when internships go bad: stories of the world’s worst interns

When summer internships wrap up in the next few weeks, most offices will end up missing their interns – but a few will be relieved to see them go.

I recently had Ask a Manager readers share their worst experiences with interns, and they delivered. Here are eight of the most outrageous real-life stories they shared of internships gone very bad. Of course, as you read these, keep in mind that horror stories like these are more the exception than the norm; most interns are eager to learn and want to do a good job. (And if you manage interns, your part of the bargain is to provide them with guidance and mentorship, so that they can avoid these sorts of disasters!)

1. Don’t forget the pillow shams

“Our office was one of those super modern open floor plan models, where everyone sits at a table, regardless of title. Our office had a lot of those lux amenities, like a gym, hair salon and convenience store, so a lot of interns viewed it as their own take on Google. I came in one day and found a very neat cot made up next to the large common table, complete with sheets, pillows and even shams. Our company did frequently have health observance displays, so I thought maybe it was a sleep hygiene demonstration – but no. An intern had decided he needed a midday nap and had purchased and set up a cot. His manager worked in a different area and rarely came to this building. When she did and saw the cot, and found out it was the intern’s sleeping place, her rage was epic and horrifying.”

2. All in the family

“I had a student intern who, unbeknownst to me, brought her brother in to do her work while she studied. She had been assigned to shelve items in our library stacks. When I went out to check on her, I found [her] sitting at a table reading while her brother was off shelving. Aside from the legalities of having a random stranger doing the work that had been assigned to a paid intern, this guy had no official training whatsoever; apparently she just told him what to do. I didn’t even want to know what their family dynamics were. All I know is my brothers would never, ever do my job (if they were even capable of doing it) without getting paid. A few days after I thought I had laid down the law on this mess, she and her brother pulled the same thing again! I ran the brother off for good this time, and – needless to say – his sister did not last long with us.”

3. Obscure music fan

“A brand new co-op student came into our lunch room for the first time, listened to about 10 minutes of our usual conversation (sports, major world events, “Game of Thrones” and other TV), and announced that those topics didn’t interest her and that we should be talking about classical music instead. One of my colleagues asked how that would go, and in a very condescending tone she said: “Well, if I was to say the name Beethoven, would you know who I meant?”

4. A different understanding of punctuality

“Our summer intern would come in 45 to 50 minutes late daily, even after we had several conversations with him about why he needed to come in on time. Eventually, he started coming in only 20 minutes late and asked for praise because he had made ‘vast improvement’ in his punctuality.”

5. “We don’t use that language around the congressman.”

“I am a very level-headed person but had an alcohol-fueled adventure in front of some very important people one night. I was a political intern, and there is an annual convention that (in all honesty) is just a big, drunken booze-fest – and I did partake. My biggest embarrassments of the night were falling over drunk on the governor (his security detail had to step in because I was so tipsy) and being kicked out of a hospitality suite for reasons I don’t remember, but all I recall are the words ‘we don’t use that language around the congressman.'”

6. Photocopier trauma

“I had an intern who photocopied some handouts onto very dark red paper. I said, ‘Oh, I think that might be hard to read because of the contrast. Would you please print them again on a lighter color?’ (We’re talking about 10 one-sided copies). She burst into tears, sprinted out of the building and called her internship supervisor to tell her that she was being abused and threatened. I would have been happy to dismiss her, but she was too scared of me to come back anyway.”

7. Maybe the goodbye party theme wasn’t clear enough

“I had an intern who didn’t know he had to leave. He was given a contract that he signed with the number of days and hours he was authorized to work. They closed up all his projects with him before his last day. They had a goodbye party for him. He showed up the next day and was irate when informed he no longer worked there. The words, ‘well, what am I supposed to do?’ were yelled at one point.”

8. Inspired by the patio

“At an old gig, generally when assigning IT equipment, managers and up got laptops, and everyone else got PCs. I was responsible for walking new users through their setup. When I started talking about how to log into your PC, one intern began [to] grimace and appear to begin having a panic attack. When I asked what was wrong, she said, ‘why can’t I have a laptop?’ Slightly freaked out but cool on the surface, I explained the general IT assignments. She began to weep. Totally freaked out, I just looked at her for a minute as she lamented: ‘What if I want to go outside, or I see something that inspires me on the patio? How could you do this? Why?!’ She didn’t last long that summer.”

{ 106 comments… read them below }

  1. Kristine*

    Well, let me tell you something: I was an intern at age 45, after going back to school in mid-life to get my Master’s. My internship supervisor was great (we were the same age), but her supervisor was an obsessed control freak (and former nun without any children) who talked to me like I was a teenager, went on rampages about petty or nonexistent errors, and started lecturing me on “these decisions that you have to make before you start a family.” (Hon, you were a NUN – I was a bohemian actress/dancer/writer who has traveled the world, worked a variety of jobs, and kind of expected the baby rabies to die down at middle age, you know?)

    Interns can have nightmares, too.

      1. Green*

        I could single-handedly write a guest post outrageous top 10 list for that just based on one summer at a law firm. (And then maybe a top 10 of me being a terrible intern based on that same summer.)

      2. AnotherFed*

        That would be a great post. I probably wasn’t an A+ intern, but wow, did I have some terrible internship experiences.

    1. Dynamic Beige*

      the baby rabies

      I am so using that at the first opening that presents itself. It’s awful (but true), succinct and rhymes!

      1. Sara*

        I think this also could be used to describe the voracity with which some (but to be clear: not all!) of the newer parents I know try to convince everyone they encounter to become parents immediately.

        1. Marina*

          That is so weird to me. I have never been so vehement with my non-parent friends that they should strongly consider NOT having babies as I was immediately after my daughter was born. I mean, I love babies, but dayamn they’re a lot of work. Don’t sign up for that shit (literally?) unless you’re really, really sure about it.

    2. Graciosa*

      There is an upcoming movie called “The Intern” which stars Robert DeNiro as an intern to Anne Hathaway’s character. I love the idea of interns who actually have some life experience to contribute.

      The preview did not seem to position it as a Miranda Priestley situation – to stay a bit on topic, I am very sorry you went through that. I appreciated the reminder that not all interns are created in the same mold as the ones who made Alison’s list.

    3. JB (not in Houston)*

      I’m not really getting what her being a nun or childless has to do with anything. If it’s life experiences–they see/hear a LOT even if they don’t experience it first hand, and I’ve worked with control freaks who are men, women, with kids and without. I mean, she sounds like a nightmare to work for, but I’m not sure where the nun part or the childless part made it worse?

      1. afiendishthingy*

        I think it’s because she was lecturing Kristine about having babies when she had none of her own.

        1. JB (not in Houston)*

          But that’s because she’s a nun? I mean, she had no business lecturing anyone about their reproductive choices. But a nun not having kids and thinking that a non-nun should have kids is, to me, different than a by-choice non-nun childless woman lecturing another to have kids. If that makes sense.

          1. Panda Bandit*

            I’m not getting your point. She chose to be a nun, a position where it’s pretty well-known that you can’t have sex/kids.

      2. Ask a Manager* Post author

        I am sure no one means any ill here, but I’m going to ask that we not give Kristine a hard time about her story. It’s frustrating to share a story and have that happen. Thank you.

        1. JB (not in Houston)*

          Sorry, I wasn’t trying to give her a hard time, I really thought I was maybe missing something because I didn’t get it (that happens to me a lot, I’m kinda slow on the uptake sometimes). Sorry, Kristine!

    4. Melissa*

      Yup, my first internship was a lesson in what not to do. (Lessons that need to be learned, no doubt, but not when they delay graduation.)

    5. Roxanne*

      I am in my mid 40s and made a career change after going to school at night for 4years. I am living this exact nightmare right now!!!!!

  2. FD*

    These were all golden.

    Inspired by the patio needs to become a new meme here to go with the duck club.

      1. AcidMeFlux*

        Could the reader who submitted the “inspiration on the patio” story perhaps send in a photo of the patio? I’m intrigued…

        1. afiendishthingy*

          I DO have a company laptop and now I want to weep because my office doesn’t have a patio, inspiring or otherwise. :'(

          1. DaBlonde*

            I have a company laptop, but we are in the middle of a record-setting heatwave (118 f on Saturday) so no patio for me either. :(

    1. MsM*

      Speaking of the duck club, I’m disappointed one-woman duck party intern couldn’t make the list.

    2. Artemesia*

      You do realize that Larold is starting a duck club on the patio — I know because I saw him taking the pillow shams out there.

        1. Marina*

          Hanukkah Balls are still my favorite. I have fond memories of the time I made a normally unflappable coworker literally fall over laughing by referencing “putting Hanukkah Balls on my Hanukkah Bush”.

    3. Sarahnova*

      I thought of the patio today… when I was working on my laptop in my company’s rather nice walled garden.

      Sorry, intern! :)

    4. Mona*

      “How could you do this? Why?!” After reading post #8, I keep seeing that Nancy Kerrigan footage after she got wacked in the knee.

        1. Kelly L.*

          Well, I’m on my work computer and I don’t search for that kind of stuff on my work computer, so I don’t know what would have triggered it!

          1. Apollo Warbucks*

            Very odd, maybe it’s been linked to another category of adverts and something innocuous brought it up?

            I hope Alison comes back with an answer.

            1. Ask a Manager* Post author

              I think it’s most likely that something just slipped through that shouldn’t have. (God, in the context of a condom ad, that really doesn’t sound right.)

              1. Ask a Manager* Post author

                Just got a reply from my ad network. They said:

                “Condom ads as well as any sexually suggestive ads are blocked network-wide, as well as specific condom companies. Sometimes one will show up because it’s being served through a different company’s advertising campaign (for example, Wal-Mart). Because the system detects the ad as coming from Wal-Mart (or whatever), the ads can sneak through. This is just one of those instances where we have to track down the ‘creative’ that the ad is running through and block it. I’ll get that done today!”

                1. Kelly L.*

                  Interesting!

                  The only other thing I can think of was maybe I read a news article about contraceptive politics or something. But it might just be stealth Wal-Mart!

  3. Not me*

    The stories of #6-8 are still cracking me up. I’m trying to figure out how they got that far before something just clicked in their mind the wrong way and ?? ????

  4. Ms Information*

    This is advice for interns rather than for organizations but it is really, really helpful for you and your future career if you keep your own records of what you accomplished as well as copies of reports, presentations and anything else you produced. You will be a rock star to the company you interned at if you can produce that great report 6 months later when it turns out your supervisor didn’t save it to a central file before they left the organization. I’d love to see a thread on interns’ experiences!

    1. anonanonanon*

      I agree about keeping a record of what you accomplished, but I think this can be said of any position. I’m hesitant about keeping copies of reports and such because if you’ve left the company, it’s your responsibility to give it to someone or post it somewhere before you leave. The company shouldn’t be contacting you 6 months after you’ve left for a document. Also, some companies have sections included in a work contract/notice of hire/form/etc about keeping company reports and presentations after you’ve left.

      1. Ms Information*

        Totally agree it shouldn’t happen, especially if there’s a contract specifying turning over all products before leaving. But I’ve seen it happen more than once. Maybe because interns often work on special projects, the document control trail gets confused and the final products get lost.

      2. the gold digger*

        I actually had someone contact me a few months ago – a work friend – about some marketing reports I had written at my former job from which I was laid off in 2005.

        Yes. She wanted something I had done over ten years ago.

        I wanted to say, “Re-hire me at my old salary and benefits and I will write new reports for you.”

        1. NickelandDime*

          You probably didn’t even remember what she was talking about. Ten years ago? What could possibly be in the reports that’s still relevant??? I bet she just remembered she liked the templates and wanted to copy them.

          I took some files and things I did from a job I got laid off from years ago, and I just trashed all of that stuff recently. I never used it.

        2. anonanonanon*

          Wow, that’s obnoxious. My previous company contacted me a year after I left asking about certain documents, which was super annoying because before I had left I emailed them to my boss, posted them to an internal ftp site, AND left a printed copy with instructions on where else I had left them with my boss and the person replacing me. Not my fault that they still managed to misplace everything.

          Asking after one year is bad enough, but over ten years ago? That’s just ridiculous.

          1. NickelandDime*

            Someone did that to me too. And they indeed lost those documents. The person that contacted me let me know the person asking was making all kinds of snide comments about me too. I was like, “I’m working and I don’t have time for this.” They never called again.

            It’s not an intern’s responsibility, or anyone else’s for that matter, to have copies of things or know the location of items at a place they no longer work for. And companies should be better across the board about having what they need before people leave.

            1. anonanonanon*

              Exactly.

              I think employees should be responsible for letting people know where documents are going to be posted when they’re leaving a company, but after they’re gone, it’s really not their problem. And if the company can’t get it together enough to request that an employee hand over important documents before they leave, that’s their own issue they need to resolve.

    2. CM*

      No, that stuff is confidential and needs to stay with the company. If they can’t get it together enough to know where their own documents are, it’s their problem. Don’t try to be a “rock star” and get accused of stealing the company’s intellectual property or violating their security policies.

  5. Allison*

    “What if I want to go outside?” Was she honestly convinced she’d never be allowed outside, or did she expect to be able to work outside? I’m trying to get in her head here and understand why not getting a laptop would actually make someone cry . . .

    1. MashaKasha*

      Wait till she finds out why people really get laptops at work – not so that they can go outside if they’re inspired by the patio, but so they are available to work 24-7.

      1. Allison*

        Right? Lots of people where I work have laptops, but it’s very rare to see people working outside. Honestly, she sounds like those girls in college who’d always beg the professor to have class outside, and whine about how unfair it was when he said no.

      2. Sarahnova*

        My company has a walled garden, and we often have meetings/work out there.

        Mind you, the reason we have laptops is that most of my teammates spend 2-3+ days a week on the road, soooo…

      3. hayling*

        Eh I dunno, depends on the company. Everyone at my company has laptops, but few people bring them home. I like (need, really) the freedom to bring it to meetings.

      4. AnonymousaurusRex*

        Or worse, like my office. We are only issued desktops, but are still expected to work from home on occasion, either on our home desktops or laptops. It’s frustrating to try to explain why you have to convert everything to google docs because you can’t do some Word edits on your home machine. (And given that’s the only thing I’d use Word for, I’m not going to pay for my own personal copy)

    2. Beancounter in Texas*

      Maybe she didn’t have a home computer & she was counting on a laptop for personal use outside of work too. I had both a PC and a laptop at one employer, and I ~sometimes~ took the laptop home because it could access my neighbor’s secure wifi (whereas my home computer could not).

      1. Kat*

        Did you have permission to use your neighbor’s secure wifi?

        We had neighbors that actually had the nerve to complain to us about the closest wifi to them being secure so they couldnt use it. They were complaining about us. I told them that when they pay for my bill, they could access it. They didnt like that.

        Wifi thieves are dicks.

    3. Student*

      She was counting on her job giving her a laptop so she could use it as her personal home computer as well as her work computer. When things didn’t go as expected, she handled it very poorly with a tantrum to try to get what she wanted.

      IT people very commonly run into this problem. Part of the downside-to-the-company of blurring the work/life divide so much is that employees now feel entitled to use company property as personal property, especially company IT property like software licenses, laptops, tablets, and smartphones. People will make up the most ridiculous excuses as to why they need an extra Office or Windows license for their home computer, why they really must have a gaming-quality laptop with a high end graphics card when their day job is to work on spreadsheets, excuses for why the company laptop had [insert clearly non-work software] installed on it that interfered with work applications.

      1. NickelandDime*

        I think you’re right. But what these people don’t understand when they try to get these things for free, like phones and laptops, is that it’s company property. You can keep your nude photos and iTunes collection on there if you want, but if the company wanted to take the computer/phone from you and all the contents on it, there isn’t much you can say or do. And yes, they can delete your clearly non-work software from the computer or phone or tablet if they needed and wanted to. No thanks. I use work computers, etc., for WORK and I have personal items for personal use. Yes I have two phones. I wouldn’t have it any other way. I think this would be a good article for Ask a Manager too.

        1. Long Time Reader First Time Poster*

          Yeah there could be some great stories in the comments section!!

          I never put anything personal on a work computer. EVER.

        2. Student*

          I know one contractor IT person who makes a copy of any and all porn he finds on company property, burns it to a disk, and then gives that disk to the relevant management.

          Note that this is a (possibly funny) terrible idea, since the IT guy is effectively trafficking in whatever porn the employee had on their computer by giving it to other people, which can quickly become Very Illegal.

    4. JB (not in Houston)*

      Wait, you let your interns go outside? We keep ours locked in the basement for the semester in case we need them to make copies at odd hours.

  6. plain_jane*

    I wasn’t organized enough to share my intern story at the time, but this is the one that came to mind.

    The company wanted to make sure they were correctly allocating project costs, so basically everything that a hard cost had a code. You needed to type in a code to use the printer and another code for long distance phone calls. The intern that summer indicated she needed to work from home on a regular basis. We explained that we needed our interns in the office to support the team on small tasks in and around the larger assignments she was given. Her answer was that we hadn’t given her a code to call long distance, and she needed to be able to speak with her boyfriend on a regular basis (I don’t recall if she was without a cell phone or merely didn’t want to have to pay for the minutes).

    She also complained we never gave her any interesting assignments, and it was because she wasn’t being challenged that she wasn’t performing well. We pointed out that we were unlikely to give her those projects if she wasn’t able to perform the basic things that we actually were paying her for and that the team wanted her help to accomplish. We were not unhappy to see her go.

    1. Nanc*

      She needs to speak to her boyfriend on a regular basis. Yeah, she’s going to do real well in the professional world!

    2. afiendishthingy*

      they wouldn’t let her talk to her boyfriend regularly on company time and money?? Is that legal??

  7. AdAgencyChick*

    Oh my sweet lord. I didn’t see all of these the first time through, and now (especially since I’ve resigned and I have senioritis*) I have both the inclination and the time to back through the original thread.

    *In my defense, there’s not much for me to do!

  8. T*

    We had an IT intern that was playing with keylogging software in his first week. Keyloggers are used to secretly record keyboard keystrokes to steal information. Prior to that, he had repeatedly mentioned his interest in “hacking”. It’s not uncommon for young IT people to be fascinated with hacking so we didn’t think much of it at the time. But discovering he was playing with keyloggers was a big deal. We work in a locked department for security reasons and he had access to all of our computers. Our accounts have access to everything – payroll, HR, legal contracts, etc. so our computers are the grand prize for any hacker. We immediately disabled his account and let him go on the spot. Having someone in our department we can’t fully trust is worthless. Without computer access, the most we could have done is let him do manual labor all day and we don’t have that much grunt work.

    1. Beancounter in Texas*

      YOWZA. It’s a handy skill to know how to hack stuff when you’re one of the good guys, but I think one’s integrity must be proven first. I hope he went on to find a good application for his skills.

    2. A Non*

      Eeek, good choice. A huge part of IT is that your behavior around people’s data has to be above reproach. Full stop. Hopefully that kid learned from the experience.

    3. Ms T*

      As someone who HAS done penetration testing for a paycheck (but as someone who tends to sit on the defender side of the fence these days) – this story makes me want to never hire the guy. Or at least, not for another 5 years so he’s had a chance to mature.
      Pentesting can be crazy fun, and most play around in their own time all the time. But you need to know how to keep work, testing jobs, and play time seperate. He’s just shown me that he doesn’t actually care about protecting the system, he’s just attracted to the mystique of the industry – I can teach another intern with more respect for our blue hats just as well as him.

  9. Sparrow*

    I so wish there was a way to get updates about some of these interns. Did they end up getting jobs? Are they still acting the same or have they learned from their mistakes?

  10. Elsajeni*

    I’m so pleased to see that the pillow sham intern and the inspiring patio intern made it onto the list. It would be easy for a list of horror stories to get weighted down with truly toxic and horrifying stuff — it’s nice to see a couple of just plain goofy stories on there.

  11. LD*

    It would have been awesome for #3 if, in response to her inquiry about how they’d respond to the topic of Beethoven, someone had belted out the famous “Da da da daaaaaaaa.” from Beethoven’s Fifth!

    1. Charlotte Collins*

      That always makes me think about “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” when Ford Prefect is trying to convince the Vogon not to shove him and Arthur Dent out of the airlock.

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