how to talk to an intern about professional norms when you’re not her manager

A reader writes:

My department of four has an intern, Jane, for the summer. My manager is crazy busy and is out of the office for meetings 50-70% of the week, so while we don’t manage Jane, it’s mostly the other three of us working with her. It’s a reasonably casual workplace, and we’ve been working together for a while, so there’s a somewhat laid-back vibe in the office.

Jane hasn’t ever worked in an office before and is clearly still figuring out office norms. For example, when my coworker said she was going for coffee and asked if we wanted any, the intern said “you can just leave?!” When I sent a quick text, she was like “I can send texts?” When my coworkers and I were laughing over a work situation, she said “so you all can just stop and hang out?”

Our answers have been in the vein of “well, in a workplace like this the most important thing is getting your work done. We’re all adults, and if we get our work done no one is going to nitpick about sending a text or chatting for a minute.” We’ve also noted that we often stay late or come in early to finish projects.

She definitely lacks some polish and is pretty blunt/brusque, probably partly from awkwardness, and she also seems to be taking us at our word and going out for coffee, texting, groaning very slightly when asked to do something boring, and interrupting to ask questions. When I was an intern, I was super careful to be extra diligent, cheerful, and polite, because of both status and newness, and I wonder if we may have done her a disservice by modeling more relaxed workplace behavior.

I half want to say “we can do this stuff as staff members who work here and have a proven track record, but as a new person and an intern, doing/not doing xyz can really hold you back.” But I’m not her manager and I don’t want her to think I’m trying to put her in her place or something. No single thing that she does is is super unprofessional, and we don’t care that much/are fine with ignoring some annoying behavior, but I also want to make this a good learning experience for her, which is the whole point of an internship.

Yeah, she probably didn’t get the distinction between “this is stuff we do as staff members with proven track records” and “interns and new people don’t have quite the same leeway.” That can be a sort 201-level distinction that someone brand new to the workforce might not get unless you really clearly spell it out.

I think you’d be doing her a favor if you did explain it to her now, as long as you don’t sound like you’re chastising her for not figuring it out on her own. And since it’s a small office and you all work closely together, I don’t think you’d be overstepping if you invited her out for coffee to talk about how the summer is going and used that opportunity to raise this.

Make sure that during this conversation you talk about good things too — not in the terribly transparent “compliment sandwich” way, but with genuine back and forth. Ask how other things are going, whether there’s anything she’s curious about or questions she hasn’t felt comfortable asking, tell her you thought her work on project X was great (if you can say that honestly), that you admire her ability to do Y, and so forth. Genuine conversation will make this go far better than if you let it feel stilted.

And when it comes to this topic, I’d say it this way: “You asked some questions earlier on about what is and isn’t okay at work — like when we told you that it’s okay to send the occasional text or chat with others. I realized afterwards that we should have said that you can get away with more of that when you’re more established. When you’re an intern or just new to a job, I think you can’t be quite so relaxed as you can later on since people are still forming impressions of you. When you’re less known, you want to make more of a point of demonstrating that you’re working hard and happy to be there. I was thinking about this because I noticed you’ll kind of groan if we give you work that’s boring, and you’ve texted through meetings a couple of times … and then I realized we probably wrongly led you to think that was fine.”

Of course, there’s a risk that this will make her self-conscious, and it might send her back to the opposite extreme. You can try to head that off by saying something like, “Please don’t feel self-conscious about this — it can be really hard to figure this stuff out when you’re just starting out, and much of it isn’t intuitive. I made plenty of mistakes early on, and I wish someone had helped me through it so if you’re ever trying to figure out where the line is on any of this, come talk to me. Learning this stuff is part of the point of an internship, so this is all very normal.”

Also, note that my suggested language above didn’t mention the coffee runs or occasional, non-rude texting. Unless those are happening at a higher rate than would be okay for the rest of you, I think those are fine for interns too. But if they are happening at a higher rate, that’s fair game to note too, and just explain to her what a reasonable amount is.

With the interrupting, I think you’re better off saying something in the moment when it happens — like, “Please hold on, I’m in the middle of talking with Lucinda” or “I wasn’t quite finished yet. As I was saying…” If it continues after a few times of shutting it down in the moment, then I think you’d want to move to a separate “hey, you’ve interrupted me a few times recently — please don’t do that.” But I’d start with the feedback right in the moment, which might take care of it.

Also, steer her away from petitions.

{ 165 comments… read them below }

  1. fposte*

    I can totally see this–she’s learning to calibrate, which is a really hard skill. She went from “I can never do this” to “Oh, it’s okay!” and now she needs to bring the needle to the middle. It’s really helpful if you can say something to get her there.

    1. Triangle Pose*

      Yep, exactly! It’s hard to take cues from staff when you’re an intern because you want to fit in with the norms but you have no idea which things are normal-and-okay-for-everyone office things and which are okay for staff who have proven track records but not okay for you as an intern.

      1. The Other Dawn*

        I’d also say, an intern has no way to know if what she’s seeing is actually bad behavior for anyone, regardless of length of service or status.

        1. Stranger than fiction*

          Yep, she’s interning here where things are more casual, but next time she may land in a more formal setting.

          1. Not So NewReader*

            Yeah, just because this stuff is okay here, does not mean the next place will be okay with it.
            I am very happy that OP is willing to help her. I remember being a newbie and people were quick to criticize but not too many were willing to teach. Good for you, OP.

      2. Amy G. Golly*

        Not to mention all those things which are “actually not OK and drive everyone crazy but we look the other way and don’t say anything when Lucinda does them because Lucinda is the boss/boss’s niece/biggest performer”! That certain people get special leeway for behavior, and it’s actually probably not fair, but you have to put up with it anyway – that’s always an interesting lesson to learn!

    2. motherofdragons*

      Mmhmm. And I can see an approach to addressing this as coming off really condescending, but Alison’s script totally works.

      1. Not So NewReader*

        Yes, especially if you draw examples out of your own history and show that everyone stumbles here and there.

        1. motherofdragons*

          Exactly, that strikes me as kind and likely to be well-received (save for some embarrassment which is probably just inherent to the situation).

    3. A Bug!*

      Yeah, when you’ve always operated according to limitations imposed by others, it can be a bit intoxicating to suddenly be freed from them. For one thing, it’s a huge novelty, but more importantly, you’ve never had to learn the distinction between “can I?” and “should I?”

  2. Act*

    I remember when I got to college after a very, very strict Catholic high school, the idea you didn’t have to ask to go to the bathroom or sign in/out to do so blew my mind. It took years for me to be comfortable with not being watched all the time. I empathize with the intern; it’s pretty amazing to finally be in charge of your own life.

    Man, school was the worst.

    1. Elle*

      I had a similar experience going from a Catholic grade school to a public high school! It blew my mind, and took me a couple of years (yes, years!) to acclimate to it. I just couldn’t wrap my mind around not having to raise my hand in some classes (some teachers just encouraged open discussion). I eventually preferred it.

      1. Act*

        There’s this great David Mitchell quote about how rules and warnings are designed for the fearless, which just leaves sensitive kids traumatized and afraid of their own shadow. That was 100% me in school. Moving into the work world and finding out that things weren’t nearly as terrifying as I’d been led to believe — and, further, that functioning on my own didn’t lead to imminent disaster — was a huge relief.

        1. Ultraviolet*

          That makes sense! I think it’s because many school rules and also office norms aren’t put in absolute, objective terms. Like, if the rule is “Absolutely no running with scissors,” then probably everyone understands it the same way. But another rule might be, “Be careful with scissors,” and it’s easy to interpret that (subconsciously or not) as “Be more careful with scissors than you are naturally inclined to be.” So people who aren’t inclined to be careful at all end up exercising just a little caution, and the naturally careful ones end up thinking it’s much riskier to use scissors than it actually is.

          That reminds me, while I was reading the Drano letter from earlier this week I remembered how when I got my first apartment and bought some cleaning supplies for the bathroom, I read the warnings on the cleaners’ containers and got really freaked out. I thought, “if I have to be THAT careful with them, they must be super dangerous!” I ended up finding it really hard to clean the tub because I was putting such a tiny amount of cleaner in there.

        2. Seeking Mitchell Quote*

          Very late but I would love to read this quote or its source – I think it could explain A LOT about my life! :)

          1. calonkat*

            It’s in Season 8 Episode 3 of Would I Lie To You. It’s on YouTube under the title “David Mitchell: “As a child, I was scared of the sun.”- Would I Lie to You?”

        3. IANAL (I argue nightly about llamas)*

          Well that explains my entire adolescence. :)

          True story: part of my school’s health curriculum was a class on driving safety that was required to get your driver’s license. The teacher, at one point, described cars as “two-ton killing machines,” a phrase which has clearly stuck with me. I had a panic attack when I got my learner’s permit and was allowed to get behind the wheel because I was so scared of getting hurt or hurting someone else with the car thanks to that class.

          I’m sure the phrase made a couple students take driving more seriously, but for an already sensitive and anxious kid like me, it was probably the worst thing the teacher could have said.

      2. Liana*

        Same here! My Catholic school was really small too, and my public school was HUGE by my region’s standards, so I had quite the culture shock.

    2. Anna No Mouse*

      I work in workforce development and there is a common refrain among employers that goes something like: “How can we expect people to be comfortable as an autonomous adult in the workplace when just four years earlier they had to ask permission to go to the bathroom?”

        1. Spot*

          Yup, I had to ask while I was in a particular department of a large bookstore chain. The people in the other departments did not have to ask, but my manager made it clear we had to get her permission. And even then she’d try to get us to hold it until our next break/lunch/end of shift.

          1. eplawyer*

            I’d have peed on her. But you know, somethings you just can’t wait on.

            For OP, you would be doing her a favor to introduce her to office norms. Look what happened to the intern yesterday (the link AAM included about staying away from petitions).

        2. SophieChotek*

          Yep. I don’t have to “ask” per se, but I have to tell everyone, so they don’t turn around and wonder where I went. (And of course, if it’s super busy, you just have to try to wait until…its not so busy.)

      1. Anna*

        My works crosses paths with workforce development (sort of intermingled, but Federally funded) and we struggle with our students having to toe the line between being employees, but still learning how to be employees constantly.

    3. Laura*

      Even office culture can be hard to adjust to and from. My first employer out of college was very strict with time management and indicating on your calendar WHERE YOU ARE AT ALL TIMES when you weren’t at your desk. Then I moved to a more traditional workplace. It’s still weird to me when people leave to go to Starbucks… but that’s just okay here. Growing pains.

      1. Act*

        It’s still weird to me when people leave to go to Starbucks

        Same! I’ve been out of college for years now and I still feel like I’m doing something I’m not supposed to do when I head to Dunkin or something.

        I think it’s also partially a fear that the one day I’m out getting tea will be the day there’s some kind of Word Emergency and everyone’s looking for me.

    4. Izzy*

      For me, it was being able to walk on the grass before noon. I got to college and wanted to scream at all the people walking across the quad, “no! You’ll get detention! It’s only 10:30!” In retrospect, my high school was run by total nuts.

      1. Ellie H.*

        You were allowed to walk on the grass after but not before noon?! That’s crazy! It almost seems like some bizarre social experiment!

        1. YaH*

          Just a guess, but maybe it had something to do with not wanting kids to traipse across dewy grass and bring the mud and vegetation in on their shoes?

          But yes, that’s ridiculously strict.

    5. Allison*

      A lot of us start out working in retail or food service jobs – jobs with strict rules about behavior because you’re public facing, and strict times because it’s shift work that always needs coverage. So when we get to the office, many of us expect the environment to be a little more strict, and are pleasantly surprised to find that things are so much more relaxed.

      1. Act*

        I mean, so did I? But for me, the watched-like-a-hawk feeling of my restaurant manager was nothing like those old nuns. They were omnipotent, I swear. I was at least expected to make some autonomous decisions when I was in food service, and the transition from hourly to salaried was nothing like the strict-school-to-IRL conversion, in my experience.

        That said, how uptight my school was probably (over)prepared me for workplace norms. I still find that I’m generally more buttoned-up out of old habit than a lot of white-collar offices mandate. Double-edged sword.

        1. Not So NewReader*

          Looking back on it, the harder the nuns controlled us, the more we were out of control. One kid assigned the other kids different jungle noises, then he would cue the group to action when the old nun came in to babysit (er… monitor) us.

      2. Snazzy Hat*

        Even my jobs that weren’t public-facing had strict rules. Sure, in retail you can’t have a water bottle on your person, you can’t sit even if you’re doing something at floor level, and you have to schedule your breaks around other people. However, I worked in a factory that “prohibited” (i.e., some people got away with it) jewelry, perfume, & strongly-scented hygiene products. I wish I were making this up: I bought unscented deodorant, unscented soap, and unscented shampoo because I was afraid I would get fired for having some sort of scent on me. The reaction I got from coworkers, when I casually mentioned how annoyed I was about changing my hygiene products, was two steps from pointing and laughing.

        No wonder I almost cried with happiness when my First Office Job supervisor said we could take random short breaks in the cafeteria.

        1. Not So NewReader*

          Factory settings can be tough that way, I mean with the pointing and laughing. While I understand what the management was doing there, it ticks me off that your cohorts were laughing at you. There was no call for that.

          The jewelry was so you did not get caught in a machine. Or if you got an electrical shock you would have a real nasty burn where the jewelry was. Even if you are not around machines some companies still have these policies about jewelry because of the safety inspector or insurance.

          1. Snazzy Hat*

            Oh I understood the reason for not wearing jewelry re: machinery, it just ticked me off that I saw people regularly wearing jewelry while my religious necklace had to go in my pocket rather than tucked under my shirt.

            The factory was a “love the work, hate the workers” place. I started wearing earplugs in the earplugs-optional department because I just didn’t want to listen to the inane chatter. If I hadn’t been laid off, I probably would have been let go as “not a good fit”. When someone doesn’t care that they just used your ethnicity’s ethnic slur, and then several other people *defend* that person… Let’s just say I don’t think being professional was a goal there.

    6. CC*

      I was surprised with an intern my first day back from a field assignment that lasted several months, and was immediately slammed with a project that had a deadline a few hours from when I walked into the office. I made that a priority and forgot about the intern entirely.

      Poor guy didn’t get a lunch break until 3. He was afraid to ask. :(

      1. Mallory Janis Ian*

        Awww . . . I remember those early days on the job of waiting for someone to tell me it was okay to go to lunch or take a break.

      2. Snazzy Hat*

        Poor guy didn’t get a lunch break until 3. He was afraid to ask.

        Were I in his shoes, I would have assumed I missed lunch, oh well, can’t take one now, better luck tomorrow.

        1. Hush42*

          I did this on my second day at my current job. On my first day I was taken out to lunch so it wasn’t a problem. But on my second day no one told me I could go to lunch so I just didn’t. In Retrospect I should have asked my company is really laid back and my boss couldn’t care less when you take lunch so it didn’t even occur to him that he needed to tell me although it should have because I was new and didn’t yet know the office norms. I was coming from 911 where you aren’t allowed to use the bathroom without permission so I was used to having to wait until I was told to go on lunch.

  3. March*

    Navigating the ins and outs of office culture and figuring out what is and isn’t okay is such a hard skill to learn. I know that there were times where I would think “I’ve seen Bob and Jane do this, why can they do it and I can’t?” The answer is that they’ve got the track record to make it okay for them. Jane might be guilty if you talk to her, but I really like Allison’s wording. It’s better in the long run for her to know.

  4. Amber T*

    Petitions. Still chuckling over that.

    She sounds like a decent intern overall! Definitely explain the difference between intern/someone just starting off and someone with a good track record and experience. This sounds like someone who’s interested in learning how to be a good worker.

    (Side note, as a college kid/intern, I definitely pictured people working behind a desk non stop from 9-5 with a single one hour lunch break. It was a bit of a shock to me that, not only can humans just not function like that, most managers would never expect their workers to!)

    1. AF*

      I was REEEEALLY hoping the manager of the intern who created the petition would write in!

      1. Sadsack*

        Since you brought it up, I saw an “article” on yahoo today that referenced that letter on this site! The yahoo article basically used it to mock college students and was generally very unkind to the OP. Whereas, I thought the AAM commenters were kind and considerate to the OP, being how she was new to work.

        1. BRR*

          I saw it too and wasn’t sure if I should send it to Alison as I’m not sure if they can republish parts of it and I know she wouldn’t approve of taking the same letter and being assholes about it. The entire thing was horrible. I’m going to post the link in a reply just so she hopefully can see it and give the author/website hell.

            1. Ask a Manager* Post author

              Yeah, copyright law doesn’t allow a full reprint without permission, but the small amount they reprinted falls under fair use so that’s allowed.

              1. BRR*

                That was my hunch and I knew you knew more about the subject than I do. Ugh I feel so bad for the LW. She didn’t even approach the situation that rudely, just not the right way. I’m also really angry at all of the entitled millennial crap in addition to the general nastiness. I think it also picked up attention due to the one coworker being a veteran. How do they expect people to learn when they respond the way they do to someone who wrote into an advice blog?

                1. Meg Murry*

                  I’m so sorry for her too. First fired, and then treated like crap all over the internet for trying to ask for advice on how to salvage the situation.

                  Alison, is there any way you can email that OP and say “yes, what you did wasn’t the best way to approach the situation, but you don’t deserve the level of vitriol that the internet is spewing at you” and then maybe point her to the “things we screwed up as young people at our first jobs” thread?

                2. Katie the Fed*

                  I felt so bad for the OP that day. Most of the regulars were being helpful and compassionate, with just a light touch of scolding, and then the rebel hordes came in and just attacked the OP.

          1. fposte*

            I wasn’t sure what site it would be so I just searched “petition interns Ask a Manager.” Turns out a *lot* of sites picked this one up, many of them to jeer. Yikes.

        2. Ask a Manager* Post author

          Yeah, so I don’t what qualifies as “going viral,” but that one at least came close. It was all over Twitter, it’s on the front of Yahoo today, and a bunch of other sites picked it up. Yesterday’s traffic numbers here were 75% higher than usual. That explains what caused yesterday’s influx of … unusual comments on that post — a whole bunch of new people reading it who don’t know the commenting culture here (I ultimately ended up closing comments on that post, which seems to have solved it).

          The rest of the internet is not very kind (and apparently has never been young themselves).

          1. BRR*

            Oh wow. I usually read stuff close to when it comes out and don’t often go back. Poor LW. As if all of those critical people have never made a mistake when starting out somewhere.

            If you don’t want to keep the link up I don’t mind if you take it down (I know you don’t like to delete comments), I just wanted you to know about it thinking it was just one site.

              1. Not So NewReader*

                Yahoo could hire you to teach them how to monitor their comments section. just a thought.

                1. Not So NewReader*

                  @BRR –or two Alisons! ;)
                  The tricky part is offering quality commentary where people are actually embarrassed or actually give up and leave because their comment was deleted. Many of us here would be embarrassed to have Alison delete one of our comments or worse yet block our IP address. oh my.

                  Just a point of curiosity, and if you don’t answer I totally understand, Alison. Does anyone email you and argue over your deletion of their comment? I am guessing not too many people do.

                2. Katie the Fed*

                  Honestly, most news sites don’t really need comment sections. They just get nasty. FoxNews frequently has to close comments on perfectly harmless stories like “Malia Obama Plans to Attend Harvard.”

        3. Bekx*

          Oh God…I just googled a line from that letter and there are tons and tons and tons of websites referencing it. Some are crediting Alison, so at least her ad revenue is spiking…but poor OP.

            1. fposte*

              Yes, it seems to fit a lot of people’s “Look at the special snowflake” narrative.

              1. Ask a Manager* Post author

                I actually added the word “snowflake” to the moderation filter yesterday (meaning that anything with that word would go to moderation first) and it was astonishing how many awful comments it caught.

                1. fposte*

                  When I saw mine above get held I figured that had happened. It’s helpful when people are predictable :-).

                2. Anonymous Educator*

                  Any chance you can add millennial (and its various misspellings) to the moderation filter as well?

                3. Jadelyn*

                  But Anonymous Educator, how would we rant about people’s anti-millennial screeds then? :)

                4. Katie the Fed*

                  YES. Glad you did this.

                  I don’t think Millenial needs to be filtered – people CAN be constructive when talking about generational issues.

                5. Mustache Cat*

                  Ugh, I can imagine. This is why I hate disclosing my age online. Alison, thank you thank you for wading through that ugliness for us!

                6. One of the Sarahs*

                  Oh, clever of you, but how depressing for you too (though I’m glad you’re getting picked up everywhere, your advice was, and always is, great)

            2. Katie the Fed*

              I feel like if I end up on the wrong side of Rush Limbaugh, I’ve done something right in life. So, go OP!

              What a mess. Of all the posts around here that I thought would be a total crapshow, that wasn’t the one.

              1. Mustache Cat*

                Yes–Petition!OP, even though you did screw up, take comfort in the fact that you pissed off Rush Limbaugh while you did it

    2. Dawn*

      “most managers would never expect their workers to”

      I’m like… 14 years into the working world and *still* feel guilty for going on a coffee run or going shopping on my lunch break even tho the place I work absolutely does not notice nor care *and I know this for a fact*.

      1. Amber T*

        My current workplace is suuuuper flexible… you want to step out for a doctor’s appointment, run an errand, grab a coffee, no biggie. Most of the time we’re pulling 9-10 hour days (more if needed) so if we relax in the middle of the day, no one cares, as long as we don’t have a tight deadline (which is usually by close of business anyway). When I pulled a muscle and was in physical therapy for a few weeks, there was no way to schedule it so I’d be in the office by 9 (my official start time) or be able to leave before 5 (my official end time). I took the earliest appointment twice a week that would still not let me get into the office earlier than 915. When I told my supervisor this and apologized profusely, he literally responded with a shrug. Both 1) being an adult and 2) being treated like an adult are wonderful things.

        1. BRR*

          Same here. The amount of freedom is difficult to handle yet exactly what I think an office should be like.

      2. Not the Droid You are Looking For*

        I still feel guilty when I go to Target on my lunch break! It’s my hour to do whatever I want with, and no one would care, but it feels a bit like ditching!

    3. Amy G. Golly*

      Though I’ve always been used to a healthy amount of socializing at work, my current place of employment is even more social than what I’m used to. I’ve been here nearly a year, and I still get a chuckle when I hear from someone, “Where have you been? I haven’t seen you all afternoon!”

      I have been in my office. Working. You know, like you do. XD

    4. Christopher Tracy*

      (Side note, as a college kid/intern, I definitely pictured people working behind a desk non stop from 9-5 with a single one hour lunch break. It was a bit of a shock to me that, not only can humans just not function like that, most managers would never expect their workers to!)

      I actually worked at a law firm that expected this. If we stood up to talk to coworkers for longer than five minutes, our manager would send out a passive aggressive email saying we should all be in our seats because our workload was too high for chit chat. And the fact that our workload was so high was because they kept firing everyone seemed to be lost on her.

  5. Leatherwings*

    The great thing about this situation is that Jane seems to be conscientious about looking for cues on appropriate behavior. So often we hear about boorish interns who either don’t bother, or don’t seem to have the skills to pick up on this stuff.

    Since she’s clearly absorbing information about office etiquette, I think the conversation should go quite well.

    1. Not So NewReader*

      Yeah, really. OP might be able to offer to do a q and a session with her at set intervals. Maybe that would help. I actually find the intern’s candor refreshing, it makes it a lot easier to say what needs to be said.

  6. Anonymous Educator*

    I would also say, in the moment, it’s okay to reply to her questions with sometimes or it depends. The latter is the sort of reply that’s likely to have her follow up with “What does it depend on?” which means she’ll be asking you for clarification, instead of you pulling her aside and making an unsolicited speech to her.

    1. JMegan*

      Yes, and it has the added benefit of giving you a few extra seconds to think it over. You’re still more or less “in the moment,” but those few extra seconds can sometimes make a big difference in how you respond.

    2. OhNo*

      Absolutely, this is the best way to address any questions like this that pop up going forward. Your coworkers might be able to chime in, too. Having multiple people agree with you, and perhaps provide examples of situations that are or aren’t okay, often helps people figure things like this out.

      I will never get over how weird the transition to and between office norms is. Every single person has questions like this when they start working at a new place, but for some reason no one ever talks about it, and it’s rarely mentioned during interviews or orientation unless they’re trying to make it a selling point.

      1. Anonymous Educator*

        I will never get over how weird the transition to and between office norms is.

        This is important to recognize, too. I don’t know how long the OP has been at her workplace, but I’ve been at several workplaces over the decades, and the norms and culture vary widely, sometimes even within the same industry.

        1. Not So NewReader*

          I have worked a few places where people sincerely believed there was only one way to do something and “No, it is not possible that you could have learned a different way. You just deliberately screwed up the work because you did what you felt like doing.”

          Meanwhile, it never occurred to me that new company could be doing X in the archaic method that runs up against current LAWS/REGS. I just kept my mouth shut and my head down.

        2. Christopher Tracy*

          I’ve been at several workplaces over the decades, and the norms and culture vary widely, sometimes even within the same industry.

          Hell, even the same company. My company has close to forty divisions and support services, and every one of these places is different. Some of them are very butt-in-seat, quiet at all times, and others are very lax about schedules and the employees spend more time socializing than actually working. It’s like stepping into forty different companies even though we’re all under the same umbrella.

    3. Meg Murry*

      A few more “it depends” factors for things like the coffee run or taking time for personal texts: being salaried vs being hourly, and whether your manager is a “butt in seats” type or a “as long as the work is done” type.

      As an intern, she is probably hourly (at least officially, although I know in most of my internships that just meant I filled out a paper timesheet that said “8 hours” every day, not punching a time clock), whereas most of you are salaried, so you have that flexibility to stay a little later to get things done, and she technically doesn’t. And for something probably even more subtle and confusing: going out for coffee with you as a opportunity to have this work-related/mentoring chat is generally ok (as long as it’s ok with her manager), whereas a casual coffee break that isn’t work related might not be.

      I think OP was also correct in thinking to tell the intern something to the effect of “appearances and reputation matter” – if you occasionally take a personal text but aren’t obvious about it, that is different than obviously texting in front of management during a meeting – and that goes doubly so when you are new and don’t have lots of good results to back up your reputation as a good worker.

      1. Polka Dot Bird*

        The timing of your coffee breaks is also important – not just the obvious things like how long, but also making sure you’re not cutting it to close to other meetings etc.

  7. Libby*

    Working in a professional environment when you’re coming from hourly type jobs and school can be so hard. My mom was a teacher with a pretty regimented schedule, so I never really got it until I was working full time. It took me a long time to get used to the fact that I can duck out for a medical appointment midday, and it’s not a big deal (your office may vary, obviously). You’d be doing a favor by letting her know, and Allison’s wording was perfect.

  8. Sara M*

    When I was a 24-year-old new to white collar jobs, I _really_ needed someone to sit down and explain this to me. Please help if you can. There’s honestly no way to know these things if you’re new. I modeled the employee behavior in my workplace and it got me fired. :(

    1. Terra*

      Amen to this. Also you may want to emphasize that different workplaces are different so she may want to keep in mind that something that’s okay with you isn’t necessarily going to fly at another job. My first employer was an awful bro-ish tech startup and I’ve spent literally years retraining myself on office norms after getting used to the swearing, casual sexual harassment, and having stuff thrown at me.

      1. Cafe au Lait*

        I’m not sure about Sara M, but two instances that almost got me fired from a job: spending a half-hour drawing a funny SFW picture, and asking questions about why something had to be done.

        The first: I saw my coworkers spend a good hour rewriting and photocopying a funny survey. So when I saw something on the desk of my coworker, I drew a funny picture to further the joke. (For the record, my coworker loved it).

        The second: I had been told to “ask a lot of questions.” So when my boss asked me to do something that seemed ridiculous, a complete waste of time, I didn’t hesitate to speak up. Obviously that didn’t go over well.

      2. Sara M*

        I can’t be sure, because it was a temp job that fired me because I “wasn’t a good fit.”

        I’ve thought about this over and over in my head. I have two guesses.

        a) She told me to “find a project to work on.” I’m very self-starting, so I decided to color-code and alphabetize the blueprint section. It definitely needed it… but in retrospect I think my efforts looked like a gradeschool art project, with hand-colored tags and everything. But she never told me how long I should take or whether there was another priority.

        b) I asked if I could wear headphones. She said yes. I happily wandered the halls with my music on. I even arrived with music on, and left with music on. She never told me that I shouldn’t do that. (I should at least have shown up without the music, and asked her for any new projects or info or whatever.)

        So really, these are both bad management of sorts, and I suppose I’ll never know what happened. I know I did good work. It probably was the wrong work, but that was her fault for letting me do so much on my own. Had she said something like, “I like what you’re doing with the blueprints, but could you just make sticky-labels with numbers instead of hand-coloring rainbow tags? And I need this done by Thursday so I can move you to other projects.” ….it might have been different.

        The music, though–if that was it, she really should have clarified with me that I needed to only listen to music in my cubicle (or whatever she really meant).

        1. Sara M*

          Mostly I felt the burning shame of being fired and having no real explanation of why, nor chance to defend myself. I know _now_ that it probably wasn’t my fault, but at the time, I went out and drank with my friends and tried to cry it off. :(

          1. Not So NewReader*

            This is the stuff nightmares are made out of. On my first job, I went in one day and there was no time card. That is how I learned I was fired. That is when I learned a good boss never tries to be your friend. A good boss understands that keeping workers employed is the most important role she plays in their lives. If she needs to have a difficult conversation, she is able to balance that by knowing she is probably saving the person’s job for them.

            Oh well.It got me launched into the working world. I spent YEARS unlearning all the misconceptions I picked up during that time. BUT, I saw some cool stuff too. Ex. The lady at the employment office had pretty much blackballed me because she did not like my father. I managed to get a job IN SPITE of her meanness. That was a chin up keep going type lesson. There were other lessons that were valuable, too.

        2. MillersSpring*

          I dunno about the color coding, but the constant headphones from the moment you walked in the door can unconsciously signal that you aren’t enthusiastic about being there. You’re literally “tuning out” and may be perceived as prioritizing your personal soundtrack over interaction. Most corporate workers I’ve seen who are successful and well regarded use earbuds only at their desk, mostly to drown out their cubicle neighbors.

          1. Sara M*

            Well, of course I know that _now_. This came up as part of “what an intern might not know”. I didn’t know it then. I know it now. It would have helped if my manager had talked to me about it before firing me. :P

    2. Dynamic Beige*

      You know that saying “it takes a village” about raising children? Same thing about people new to the workforce. If this manager is out of the office most of the time, leaving this intern to hang isn’t really doing her any justice. She may not be the responsibility of the other people in the office, but they do have to work with her. If they do a good job, people in future will be thankful that Jane was properly taught how to be an employee. At least in this case, Jane is willing to learn and seems anxious to get things “right”, rather than making up rules she prefers to follow and resisting correction.

  9. ReadItWithSpanishAccent*

    Taking into account that interns are people who, until very recently, needed to ask somebody permission to go the bathroom, it is normal she does not understand the more flexible rules of a working place. For example, I am fairly new in my working place. My colleague Jane, who has been employed there for 8 years and has an excellent record, many times works from home. I know I cannot do that because I have been there only 3 months and I do not have a reason as good as hers (she has 2 little children). But this is not something I inherently know, but something I had learned. If I was an intern, I might have probably asked about “the rules of working from home” or “when can I work from home”, because you come from environments where EVERYTHING has a clear rule all must follow, like in high school.

    1. Amber T*

      “EVERYTHING has a clear rule all most follow” – exactly this. Flexibility and the ability to understand it is a learned skill, especially when you’re told “no, no, no” for the first two decades of your life, when the answer is “yes,” (yes you can get coffee, yes you can work from home), it really throws you.

  10. AliceW*

    It must just be me but isn’t it common sense that any new employee/intern needs to work extra hard to make a good first impression. 75% of my interns/entry level employees over the years seemed to have no trouble grasping this concept. Learning some professional norms make take a while, but this is pretty basic. I would never text, make personal phone calls, run personal errands, hang out and chat often while there was work to do or things to learn.

    1. fposte*

      I would say no, it’s not–that, like most common sense, is a lesson you have to learn. A lot of interns have learned it, but as you note, many haven’t.

    2. Leatherwings*

      I don’t think it’s necessarily common sense, no. There are a lot of things that prepare interns for the working world (job shadowing and things like that) that help some interns succeed, but not every intern has access to them.

      There are a lot of inequalities around this stuff too. Children whose parents who aren’t able to find professional jobs, for example, tend to struggle a lot more with norms in office environments than kids who visited their accountant mom or lawyer dad during Spring Break.

      We hear intern horror stories all the time, which I think demonstrates exactly how common it is for interns to not Get It.

      1. Not So NewReader*

        My parents had desk jobs, but they did not believe in talking about work. Maybe it was their era that they grew up in. The few times they spoke of their jobs they spoke in generalities. “Do what you are supposed to do” is really not that informative, if you don’t know what you are supposed to do.

        I kept wondering why the work world was such a deep, dark secret. ha! I can laugh now, 40 years ago, not so much. Time has been kind also because I now realize that with a lot of things we normally talk about here, it is likely that my parents did not know or understand these things, becaaaause, their parents did not teach them either. I can see that now. Yes, it runs in families until someone identifies the pattern and breaks the pattern.

    3. Roscoe*

      It really depends on the environment though. My first jobs/internships were really relaxed, so it wouldn’t have been a big deal. If I worked at a Fortune 500 company, that would probably be a bit different. Making a good impression is one thing, being tone deaf is another.

    4. Mallory Janis Ian*

      Well, you hope that it’s common sense, but some people don’t pick up on what “making a good impression” entails or lack the maturity to be professional at all times (or to know when the appropriate times are to relax a little).In the office job I had between high school and college, my fellow high-school coworker and I used to spend time linking every single one of our two boss’s paperclips together, so that when they’d go to pull out a paperclip, they’d pull out a whole string of them. We were like the Jim Halpert of the state revenue office.

      1. OhNo*

        Also, some young adults (well, people of all ages, but especially those fresh out of school) can have a very different perception of what a “good impression” is.

        I knew quite a few people in college who thought “good impression” meant that you had to make friends with everyone, and be every coworker’s best buddy. At least one of them got piss poor scores come review time because they spent so much time chatting that they never really got any work done.

        Unless somebody explains that “good impression” means people think you are professional, competent, and good to work with, and points out how to achieve that, you might never know.

    5. Amber T*

      It also sounds like she didn’t think these things were allowed at all (“true” for an intern). Adults = professional and professional = not slacking, so when adults are “slacking” (which, when you’re in high school/college, stopping to chat and getting coffee would be considered slacking, as an adult who’s capable of managing their own stuff, it’s not), it can be confusing. I think this intern is on the right path.

    6. Laura*

      Definitely depends on the culture, but interns should monitor their own behavior RIGIDLY because it’s an internship, not a job. At my one internship, I had to sit silent and still the whole day, doing nothing, because it looked better to do that than if I was messing around on my phone.

      1. SirTechSpec*

        That’s a crappy internship, though – unless they were paying you, the point is for the intern to learn new things, and quietly sitting still is something that’s already drummed into people’s heads in school. (And if they *were* paying you, that’s also questionable management…)

        1. Laura*

          It was a terrible internship! I quit after a few weeks after I learned that there were student workers getting PAID to do what I was doing for free.

    7. Terra*

      Where would you learn this though? School is setup such that you’re either expected to behave in a consistent manner and provide a fairly consistent level of effort or that you have to work harder the longer you’ve been there (aka with finals or as a senior compared to a freshman). There are people who get “senioritis” or try to coast their senior year due to burn out/laziness but generally they’re looked down on.

      Schools were unfortunately setup to prepare people for the norms of working in a factory (which is why breaks are so regimented) and haven’t really changed to account for the fact that a majority of jobs are now white collar desk work.

    8. Mike C.*

      Common sense is only common within a specific group of people. Everyone has blind spots, and by your own numbers this happens to one in four people. That’s a significant amount and lends itself to being more of a systemic issue than one of personal morality.

    9. MillersSpring*

      I’ve seen several interns whose motivation seemed to be learning the rules so that they could put in the bare minimum. They truly did not have the common sense to know that their objective for the internship was to shine like never before. They looked at it only as a required college credit rather than an opportunity to get experience, network, add skills, produce work for their portfolio, gain future professional references and/or land a job after graduation.

    10. Stitch*

      For me, “common sense” only goes so far in the face of everyone around you behaving in a different way.

      At my internship, for the couple of weeks I showed up early, worked very hard, and tried to fill my days. I quickly learned that the interns had about only about 8 hours of work to do in a given week, and there are only so many times you can ask “Is there anything for me to do?” before feeling annoying.

      So I started just browsing the internet. Sites like this. I made personal spreadsheets (totally looks like work! but it isn’t.) I know I should have kept up being proactive, but it was exhausting, so I was soon adopting more and more careless behaviors. Even as an intern (or especially so?) it’s really hard to do everything you ought to be doing when your coworkers or the manager is working against you, probably unconsciously.

    11. Elsajeni*

      In addition to the points other people have made, it’s also not necessarily obvious what makes “a good impression” — if everyone around you is occasionally running out for a coffee break and answering a couple text messages, do you make a good impression by not doing those things and being laser-focused on your work, or do you make a good impression by doing those things to show that you fit in and understand office norms?

      (And of course, in this specific case, it sounds like the intern did come in assuming she shouldn’t go out on errands, text, chat, etc., but then was directly told by more experienced people “Yeah, it’s okay to do this sometimes.” She’s just having trouble calibrating how often is “sometimes.”)

  11. TL17*

    I’m sort of encouraged by the fact this intern asked. I work at a law firm not far from a law school, so we have a revolving door of interns. It surprises me when they do things that are just not even close to what you expect in an office. (I could make a list that would generate lots of giggles) But it occurred to me recently that maybe some of the behavior is just because it isn’t something someone knows without being told. There’s something to be said for someone asking when they don’t know. Maybe it would be good for this particular intern to learn also how to ask as part of her professional development.

  12. Katie the Fed*

    It might be useful to set some rough parameters for her so she can get a better sense of what’s appropriate. Some people really don’t understand how to balance things like this.

    So maybe “yes, we can step out to get coffee. As long as it’s not more than 1-2 times a week, it’s not an issue. Or, “yes, it’s ok to send a few texts a day, but never when there is work stuff going on.”

    Some people you really have to spell things out for. I allow people to go to the gym for an hour or so if the workload allows, but I had one guy who would go at the worst times so I had to tell me specific hours he could go.

    Also – the interrupting is a different issue. I’d nip that right in the bud, each and every time. “Please don’t interrupt me.”

    1. Chinook*

      “So maybe “yes, we can step out to get coffee. As long as it’s not more than 1-2 times a week, it’s not an issue. Or, “yes, it’s ok to send a few texts a day, but never when there is work stuff going on.””

      This is so important because it really is hard to gauge what “it depends” truly means. My first job ended up with the boss taking the admin staff out for lunch. I was a 16 year old receptionist and was panicking about getting back to relieve my coverage. My boss took me aside and pointed out that, if the boss is the one making you late, then you aren’t late. It is common sense but I doubt I would have ever made the connection if he hadn’t pointed it out.

  13. SirTechSpec*

    Agree with all those pointing out that until recently (and possibly still, at least during class) Jane had to get special permission *to pee*, let alone go get coffee, so proper calibration will take time. I like Alison’s wording, with one exception – saying “don’t feel self-conscious about this” sounds to me like “stop crying”, i.e. a request that is extremely difficult to follow. I would skip it and go straight to the stuff that’s more likely to help, about how this is a normal process that everybody has to go through, one way or the other, including presumably you.

    1. Leatherwings*

      I don’t mind saying “don’t feel self-conscious about this” – I don’t read it as a request to control someone’s emotions or anything, it’s just to let the intern know that she’s not being chastised and she doesn’t need to lie awake in horror at night remembering that time she got coffee when she was supposed to be impressing people.

  14. Temperance*

    This reminds me of the time when I took a group of high schoolers on a tour of my firm, and showed them our quiet room. (It’s a place for napping if you don’t feel well, or breastfeeding, or if you want to read in quiet. It’s AWESOME. I have taken naps in there on occasion when I have a migraine and need my pills to kick in.)

    They were like “YOU CAN TAKE A NAP AT WORK???” and were so excited up until I told them that you still have to get all of your work done.

    1. Rusty Shackelford*

      I remember at my first part-time office job (not anything close to my first job, but the first time I worked with people who weren’t paid hourly) when I went to somebody’s office and found a group of coworkers there and someone mentioned off-handedly that they’d been in there an hour, just chatting. I was shocked, and then decided they must be joking. Well, they were the IT staff. Yeah, they’d take an hour to chat. And then they’d work until midnight or come in at 5 am or work on the weekend because something had to be done, so no one cared if they took an hour-long break when things were calm. But you don’t start out understanding that, or at least a lot of us don’t.

    2. Countess Boochie Flagrante*

      My mom’s office had a quiet room, and good lord do I wish we had one here. She also worked for the administrative office of a church, so it was not at all looked down on to use it — generally the assumption was that you would be in there praying, and as long as you got your work done, it looked kind of good to be in there for 15-30min in a day.

  15. SL #2*

    You’re doing her a huge service just by thinking about sitting down with her to have a chat about this stuff. I hope I was never That Intern, but there were certainly other interns that I worked with who could’ve definitely benefited from a talk.

    I think it’s really important to remember that for a lot of interns, this is literally their first glimpse at a white-collar work environment and job. Sure, it’s easy for us to say “oh, this intern isn’t going to be a great employee because she didn’t know about XYZ” but I didn’t know that at some workplaces, I could step out for a quick phone call during the day. I didn’t know how to talk to the CEO when I ran into him in the elevator. There were so many little things I could talk about here, but I learned and I’m really grateful for the internship supervisors who did give me feedback, whether positive or negative. I’m sure that your intern, OP, will be the same way.

  16. Karo*

    Associated question! We have an intern, very much a similar situation where the boss is out for work stuff all the time so it’s on my 4 co-workers and I to “manage” him. He has been taken under the wing of a co-worker who, frankly, is lacking in professional norms. Things like email and meeting etiquette are beyond this guy. As an example, they left for lunch 15 minutes before we had a meeting scheduled with no indication (when they left or when they got back) that they were aware of their meeting.

    I don’t have the standing to say anything to the full-timer and it’s not my place to. But I really don’t want the intern to think that this is normal office behavior, but I don’t know how to say anything to the intern without also bashing his buddy. Thoughts?

    1. ThatGirl*

      I would take him aside and say “How Fergus manages his time/workload is up to him, but for you I think it would be better if you _______” and give some examples of actual norms. You could use some of the language Alison suggests, too, about interns vs more established workers.

    2. Temperance*

      What I would do in this scenario is reach out to the intern and explain the norms as they come up. For instance, telling him that he missed X meeting after he went out for lunch, or responding to rude/strange emails by nicely letting him know that he should have responded with Y information or that his tone is a little severe.

    3. OhNo*

      I agree with ThatGirl, although I’d change the wording a bit to explain why it’s okay for the employee but not necessarily for an intern, just to make the distinction clear.

      Something like, “I notice that you’ve been following Fergus’ schedule lately. That kind of time and workload management is fine for Fergus, because he is an employee who (gets all his work done/is a high performer/brings in a lot of clients). Since you’re just starting out, and you’re in an internship designed to help you learn, it would be better if you…”

    4. Katie the Fed*

      I like ThatGirl’s response.

      In my experience, it’s always the worst people in the office who are extra happy to train the newbies. NOoooooooo!

    5. animaniactoo*

      I might actually start this as a general conversation about workplace norms and how different people have different impressions of what’s okay/normal, why some people get away with some stuff and others don’t. Talk about how this was some of the stuff that was most confusing starting out, and how you had to really look around and see that behavior that stood out to you turned out to be “outlier” behavior and you had to create your own code by observing what *most* people were doing rather than what any one person was doing.

      Having the overall conversation gives them the heads up to look around and see what everybody is doing, not necessarily just his primary mentor.

      And it gives you an easy counter now and then to Fergus’ stepping out by saying “I know you guys made it back in time for the meeting, and in that kind of situation I give people a head’s up as a courtesy if I’m going out/over to another dept that close to a meeting. Just so they know I’m aware of it and aren’t wondering if I’m going to be back in time.” Break down the specifics of why the notification matters, and then it’s up to them to choose to follow that or not.

  17. mirinotginger*

    Please Please Please say something! As a former intern and new grad (I wrote in last year asking if it was ok to read at my desk during my lunch break at work), this stuff is Not. Clear. most of the time. And it is so highly dependent on office norms. At my work, taking a personal call or going to get coffee (there’s a coffee shop in our building which is awesome) is totally fine, and it was shocking to me that I could do stuff like that. Or not needing to be at my desk by a specific time. All of my previous jobs were very strict start/break/stop times, but here, if I’m not at my desk exactly at 6:00, no one cares. I had some amazing team members who were informal mentors and helped me figure out some of this stuff and who I could bounce questions off of, and they both spoke very highly of me and my professionalism at my end-of-internship review, which is credit to them for showing me what’s acceptable and what’s not.
    Also, if your workplace has policies on any of this stuff (can you go on facebook and if so for how long? make personal copies on the office printer and if so how often?), pointing your intern in those directions would also be super helpful.
    I promise, if your intern is asking questions about professional norms, she will be so happy if you help her figure them out.

  18. Chinook*

    OP, I am someone who works with an intern who is managed by my boss and I had a discussion with her, the intern yesterday about my role with her (since she is 1/3 of the way through). I pointed out that I am not an engineer but I see my job as showing her how to be a goo employee and coworker. Whether it being explaining why she is stuck doing “Joe jobs” or how to do an expense claim or why to always refill paper in a copier, there are things that her boss, a manager, may not think to show her because manager is a)busy and b)is used to employees already knowing this. (And my boss if fine with this as I checked the first time she took on an intern). I also spent the first week reminding her she could go for coffee if I saw her sitting for too long or not to work late if it looked like she was (once I saw it was personality and not because she didn’t understand office protocol, I stopped).

    Luckily, I work in awesome office where everyone sees it as their job to help form good employees out of interns. They look for stuff to bring them in on and have no problem taking time to explain something. We also protect them from overwork (i.e. Archivist needs someone to go through old boxes of records – we make sure our boss is the one who gives the okay).

    Honestly, I think everyone in the office should be helping an intern because this is truly the only way to create people you will want to work with in the future.

  19. Bag of Jedi Mind Tricks*

    I remember when my first job in an office. I was still in college and temped at an office. I erred on the side of being super conservative. Then one day one of the admins told me ” relax. You can take 10 or 15 minute breaks when you need to and you can go out for lunch” etc. So yes, please talk to your intern. If you can, take her to lunch to explain the office culture. You’ll be doing her a great service.

  20. Anonymousaurus Rex*

    This is so timely! Our department just got two high school interns. Not only have they never been in an office before, but they’re really young (16) and used to a different kind of authority/oversight. I’m not technically managing them, but I’m the one giving them all of their projects and overseeing them. This is tricky and requires more hand-holding than I expected–with everything from “what is excel?” to “can I go to the bathroom?” to “how do I apply to college?” (The last question because it turns out she doesn’t know anyone who went to college, so she really is unsure how it works on the most basic level. I’m no college counselor, but I’ll answer any questions I can to a student that will be first in her family to attend college.)

    1. Christopher Tracy*

      Please explain the financial aid thing to the first generation college student if you can – save this girl from taking out massive amounts of loans! Seriously, I see that as one of my missions in life having learned this lesson the hard way (mom went to college, but didn’t finish and while she was there, worked and paid her own way so had no clue about loans).

  21. LQ*

    Basically this whole comment thread makes me happy.

    We have an intern who is great and the first day asked me about if she should ask to go to the bathroom and so yeah, very much a huge shift in the norms and expectations of the world you exist in.

    Coffee and offer to answer questions is a great thing.

    I’m also going to suggest pointing them to this site (maybe later in the summer as they are getting ready to leave and head off to new jobs etc).

  22. Elkay*

    I cringe when I think back to how I behaved at my first office job(s) mainly because they had the attitude of “As long as you do what we want when we ask we don’t mind if you’re just surfing the internet” but really I should have stuck to news sites, not forums :-/

    1. Fawnling*

      Can you elaborate on that? Was there a certain issue or just that news sites are more conservative than posting on forums?

  23. Bekx*

    My first internship was at an advertising agency. A big client asked for us to come up with a campaign and it was all hands on deck for the weekend. I told my boss that I had plans so I couldn’t come in. I mean, I probably wouldn’t have helped much, but I still cringe about it.

    Same job had half day Fridays during the Summer. I left right at lunch, where all my other coworkers stayed longer. I was taking them at their word for this, and didn’t realize that taking every friday off early was not a good thing. I wish someone would have kindly told me.

    1. CMT*

      I would say that second example is on them. If you tell somebody new to the working world, “Fridays during the summer are half days” you can’t expect them to know that it doesn’t always mean “leave after lunch”. The same goes for any other kind of unwritten rule. You can’t expect anybody to just know them.

      1. Rusty Shackelford*

        I agree. I would have taken “half day” to mean “leave after lunch.”

      2. AR*

        Wait a second…if “half-day Fridays” doesn’t mean every Friday is a half-day, what DOES it mean???

        I’m new to the white-collar world and would 100% guaranteed mess this up if I were in this situation.

  24. LizM*

    I like Alison’s script, but I also think an important piece of information to impart is that this sort of thing varies by office culture.

    In my office, my boss is very clear that as long as we are here for meetings we need to be here for, he does not micromanage when and where we do our work. If I want to take an afternoon off, and make up those hours at midnight from my kitchen table, that’s my choice. He just wants a heads up of when we’re planning on being in the office, and to know when to expect us to respond if he sends an email. It’s our office’s culture that emails and voicemails generally need to be responded to in 24 hours, so if I take an afternoon off to go get my hair done, but respond to email that evening and voice mail the next morning, it’s fine.

    In my husband’s office, they are expected to be in the office from 8 to 5, every day. If he wants to take a 30 min break and leave 30 min early to help with daycare pick up, he has to clear that with his supervisor, preferably the day ahead. They service a lot of external customers, and need to be available during regular working hours. So the idea that he could leave to go get coffee when it wasn’t during a 15 minute break would not be acceptable.

    My advice to interns and new hires is often, be on your best behavior for the first few months both to build your reputation, but also to get a feeling for the culture of the office and your supervisor’s preferences.

  25. rhinoceranita*

    My intern put his hand down the front of his pants, Al Bundy style. I was so stunned that I didn’t even address it.

    1. animaniactoo*

      My husband took a picture of me sleeping like that. I made him delete it.

      Are you sure you weren’t being pranked?

  26. Beth*

    I went to a public school and in 6th grade, there was a student who joined the school in the middle of the year, and he clearly was from a private school. He came in everyday in uniform (probably his old school uniform) and stood up every morning at his desk when we greeted the teacher as a class. He did this for awhile even when he saw nobody else does. I forget when he eventually stopped, but it was interesting to see.

  27. Moral panic*

    I would go to the manager instead and explain what happened as the manager will be the one evaluating the intern and you don’t want them to think the intern started this behavior 100% on her own.

    You could always just say “I inadvertently gave Jane the impression that it was okay to do x, y, and z at work when I was trying to explain why we could do this stuff. How do you want to handle this?”

    Then your manager is aware for the reason in the behavioral change and can mentor the intern on what is acceptable for her at work.

    You really don’t want the intern getting in trouble and then explaining to your boss that you told her it was okay to do.

  28. Pokebunny*

    If I was the intern, I’d definitely want to know that I’m doing it wrong. As interns, our purpose there is to learn, not just about the job, but occasionally about workplace norms.

  29. stevenz*

    All really good comments, and Alison as usual is right on the money. I just would like to add a couple of things.

    While she should be diligent and conscious of her professional image, she also needs to be as relaxed about work as the situation allows. I don’t mean casual, I mean not being rigid with fear of screwing up, or being unable to communicate with people at varying levels without fainting. Those things take time to develop but she should be aware that she will be more valuable as an employee if she is not defensive in her demeanor. She should “be herself” to the extent that is expected in and consistent with the work world.

    You can also clue her in about being given work she doesn’t like. My response is usually, “Sure! When do you need it?” None of us, especially interns, have the luxury of choosing only what we want to work on. In fact, the best experience an intern can have is exposure to all kinds of work and situations.

    I think you’ve got a good one here. She is asking questions and is open to the answers. Encourage more of that.

  30. Marina*

    This whole thread is just making me thank my lucky stars for several supervisors/mentors I had early in my career. Anything you can do to help someone learn professional norms (or better, what to look for to determine what office norms are) will pay off a bazillion times over for that person. God bless everyone who’s taken an intern under their wing.

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