looked in the mirror with eyebrows raised or purposely friendly face. Looking back, I am so glad this boss brought it to my attention.

      In certain situations I will raise my eyebrows a bit and have a little smile. I have to be very conscious about it, but it helps, a lot.

  13. LizNYC*

    I think what other commenters have hit on here (resting b*tch face) may definitely be at play here, but it sounds like this intern’s energy level / enthusiasm for tasks wasn’t quite up to snuff either. The fact that the OP got the impression the intern thought these tasks were “below” her is problematic and that the subsequent interviewer didn’t think the intern was interested (enthusiastic) about the job is also a problem.

    If there’s a way, OP, for you to say, nicely, that during a reference check, someone commented that [intern] seemed less than enthusiastic (or negative or however it should be categorized) about the work, maybe that would be a wakeup call for the intern. If she’s stunned someone would suggest that, maybe that’s the perfect time for you to say “well, when you worked for me, I noticed you were reserved/quiet, etc., so it’s important to come across a little more high energy and engaged during these interview processes than normal.”

  14. Angelina Retta*

    I wonder how many male employees get told to smile more. “His work was good but he really outta do something about his face.”

    1. Anonymous*

      My guess is “none”. Also, I would guess “none” for the number of men who have been hollered at by strangers to “Smile!” #itsamansworldbaby

    2. Kerr*

      Ha. This. Or very, very few.

      True story: a stranger (female) once told me something like “Don’t make a face, smile!” The problem? I WAS smiling. I knew it was an awkward smile (a little nervous at the time), and yeah, it probably looked weirdly tense, and we weren’t facing each other directly, and that side of my face is way less expressive…but I sure wasn’t expecting that comment. Gee, thanks for letting me know that my awkward smile looks like a grimace?

      Seriously, OP, don’t say anything about her face. Addressing the complaining and general negativity will be much more effective, since she’ll be more likely to address them if she doesn’t also hear “Oh yeah, and your face looks weird too.” If it’s RBF, she can’t do much about it anyway, and shouldn’t have to walk around paranoid. If her frown was an expression of tension and negativity, then a better outlook should clear it up in the long run, without anybody saying anything.

      1. fposte*

        While this does tend to be a judgment that falls harder on women, men’s offputting expressions can work against them as well. Politics is the great example of this, but there are plenty of men in service work positions where being sour-faced hurts them, too.

  15. MR*

    Yes, you should give this feedback. Everyone needs to hear about this type of stuff, especially when they are actively soliciting this information.

    That being said, it should just be part of what you tell her. Don’t forget to highlight the positive aspects of her work/performance. Otherwise she will not be pleased and may just disregard the negative feedback that you present to her.

  16. periwinkle*

    RBF creates a negative image for humans, and yet it’s highly marketable in cats. Go figure.

    I’ve got RBF and have learned when to disguise it and when not to. If I’m walking along in public I’ll usually look pleasant (not smiling, but slightly amused), and find that people will react pleasantly. If I see one of those “sign this petition unless you hate children… you don’t hate children, do you?” people, I deploy the RBF.

    “I signed a petition once. It was awful.”

    1. Pussyfooter*

      Maybe there’s a book/website contract in it for someone…
      Grumpy Gal(TM)
      Let the money roll in!

    2. Anon*

      Ha! I actually do kind of hate children just a little. No effort needed for the Resting Bi*** Face there. Now, wave a fluffy kitten in my face, I’ll sign whatever petition you stick in front of me!

    3. Jean*

      It annoys me enormously when people conclude that the fact that you’re not falling all over yourself to agree with them means that you are Obviously 100% opposed to their position and probably also in cahoots with the Devil. I mean, what ever happened to Nuanced and Complicated? Grrrr.

  17. Anonymous*

    If you do give the feedback, talk about things she actually said or did. For example, you said: “It seemed like she felt she was either too good for the assignments”.

    What made it seem that she felt that way? What did she say that gave you that impression?I am assuming she didn’t say “I am too good for this assignment”. Was it non-verbal, did she sigh and roll her eyes?

    If you can focus on specifics, I think you have a better shot at the feedback being really heard , this type of stuff is very easily felt by the recipient as a personal attack – about them personally rather than about things they do. She may also wonder why you hadn’t brought it up before if it was such a problem.

    1. Cheryl*

      What made it seem that she felt that way? What did she say that gave you that impression?I am assuming she didn’t say “I am too good for this assignment”. Was it non-verbal, did she sigh and roll her eyes?

      I totally agree with this as this is a perception of other people and it is possible that we are perceiving something incorrectly.

      And why is the one that perceived something whether incorrectly or not always the one in the right? If she specifically came out and said this work is beneath me, thats one thing. But if she instead sighed; that interpretation of a sigh could be perceived any which way.

      Without actual communication we are all reading something into the situation and then reacting as if our perceptions were correct. I understand in the context of getting a job and presenting oneself in a professional light to others; but I’ve always had an issue with “your preceptions always being right” and “my facial expressions always being wrong”. But thats just me.

  18. Lindsay H.*

    Would you be worried about giving advice or redirection if the opposite had happened? “Jane, your attitude and demeanor were great but the quality of your work was lacking?”

    I know that addressing personal attribute issues can be . . . well, personal, but a roadblock to career growth is still a roadblock.

  19. Mike C.*

    Make sure you’re really specific in your criticisms regarding attitude and whatnot. Remind her that you were happy with your work, but talk in detail how the other issues you’re concerned about got in the way of that.

    But with respect to the facial expression issue, it’s not an issue. It’s not fair to expect women to always be smiling and bubbly and cheery in the work place when men are allowed a much wider range of emotions. As a man, there are times where I can yell or swear or whatever and it makes me seem “passionate” and earns me the respect of my peers. Had I been a woman doing those same things it’s likely I would have instead been seen as “shrill”, “b****y” or worse.

    I also want to say that I appreciate that you’re willing to help this person out. I can’t count the magnitude of help I’ve received from those above me. It’s not an easy talk to have, but I’m willing to bet that in the end it will be well received.

    1. Cat*

      I agree, particularly as to facial expression; however, on yelling: sometimes I think that this is a situation in which we’d be better off applying the standards we sometimes apply to men to women rather than vice versa. It depends on the situation, of course, but I think men get away with treating people in abhorrent ways sometimes because they’re seen as “forceful” and “passionate” when they really shouldn’t.

      1. Cat*

        Whoops, I meant to write that sometimes we should apply the standards we apply to women to men rather than vice versa.

    2. Jean*

      I agree also. Often we learn the most from the observations that are–at the time–the most painful to hear. Your courage (to deliver bad news) and your concern that this person will do well in the long term both reflect well on your character.

  20. Not So NewReader*

    I wonder why she is asking now. I think something is going on with her, OP- she missed a cool job or got passed over for a project at work. Something happened.

    I think I would open the conversation by asking her what prompted her to request this meeting. Then listen. Until you answer her question(s), she will probably skate by anything you are saying. Her topic will remain at the forefront of her thinking until she is able to address it with you.

    Point number two. She asked you to meet with her. Keep in mind that this is a position of trust. She thinks something of you, OP.
    You did a good job here of telling us that she was a good worker but she had two problematic areas. Your explanation has a balanced perspective. All I would add to the mix is be able to say something specific about her work. “I saw twice where you did X very well.” OR “I could not help but notice how well you organize your work and this is so hugely important in our field.” Be specific about some of her good points. This will help a little bit to off-set the sting of the other things you want to say.

    1. Senor Poncho*

      “I think I would open the conversation by asking her what prompted her to request this meeting.”

      Throwing this out there…..

      The job market for new lawyers is absolutely horrendous. And, if she is “finishing up law school,” that means that she is likely at a stage (3rd year, pre-bar) where it is most difficult to find work (long story short, people generally find their first jobs either before their second semester of their second year or after bar results are released).

      So, bad market, bad stage of the job search process, and trying to be proactive is how I would read it.

      And I would advise her that, hey, sure her work was good, but there isn’t exactly a shortage of highly qualified lawyers who can do good work out there. For better or worse, attitude and perceived attitude matter.

  21. JenTheNiceHRGirl*

    I had to have this exact same chat with a friend of mine. She was continuing to be passed up for promotions, despite being one of the top producers in her department. I knew exactly why this was happening. People felt she was pushy, opinionated, and difficult to get along with. Once day we were talking and she asked for my advice and so I started out by asking her if she really wanted my feedback and would she be ok hearing it. She said she would so I laid it all out there for her, in the nicest/most constructive way possible. She was upset, but she thanked me for being honest with her. She said she already knew everything I told her, but thought that she would be promoted anyway as she would “get results”. However, I think that she is genuinely taking my advice and trying to be more respectful to the options of others, and toning down her whole “bull in a china shop” approach. So who knows, maybe she will get that promotion next time. Soft skills are important and nobody wants to work with someone who has a bad attitude. I think that if someone reaches out to you for feedback/advice then you can feel free to give it to them. The important piece is to put things in a constructive manner because you don’t want the person to feel like you are bashing them. You can always try sticking to the positives, like “if you did more of this…” and “maybe if you tried this…” etc… good luck :)

  22. Anonymous*

    Bad attitude is bad, and something that should be corrected *before* it causes a problem. It can be keeping her from getting jobs if she’s negative on social media or in interviews, and if she does get a job she may not be able to hold onto it if she’s sending out bad vibes.

    That said, since she’s not your employee it may be possible to get to the root of why she was a complainer. Maybe she wasn’t fond of working for the OP and may have some feedback on how to create a better working environment for future interns. Bad attitude is sometimes a personality trait and usually something someone can change through force of will to an extent, but it’s sometimes also a product of external factors.

  23. Pussyfooter*

    Hi OP,
    I’d let her know specifically which negative impression she’s leaving, and *very specifically* what gestures/comments give that idea. If you are too vague, she may change something that’s fine, while continuing to do the self-destructive thing! This also avoids moral characterizations of her, which would be needlessly hurtful.

    I often need to defend my sense of security with another person when I first hear criticism, but then go think about it alone. She may *sound* unreceptive, but do some thinking about your insights after you part. Or not at all….At least give her the chance to change.
    ps. I once complained to my professor about something she was doing in class. She totally insisted I was wrong, wrong, wrong, but our conversation wasn’t over, so it was *Awkward*. I figured I’d made my idea clear and backed that topic off to give her space to digest it…She never acknowledged the discussion afterward, or thanked me, but She Stopped Doing The Problem Thing :’)

  24. Pussyfooter*

    And as far as the bitch face thing…
    I just finished reading about Susan B. Anthony. Photos show that she and her dad both had down turned mouths–think frogs on a lilly pad. She was totally charming, charismatic, insightful and industrious. She turned down several offers of marriage. Looks didn’t slow her down from irrevocably altering American culture, and informing Gandhi’s tactics, which informed MLK jr. and South African politics.
    The corners of her mouth are so beside the point of anything she ever did. She rocked.

  25. Cassie*

    Actually, I think I saw an article about cosmetic surgery that’s all the rage in Asia to turn those RBF frowns upside down!

    Joking aside, one of my fellow ballet students was a constant sourpuss. She had potential to be a good dancer, but she was very self-critical and on top of that, did not take corrections well at all. A correction (which is a good thing, because it means the teacher sees potential for you to improve) would be met with an even poutier face, arms flailing, stomping off the floor before the end of the exercise, etc. A compliment would sometimes produce the same effect. (And if you didn’t say anything to her, she’d whine about it after class).

    She was in an audition class and afterwards, the director running the class asked her regular teacher “what’s wrong with her?”. Obviously she wasn’t as extreme as normal (which occurred on a daily basis – despite constant “corrections” from teachers not to pull a face or to finish the step), but even just the frowny concentrating face was enough to project a negative impression.

    The teachers tried to coach/coax her, I (as her friend) also tried to help her, but really it was something that she needed to work on herself. She knew it was holding her back from getting into ballet programs, she just couldn’t get past it (she was also in therapy, but I don’t know if that helped).

    TL:DR – impressions matter. You don’t have to constantly be grinning like the Chesire Cat, but you may want to consider how to not default to a frowny face. (I say this as someone who has a bit of a frowny face – they say you aren’t supposed to smile in your passport photo so my photo looks like a terrible mugshot).

  26. Limon*

    These intangibles are so important. I have read through this post and I love what everyone wrote about their own experiences.

    It is humbling to see yourself in other people’s questions and comments. Sometimes, therapy is like wearing braces. Your teeth are just too crooked to straighten on their own. Why do we do certain things? sometimes we really need help to work that out.

    I think giving the feedback could be an excellent thing for this young woman. If she doesn’t change her behavior now I bet she will always remember the advice in the future. It’s a good thing to help others, and the advice sounds kind and honest.

  27. EE*

    I have received this type of advice in the past (in my case, it was that I came off as aggressive) and I appreciated it. I recommend you give her this helping hand.

  28. Flabbergasted*

    Honesty is best, although polite honesty is better. Tell her about her great work performance. When it comes to the negative, give her positive feedback about it in tips of how she can improve, ie smile before/when you answer the phone so people can hear you are happy, think before you react as it shows on your face, stay positive, better assignments will come when you have more experience. I think it is important to tell her, if she doesn’t already know, her thoughts show on her face. I had a friend that did this and it was very negative to be talking to someone who was judging people – not everyone shares the same opinion, but everyone should respect everyone.

  29. MrsG*

    I have this same problem, and when a coworker brought it up to me I was very grateful. I tend to use self-deprecating humor a lot and she said she hated to see me so down on myself all the time. I know for me my frowny face comes from being depressed, so maybe acting concerned for the intern will help her open up about a problem she’s having.

    In any case, the negative attitude and frownie face will hinder her interviews; I know that from experience. Bringing it up now will help her.

  30. VictoriaHR*

    If you’re going to give that feedback to a prospective employer, you need to give it to her. Don’t be a reference for someone without being fully forthcoming with them about what you would say if asked.

    I have a frownie face but I learned to overcome it. It takes constant vigilance, though.

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