our intern told us our ideas were boring and stupid

A reader writes:

Recently, my company designated a week for working on any project we want, even if it isn’t necessarily a part of our normal role and with people who we don’t necessarily work with. Some folks and I decided to use this opportunity to organize a series of small morale events for the office. The details aren’t super important, but it involved us creating puzzles that would be fun for small groups of coworkers to solve. We invited everyone who was interested in organizing this to join our team, and various people took us up on it.

One of the coworkers who joined the project was Bob, the only intern among us. Bob had a lot of great ideas, but wouldn’t listen to feedback about those ideas being too complex or difficult for the event we were trying to plan. We were trying to create a fun diversion for our peers; he was in it to create a super hard challenge that only the smartest could beat.

When we started setting up on the morning of our “launch date,” we discovered that overnight, Bob had completely re-worked a puzzle that another coworker, Dave, had finished the night before, claiming that the original work was “boring” and “stupid” and “way too easy,” and that he felt like his great ideas were being stifled by our lack of creativity. Many of us agreed that Bob’s version was not a good fit for our event, so at the end of the day Dave and I approached Bob about wanting to change the puzzle back, and he doubled down on the “whatever, your ideas are stupid” attitude. There was a lot of negativity in the room; we tried our hardest to focus on why his new version was not bad in itself but just a bad fit, and Bob responded by insisting that Dave’s work was bad and our suggestions were bad. He also displayed a lot of contemptuousness when discussing our event participants (all fellow coworkers), with comments like “if they can’t see this super obvious thing then I can’t help them!” None of these quotes are exact, but they are very close to reality in both spirit and word choice.

After that first awkward day, the negativity more or less stopped and didn’t reappear in the remaining two days. He didn’t insult our event participants, and he (mostly) didn’t insult other people’s work. Still, I can’t help but think that I shouldn’t let his earlier behavior slide totally without comment. His attitude was not the attitude that I want and expect to see from people working at my company. We very much value team work and respect, and he was absolutely not showing those. Do you think this is something I should bring up with him? Or with his manager or assigned intern mentor? I’ve been an intern myself, but don’t have much experience with the other side of things.

To Bob’s credit, he also made some great contributions to our projects. Some of his ideas were very fun and innovative, and he put a lot of effort into them (including effort spent replacing Dave’s work). Bob’s still a student, and this internship is supposed to be a pleasant experience as well as a learning experience, so I want to avoid being overly critical without guidance on how to improve. And I’m not sure it’s appropriate for me to get involved in this in the first place, since he’s not interning for my team (though our teams do similar work).

Should I try to get a conversation going with someone? Should I let this go?

Yes, you should say something, because if you don’t Bob will be left thinking that this is an okay way to interact with colleagues, and because part of an internship is learning how to operate in an office. If he doesn’t learn this now, he’ll end up having to learn it at the next job, where the stakes may be a lot higher for him.

Even though you’re not his manager, you were personally impacted by his behavior and he was working as part of your group, so it’s appropriate for you to say something.

To Bob himself, I’d say this: “Hey, I wanted to talk to you about the morning of our puzzle launch. I was taken aback by some of the comments you made, like calling Dave’s work boring and stupid. The group was actually in agreement that Dave’s work was what we were going for, but even if we hadn’t been, you really can’t talk to coworkers that way. It will harm your reputation and make people hesitant to work with you or recommend you. What was going on there?”

But you should also tell Bob’s manager about what happened and that you talked to him about it. If she’s seen other things like this from Bob and hasn’t yet addressed it, this might be the push that tells her that she actually needs to talk to him about it. Or, if she has talked to him about this kind of thing in the past, she needs to know that it’s still happening.

And wow, it really appears to be the summer of rude interns.

{ 140 comments… read them below }

  1. Jammer*

    OP, you’d be doing Bob a big favor by talking to him about his behavior. I’ve worked with people like Bob before and have seen how harmful that kind of attitude can be to a person’s professional reputation. No one wants to work with someone who insults their intelligence and holds their suggestions in open contempt. It’s a lesson he’ll have to learn eventually, and if you can help him learn it now before he really enters the professional world, it’s worth doing.

    1. Interviewer*

      He is clearly comfortable giving feedback, but how does he receive feedback? If you have this discussion with him, and give him this constructive criticism, will he appreciate it and figure out how to make the necessary changes going forward, or will he get defensive and shut down? I think you can use this as a real example for Bob to understand how workplace interactions are very different from other social settings. His remarks may be less jarring with family or friends, but not to his coworkers. Likewise, a poor reaction to feedback may be par for the course with his parents, but not necessarily good behavior with teachers or bosses.

  2. Ad Astra*

    The sudden change in attitude makes me wonder if someone else set Bob straight, or if perhaps he realized on his own that he had behaved unprofessionally. But, since we don’t know that, I agree with Alison that OP should bring it up with him — as soon as possible, to avoid feeling like you’re digging up old troubles. Bob doesn’t sound like a hopeless case, which is all the more reason to make it clear that there’s a problem.

    1. addlady*

      My money is on the idea that someone else talked to him. See if you can figure that out first, otherwise it’ll look like you’re piling on to him and he will get resentful.

      1. Ama*

        Or that he was telling the story to a friend/relative, and they reacted with horror at Bob’s behavior rather than sharing his righteous indignation.

        1. Christine*

          Part of our undergraduate program requires an internship. One of our students got an “F” because he stopped going in because he had an ingrown toenail & refused to take constructive criticism. He even got ugly with me when I called and told him that he was sending in blank sheets of paper on the fax machine. That he was loading it incorrectly. (This was his employer’s mid-term evaluation) He threw a fit on the phone informing me that I was wrong, I had to fax back a blank sheet showing the header on top.

          I also had a student come to me and ask me to give her a short orientation on basic office machines before she left for her summer internship. She had never worked in an office, and knew that would be a weakness. She got glowing evaluations from her employer.

          1. Moonsaults*

            I hope you gave her a good tutorial for the office machines! It still stands out brightly in my mind how my first boss when I was 18 taught me how to use the fax machine.

            “Sometimes it jams and you just have to slap it, like this *wack wack wack*”

            Thankfully I got to be the one who used the fax 99% of the time, that poor fax must have been hit so many times before I came to it’s rescue.

          2. Vicki*

            I’m still trying to parse ho the ingrown toenail is related to constructive criticism. (FYI, there’s not such thing as constructive criticism. There’s constructive feedback and there’s criticism.)

            1. Marisol*

              I disagree that there is no such thing as “constructive criticism.”

              Here is Merriam-Webster’s definition of criticism:
              (1) the act of expressing disapproval and of noting the problems or faults of a person or thing : the act of criticizing someone or something
              (2) a remark or comment that expresses disapproval of someone or something
              (3) the activity of making careful judgments about the good and bad qualities of books, movies, etc.

              Definition #3 is applicable here. You may prefer to say “feedback” instead of “criticism” and that’s just fine. But your basic assertion, that the concept of criticism is at odds with the concept of being constructive, where “constructive” is intended to mean useful or beneficial, is incorrect. The phrase has an agreed-upon meaning–if it didn’t, it wouldn’t have remained in the vernacular.

      2. OP*

        OP here – yeah, I was wondering if someone else may have said something, so I might ask Dave if he knows something about it. I’ll definitely make sureto talk to him otherwise, Alison’s way of wording it is very helpful.

        1. A Bug!*

          If someone’s already spoken to him, or you can’t confirm either way, you might be able to approach it as recognizing his improvement.

          “Hey, that first day can’t have been great for you. I’m not here to rehash that, though; I just wanted you to know that I noticed the improvement in your attitude since then and it makes a big difference. Your ideas and enthusiasm are great assets and if you can keep that steamroller in check I’d be happy to work with you again anytime.”

  3. LQ*

    This is really disappointing.

    Hopefully the reason he wasn’t like that again was because he went home and went OH NO THAT WAS HORRIBLE WHAT HAVE I DONE! And didn’t know how to say, “Holy wow did I screw up yesterday. I’m so sorry.” Hopefully he’ll be embarrassed by his behavior when you talk to him and you can guide him on what to say when you do screw up like that. Hopefully that’ll be the learning he needs to take away here.

    Our intern was great, she’s quick to pick up on things, asks good questions, is interested in learning new things, and takes feedback well. But that doesn’t make a good AAM letter. So just remember that it is hard to write a “what do I do” letter when your intern is awesome. Lots of great interns, we just don’t have to write letters about them!

    1. irritable vowel*

      Your last paragraph is such a great point, and I hope people will read it before they post their anti-millennial “kids today” opinions. Most interns/younger workers are fantastic! But there isn’t anything to Ask A Manager about other than “how do I keep this person happy because I never want them to leave”!

      1. Queen Gertrude*

        I completely agree! I met a millennial recently that I got along with so well that I want to recruit her for an internship next summer (it was already too late for this year). She’s not even a stereotypical over-achiever or anything. She just happens to have a great head on her shoulders. We took a random class together and I watched her watching the adults in the room doing their thing and taking it all in. She takes things in stride and was very insightful. Sadly I already see a lot of people overlooking how smart she is because she’s also traditionally pretty… which I know can go both ways. But that is also another issue entirely.

        1. JanetInSC*

          If you are able to, without being awkward, you can hint that less makeup and hair in a bun–that sort of thing–might make her look more professional (in her case) and older. Glasses might help, and even a fake engagement ring, too. It’s too bad for her, and it’s not fair, but I’ve also seen many young and pretty girls given a teaching position by a male principal, so it goes both ways. Sometimes, you have to dress the part, fair or unfair. (My grandmother applied to a Catholic school many, many years ago, and knew to wear no make-up and nothing flashy. She got the job.) You have to know your audience.

          1. Oignonne*

            If someone is wearing an excessive amount of makeup or has an otherwise unprofessional appearance, sure, one can recommend she adjust those things. However, I completely disagree about the fake engagement ring. If I were the recipient of that advice I’d question the giver’s judgement, that they’d recommend I keep up an odd lie in classes and in the workplace. I also don’t think it’s suddenly going to make her appear more intelligent or make her immune to harassment or things like that. I also wouldn’t want to work anywhere (unless it was my only option) where single women are viewed as threats to a professional workplace.

          2. Good Afternoon!*

            Eh. You lost me at fake engagement ring. Wasn’t that an issue in a recent article, or have I been in AAM archives too much?

            Since her looks are only potentially maybe possibly and issue it’s likely not issue hat needs addressing. Not knowing this woman’s history we may not know she is actually quite successful when looking for employment and the writer is just stating his own bias.

            Not to say anything negative about the writer as we all have bias. But without knowing the full situation I feel it’s worth considering.

            1. Queen Gertrude*

              Well, first off… I’m not a man (don’t know where you came up with that). Second, I never implied that makeup or clothing ever had anything to do with it. Third, I know that there is a problem both from many many conversations with her over this summer and directly observing other people interact with her. It’s not that hard to deduce that something isn’t quite right when people are ONLY suggesting to a recent High School graduate that she should pursue careers that primarily revolve around her looks. These are other women too, not men. If she wants to try for a career in modeling, fine, but I know just from hanging out with her that she is hurt that that is all the potential people are seeing in her. Again… wasn’t trying to derail from the original LW. Was just trying to point out that many millennials are great and just get overlooked.

          3. Queen Gertrude*

            Actually, she’s not really the type of person to wear a lot of makeup or “inappropriate” clothing or anything like that. She’s only just turned 18 but has been working part time jobs for at least a year and apparently really hasn’t had a hard time getting work. She just has a hard time being taken seriously by people. I think her having work experience at a younger age is part of her maturity. Honestly my plan is to just show her that I value her opinion and do my best to give her the opportunity to show her work.

      2. Pennalynn Lott*

        “Kids These Days” – I am back in school pursuing a degree in Accounting. A millennial on my Int’l Bus team grasped the concept I was going for in a business proposal (group project) within seconds, and was Googling the heck out of examples we could borrow from. The other two team members, a man and a woman, are in their late 30’s / early 40’s and are completely clueless. The man wanted to bog us down in the weeds of all the regulatory and taxation laws needed for us to do business in our chosen foreign country, but our business proposal is supposed to just be a high-level overview. Literally, his contributions were things like, “In order to franchise in Country X, we’ll need a physical presence, so we need to research the best parts of Capital City to locate a store front in, how much rents are, how much we’ll need to pay people, what the payroll taxes look like, plus what the income taxes for our company look like in Country X as well as here in the US.” DUDE! We just need to say, “We’re taking our business international by signing up a franchisee in Country X.” Done.

        Anyway, the millennial understands the scope of the project and has volunteered to do the final re-write and edit. I trust him 100% to turn in an A paper; while the other two “old” students would turn in C+ work.

        If I were ever in a position to hire someone, or recommend someone, I would hands-down recommend this millennial over the older students, no contest.

    2. Cath in Canada*

      My husband was ranting recently about how the kids coming into his industry have no work ethic and have the most ridiculous excuses for not coming to work (e.g. “my girlfriend had a cold” as an excuse for missing three days. One of our nephews is working in a similar job for the summer and missed a day of work because, I kid you not, he was “too tired after a midnight booty call”).

      I said that the vast majority of our co-op students are fab! Super enthusiastic and eager to learn. Some of them just won an award for best “job site safety month” events in our entire massive parent organisation. The good and average ones just aren’t as noticeable as the bad ones.

      1. Floral Laurel*

        Wow!! That reminds me of my old workplace. I had an intern come in and tell me about her late-night rendezvous with a guy. She then put on her sunglasses, propped her arms to look like she was concentrating on the computer, and took a nap. I thought this was because I’m fresh out of college and the interns still looked to me as a peer (some were actually older than me), but I do agree this is the Summer of Rude Interns.

        1. AMT*

          I feel like wearing sunglasses indoors at your desk is way more noticeable than having closed eyes. That intern was clearly an inexperienced office napper.

      2. LQ*

        It is so easy to over look the good stuff and even easier to overlook the average. I went to work today and nothing much happened is a horrible story!

        The too tired after a booty call is a story that will be told for years. But the dozens of other interns and “kids these days” who just do their job and go about their life? No interesting story there. It is important to remember though.

      3. Former LW*

        I had 3 interns this summer, and only 1 was a jerk. Actually …. out of the dozen or so interns I’ve had in my entire career, only 1 was an entitled jerk. I think that bad behavior is honestly so rare that we’re shocked when we see it.

    3. Pearl*

      I also have a fantastic intern this summer: smart, self sufficient (but asks questions when she needs to), and really quick to learn. She’s producing great work. I’ve worked with loads of interns over the years and only ever had one or two poor ones. Usually I love working with them because they’re eager to learn and give the office an injection of energy. We do spend a lot of time on recruitment to make sure we get good people, but we’ve also been very lucky.

      1. Nurse Ratched*

        Add me to the list of people with an amazing intern! I just found out that HR made her a permanent offer once she graduates and passes boards (which isn’t even until next summer!)

    4. the gold digger*

      Our catsitter is 17. I am not sure if that makes him a millenial, but he is the most wonderful kid in the world. If I had a son, I would want him to be just like this kid. He is super reliable – he has been feeding our cats when we go on vacation for the past six years. He is thoughtful – his mom told me he had turned on the A/C for the cats one summer because it had gotten hot.* He used to shovel and mow for his elderly next door neighbor for free, just to be nice. He has two jobs, is in two varsity sports, gets great grades, and is a lovely person. I am not worried about the next generation at all.

      * Primo freaked out: “The windows are open! He turned on the A/C with open windows?” When I pointed out that this is the kind of person we want watching our pets when we are out of town – who is concerned with their comfort, he realized he had overreacted.

      1. LQ*

        That’s awesome. And yes, there are plenty of fantastic people in the next generation. They’ll be fine. I imagine they’ll all have growing pains, but so many are wonderful.

      2. Connie-Lynne*

        We had HIGH SCHOOL interns and they were adorable. Very competent and largely professional, except at lunch when they just were very, very young.

        They organized “Spirit Week” their final week in the office and we all liked them so much we went along with it — professionally, of course.

  4. OriginalYup*

    For people like Bob (early in their career, aggressively competitive, somewhat combative attitude), one of the hardest things to learn about workplace roles is that on teams and projects, not all participants are equal and not ideas carry equal weight.

    It sounds like you and the group were trying to politely reason with him about why his idea wouldn’t be implemented, which is the right place to start. But at a certain point, I think you get to a point where a blunt statement is best: “Bob, we’re not going to do this. It doesn’t meet the goals of the group, and it’s not up for debate. We’re trying to help you understand *why* it’s not being chosen so you can understand the thinking, but it’s not appropriate for you to try to force a change in decision on this or insult other people’s work.” I’d definitely say something to his manager so he or she can address it as part of a bigger picture if appropriate, and also just as feedback about his performance in general.

    1. Aurion*

      Yup, this. OP, I think it’s well within your rights to mention this to Bob and/or mention it to Bob’s manager. That said, while Bob was quite rude, I’m inclined to view him a lot more kindly than some of our other intern stories here because he did shut up after that first day.

      I think the youth/inexperience/academic environment definitely is a factor. It’s really hard for people like Bob (early in their career, aggressively competitive, somewhat combative attitude–perfect description, OriginalYup!) to not not view a puzzle as An Intellectual Challenge because the Intellectual Challenge Is The Whole Point, Duh! Classes don’t really have a morale factor unless you have a really egregious professor/TA and you’re often competing directly with your classmates (especially if grades are on a bell curve) so people used to that environment often don’t really get that the point is to have a bit of lighthearted fun, even if at the expense of The Greatest Intellectual Challenge Ever. I know I’ve certainly been there. A couple of years in the working world have made dramatic improvements in my EQ (my parents comment on it semi-frequently :P).

    2. Anxa*

      Yes, it’s so important to be able to cope with being stifled and diminished early in your career (or really, in general). I’m not really combative or competitive, and it’s been one of the hardest lessons for me to learn.

      There will be so many situations where you have to slow down, lower your expectations, and just accept that your view or ideas aren’t great fits. Whether that’s because they aren’t as good as you think you are or that they won’t be as great a fit as the institutions with most of the power doesn’t really matter.

      1. Dynamic Beige*

        Yes, it’s so important to be able to cope with being stifled and diminished early in your career (or really, in general).

        Oh Gawd, yes. I have lost track of the amount of times that some VP/Boss/other person has made some sort of suggestion/presented an idea and I’ve had a small internal “did they actually say that?” double-take because it’s either been incredibly stupid/short-sighted or in no way feasible. There are times when it would be so awesome to just flip a table, say it’s stupid and leave… but that is a Career Limiting Move. That’s another reason why working from home rocks. I can gape like a fish on a conference call and no one can see me.

        1. esra (also a Canadian)*

          The ability to roll your eyes, gape, or drop your head down onto your desk is a really underrated perk of working from home.

    3. JanetInSC*

      From a good friend: It doesn’t matter if you like them. What matters is if they like you.

      I tell this to my nieces all the time…this is how you get along in the work world. (I have to remind myself also, because, it’s hard advice to follow.)

  5. TootsNYC*

    you really can’t talk to coworkers that way. It will really harm your reputation and make people hesitant to work with you or recommend you. What was going on there?”

    These sound a little more authoritative than I’d use for someone else’s intern.

    I agree you really should say something, but I’d try for a bit more of a “coaching” feel.

    “..it’s pretty unwise to talk to coworkers that way. I wanted to warn you that it will really…. Sorry to sound harsh, but I owe it to you to alert you to those dangers.”

    1. LBK*

      Eh, I sort of agree, but on the other hand I also think interns are kind of an “it takes a village” project where they aren’t so specifically owned by their direct manager like a regular employee and are meant to be learning from everyone around them, not just their boss.

      1. OhNo*

        I agree. This kind of feedback also has a different flavor coming from someone who’s not the intern’s boss, which can in itself be a teaching moment. Bob has to learn that it’s not just his own boss that he answers to – it’s everyone above him on the chain, and his coworkers as well. They may not have hire/fire authority over him, but their opinions still carry significant weight.

        What you do and how you behave at work often has long-reaching consequences that can impact your future just as much as anything your boss says. It can only be good for Bob if he learns that early.

      2. TootsNYC*

        Oh, I agree on the “everybody owes it to the intern to help them grow and learn” idea!

        It’s just that I’d aim for more “older peer coaching” than “manager trying to get to the bottom of things and lay down the expectations” tone. Mostly because I think it would be listened to more, because it wouldn’t make the intern defensive.

        1. Chinook*

          I like the idea of framing it as peer coaching. My boss gets an engineering intern every summer and I always let them know, if they question, in word or deed, what I, a non-engineer, can teach them, that my role is to make sure they don’t become the annoying employee in the future. As a result, they become more open to my comments about always bring pen/paper to meetings, proper dress, etc. I know it sticks when they then start coming to me about ho to fix copier jams and do expense reports instead of bugging our very busy boss (who would have no problem helping them, just no a good use of her time).

    2. CMT*

      This was a pretty egregious screw up on Bob’s part, though, so I think a firm tone is warranted.

      1. TootsNYC*

        Well, “confident tone,” maybe, sure–no need to sound as though you don’t know what you’re talking about, or to sound particularly apologetic (that “I’m sorry” wasn’t intended as anything but a slightly softening phrase, like “I’m sorry to be the bearer of bad news,” not “I’ve goofed”).

        I don’t think anybody responds well to a firm, disciplinary tone from someone who isn’t actually the boss of them.

        1. CMT*

          Maybe if Bob wasn’t an intern. But OP is definitely in a position to give feedback and constructive criticism to an intern she works with.

    3. OP*

      I did try to gently make it clear that his rude comments were out of line, with a “Sorry” or two like you suggest, but was totally ignored. I am a woman who is only a few years older than him, I don’t know what effect (if any) that had on his not listening, but I want to feel like I can be forthright when it’s called for, and Alison and other commenters have convinced me that it’s called for.

  6. NarrowDoorways*

    Gaaaaah, this gave me flashbacks to when I was the one blurting this out, and in front of very important people, too!

    To be fair, it was at a holiday party, I was a bit–too–hyped up, and they ended up agreeing the game hadn’t worked as well as it should have. All the same, it’s still embarrassing to think that I blurted out, “No, that’s stupid,” when the rules were first given in front of the entire office.

  7. Rubyrose*

    When you approached him about wanting to change the puzzle back, was it from an asking permission stance, or gently telling him that it was going to occur? I hope it was the latter but fear it was the former. I understand that to a fellow employee you would ask, but he is not a true employee. What would you have done if an employee had acted in that manner?

    1. Engineer Girl*

      This is the thing that stood out to me. Everyone’s focusing on Bob being rude. I focused on Bob modifying someone else’s work without asking. That could be considered sabotage in some places. I had a couple of coworkers that pulled this stunt. One of them was fired after he did this multiple times. The last straw was when he got into the system and modified locked down code during test, breaking the test configuration – mid test. They had to redo the whole test which meant a late delivery.
      Modifying someone else’s work behind their back is egregious.

      1. Aurion*

        I honestly think that’s a carryover from school. I think almost everyone on this forum has had the experience where a team member turned in a sub-par version of X for a group project at the last minute and someone had to rewrite/edit it so it was up to snuff.

        It’s still absolutely egregious in a workplace, but if Bob was misguided about the purpose of the activity (fun distraction, not The Greatest Intellectual Challenge Ever) I can see it. He still needs a very stern talking-to, but I wouldn’t quite call it sabotage yet.

        1. Engineer Girl*

          I’m not calling it sabotage. I’m saying that some places would view it as such.
          Bob needs to understand that this is a HUGE no-no.

          1. IT_Guy*

            +1000000000 !!

            Changing something that is not your work without getting permission has gotten quite a few people walked out the door. Not because of sabotage issues, but in cases where there are security implications (i.e. Government), it can have very stern folks knocking on your door.

            1. James*

              There are reasons for this. Often (at least in my field) there are legal requirements for who can author certain documents, and if someone without those qualifications edits them it can land the company (and in some cases the author) in very serious legal trouble–fines and jail time in some cases, more frequently loss of contracts and the like. Obviously an internal moral booster isn’t going to have such dire consequences, but if little instances like this are left unchecked they can grow quite quickly into such big issues.

        2. Dynamic Beige*

          There’s also a difference between “Hey everyone, I thought that PuzzleX could be more challenging so I created a new one last night. What do you think?” or “I’m not sure that PuzzleX is as challenging as it could be. Would anyone have a problem with me reworking it?” and presenting it as a fait accompli without any warning or go-ahead first. He never stopped to think about how the coworker might feel seeing someone else trash their work.

        3. Anxa*

          Another reason why I loathe group student projects.

          I would be pretty upset if a classmate had done this to me. Just because I am not as a quick or smart or skilled or prepared as another student shouldn’t mean my work is misrepresented. I’d much rather have the opportunity to find a way where they receive a better grade than me than to have my schoolwork misrepresented.

      2. Lora*

        YES. +10000000000.

        I’ve had to explain this to people with many years of experience – but all their experience was at one job, where their boss overlooked bad behavior. The same people cannot get a job anywhere else, because they have such a terrible reputation from doing this exact thing.

        Don’t touch other people’s stuff without asking permission. If you think it’s stupid, well, the rest of us learned to keep our paws to ourselves in kindergarten, so who’s the dummy now?

        I’ve seen people – experienced people with advanced Ivy League degrees – fired after doing this only once, with extreme prejudice. The only reason to be touching someone else’s stuff is if there is an immediate hazard to life or extremely expensive equipment. Like, there will be blood and flashing lights, sirens, type of hazard. Otherwise, it can wait until you get the rightful owner on the phone.

      3. Anxa*

        I’m often surprised at how much slack people expect interns to get over general rudeness and basic work issues (like showing up on time), so admittedly I tend to be kind of harsh about this, but yeah, I thought that the rude comments paled in comparison to replacing another person’s work.

  8. Chickaletta*

    Considering the whole point of the event was a “morale booster”, Bob seems to have missed the whole point of the exercise. I would include that in my discussion with him. No matter what he ends up doing in his future career, if he doesn’t understand the high-level deliverable/concept/goal, then he’s not going to be a successful employee.

    1. Naomi*

      OP observed, “We were trying to create a fun diversion for our peers; he was in it to create a super hard challenge that only the smartest could beat.” As a former MIT Mystery Hunt participant, I wonder if Bob had participated in a similarly challenging puzzle event and calibrated his expectations by that, rather than thinking of it as a casual morale-building activity. But you’re right–he should have been paying attention to the actual goal of the project he was working on, not the imagined version he wanted to work on.

      1. Chickaletta*

        Yeah, I assume the point wasn’t to boost his morale, it was to boost everyone else’s morale. Perhaps he overestimated his coworkers. When I was a student I assumed that everyone else who was older than me and who already had a degree was also more intelligent. Then, after working for a couple years and becoming jaded, I thought I was smarter than everyone else. Now I have a more balanced perspective, but if Bob is young and new to the workforce than he may not have a good perspective on what other people find challenging.

        1. Aurion*

          I wouldn’t even say he over/underestimated his coworkers, but it could be worth pointing out that his coworkers could be every bit as smart as him (or smarter!), but not want to put in the effort to solve a really difficult challenge. This was meant to be a fun break, not a desperate attempt to escape the death-trap before a bomb goes off.

          1. Lora*

            Yeah, this. As a complete geek who solves real life puzzles for a living (such as “why did the placebo group have multiple organ failure?”), in my non-puzzle-solving time I prefer to sip wine and listen to music with a furry pet in my lap.

          2. Liane*

            Yes, this! I often like to do number-finds* to relax before bed. I don’t want the most difficult usually.

            *Like word searches, only the items on your list are numbers, usually 3-10 digits

      2. Connie-Lynne*

        Yeah, but as a participant in many, many similar events, one thing you learn is that not everyone wants to do the IPP or win 500 Questions. Some events (pub quizzes, for example) are about appealing to multiple levels for low stakes, and the most important thing any quizmaster can learn is calibrating that.

    2. James*

      While I agree, I have to wonder if he was informed of that high-level deliverable. In my experience, it’s not unusual for employees (particularly low-level ones) to be handed a task and told “Do this” without being told the larger context. Someone should at least check to see if Bob was told that this was for a moral boosting exercise and a general set of criteria for what the manager was looking for.

      Altering an employees work is a definite no-no, however, and that should be made very clear. For something like this it’s annoying, but for some things there can be very serious legal ramifications to this sort of behavior.

      1. OhNo*

        Even if he wasn’t informed at first, there’s no reason he couldn’t have asked at some point over the course of the project.

        Either way, that’s still no excuse for going back and changing someone else’s completed work. If he didn’t know the ultimate goal, he was still aware that Dave’s work was considered complete and should not have gone back to change it. He especially shouldn’t have doubled down on his “this was dumb but I made it better” approach when confronted about it. That has nothing to do with meeting the end goal and everything to do with just respecting your coworkers.

        1. James*

          I’ve heard people say “You should have asked” in the past. My problem with that is, it’s almost certain that Bob is too new to know he SHOULD ask. He may genuinely have misunderstood the end-goal to such a degree that he didn’t realize he misunderstood it. Misunderstandings resist self-correction; if you don’t know you don’t know what you’re doing, you don’t know to ask for help. If he’d been with the company for five years that would be different. An intern should be given the benefit of multiple doubts, especially with projects outside his normal scope.

          I fully agree with the entirety of your second paragraph! Once you’re told you screwed up, the proper response is “What did I do wrong and how can I prevent it in the future?” not to blow it off!!

          1. JessaB*

            The difference however, is he could have made up his idea without touching the other employee’s work at all. He could have submitted it for the event along side the other idea. This is how you present an idea, you don’t just go in and change the other person’s work. If he’d come in with “I think this is too easy and won’t engage people, here’s my version of the concept,” they would have explained why the other one was a better idea and why and just maybe they might have said “well it’s nice, let’s hold it for a different kind of event.” But once you’ve ticked people off they’re not inclined to be nice about things.

  9. UrbanGardener*

    I had a colleague who got fired once (and the rest of the company lost the ability to send company wide emails) because he mass emailed everyone about what a stupid idea he thought one of the higher ups had planned. That’s pretty much Bob in 30 years if it’s not nipped in the bud now.

  10. Art_ticulate*

    This letter made me cringe, because… Well, I’ve been Bob. I understand that mindset of “I know better than the people who have been doing this a lot longer than I have” and wanting to aggressively prove how smart you are. I get it. But that doesn’t make it acceptable! It sounds like maybe someone got to Bob already, given that he changed his tune the following days. And that’s a good thing, because hopefully it means he learned something.

    Fortunately, it’s possible to outgrow and/or change that behavior. For me personally it involved therapy and meds, haha. But for most it’s about experience and being around people who will model good examples and set you straight when need be.

    Now that I’m older and supervising interns myself, I keep waiting for the day when I get a bad one. It’s probably what I deserve, karma-wise, but so far all I’ve had are really great ones!

    1. JuliaC*

      I was like Bob as well when I was starting out. In my case, older co-workers helped me see the errors of my ways. The ones that had the best result with me were those who started by first acknowledging that I did have great contributions and qualities – my combative/defensive/fragile self-esteem had to be appeased first, before I could hear the actual message!

      1. TootsNYC*

        That’s exactly why I suggested a slightly more “I’m a worker on your level, but I happen to have more experience, so I want to clue you in” tone instead of a slightly admonishing tone.

        Basically, think of how Alison tells a letter writer, “Sorry to have to say it, but you really goofed here.”

    2. LQ*

      I totally agree that this is something that people can outgrow or change. Bob might have even recognized it in himself later. I know I’ve realized later that I did something incredibly stupid and then not known how to backtrack it. Sometimes you can’t see it in the moment, but you get it right away after, or sometimes when someone points it out, or a lot later. It is entirely worth it to point it out. (And I think being ready to say, “Here’s what you can do to help repair your reputation” is a good thing, if he goes, “OMG I know, that was so bad, I don’t know why I did it, how can I fix this” you want to help with that on the learning curve too.)

  11. Jake*

    I think a lot of interns act this way, at least ones from the school I graduated from. It was such a competitive environment where everybody was a superstar achiever that when we left that environment for a real one where being a cutthroat make it better at all costs type of person doesn’t work, it was a shock to the system.

  12. mazzy*

    I think “your project/work/solution is a good idea but isn’t a good fit to our need” is a valuable lesson, so I’d say something.

    I deal with this in various ways with junior staff members. For example, I recently went through a phase where I had to coach one to trim down email lengths and the number of solutions he was sending out at once. Yes, it’s great you solved a bunch of things but if you write about five in a page long email, no one will notice half of them. You need to tailor your approach to your coworkers even if it feels like you’re dumbing it down.

    Same with bob…

  13. Cochrane*

    This is the part where Old Man Dithers comes out of his corner office with a hearty handshake and slap on the back at this display of moxie and spunk, calling him “son” and making him his newest vice president.

      1. Hooptie*

        …first time in my life I’ve ever wanted to laugh and throw up at the same time. You’re good. :)

  14. Rogferdunt*

    I think Alison may have coined the term “brilliant jerk”.

    In academia brilliant jerks go far. In the office brilliant jerks usually get sent home. It’s a hard lesson and transition to go through but is vital for success.

    1. Jake*

      Absolutely. In college we all acted that way because it’s what gave the best results. Took me 3 weeks into my first post graduation job to figure out that doesn’t fly. Some folks take less time, some take more and a special few never figure it out.

  15. KimberlyR*

    I think students fresh out of school don’t realize that work projects aren’t necessarily a democracy, especially if you’re an intern. School projects put everyone on an equal level, hierarchy-wise, so you can all argue an issue to death because no one has the standing to overrule anyone else. But for a work project like this, there is an often someone leading it, even a fun little project like this one, and that person can ultimately decide, “I’ve heard all the suggestions and there are some good ones. But we have to go with the most feasible/most fun/easiest to accomplish within the time frame” and have everyone move on. Bob probably isn’t used to this idea, but he needs to become used to it. He’s not in a democracy anymore. He is the low man on the totem pole now, as an intern, and will be when he enters the workforce, so he has to get used to the idea that other people may be calling the shots on certain teams or projects.

    Also, I really like the idea of this morale booster! I wonder if I can come up with something similar at my work. Hmmm…

    1. OriginalYup*

      “School projects put everyone on an equal level, hierarchy-wise, so you can all argue an issue to death because no one has the standing to overrule anyone else.” Also, in school you’re often *encouraged* to defend your ideas vigorously, so it’s easy to see where someone who’s used to an academic environment and inexperienced in an office setting could miss the mark.

    2. James*

      I don’t think that’s a full excuse. For the vigorous defense, maybe (though they should be able to go beyond “stupid” as an argument). Replacing someone’s work, however, would be very inappropriate in a school setting as well. That’s the part that really gets me about this. A grumpy employee is one thing–I always like to have one around, because they can be useful if put in the right situation. Messing with someone else’s work, on the other hand, is a very serious issue.

      1. OhNo*

        Eh, I don’t think that replacing someone’s work is as egregious in a school setting. I’m thinking of things like group projects, specifically, where it’s better to replace/”edit” someone’s work than get a low grade because their work was poor.

        That might be where he’s coming from with the idea that this is okay, which is why I hope the OP can straighten him out some.

        1. KimberlyR*

          I agree that in group projects, this can happen often. And a student who does sub-par work probably doesn’t care enough to argue for their work to be put back the way it was initially turned in.

          This is absolutely egregious and wrong in a workplace setting, so I hope no one thinks I’m defending Bob. Best case scenario is he is used to this kind of work, has no idea what should be done in a real work environment, and OP can help educate him.

          Worst case scenario is that Bob is a butthead who thinks he’s smarter/better than everyone and sees nothing wrong with replacing someone’s work. Which means he needs to go ASAP. But I doubt OP can know that from this one situation.

    3. Engineer Girl*

      Several industries expect you to vigorously defend your technical position. You are also expected to do so professionally. That means no personal insults.

    4. Temperance*

      Yep. I had a shitty intern this summer who thought he would be doing “interesting” and “important” research and writing projects while under my employ. LOL

      1. esra (also a Canadian)*

        Oh, like the junior I had who was “really more of a big project designer” and didn’t like to “waste” her talent on day-to-day work.

  16. Trig*

    It’s possible Bob is really into puzzles and Escape Rooms and stuff. I know quite a few people like this, and the fun is in the challenge for them. So when Bob heard you were planning this, he probably got really excited about it! Something he loves doing in his free time, that he can share with his coworkers! Plus maybe really impress them as the intern who is great at puzzles! And so of course he was disappointed that you weren’t all professional puzzle-makers. I can understand feeling disappointed when everyone isn’t on the same page as you about one of your passions! It’s definitely more of a let-down than when someone doesn’t agree with how you want to format your TPS reports.

    But letting that disappointment show in such a rude way? Well, that’s the major error in judgement.

    At least it seems like he figured it out, someone set him straight, or the OP will.

    1. Uyulala*

      That was my interpretation as I have been there. I am a puzzler who likes logic puzzles best — especially the really complex sort. The easy ones just aren’t even fun for me. I’ve had to bite my tongue during more than one “morale games” thing.

      1. cataloger*

        Yeah, I like puzzles a lot. A while back I was at a training where we broke up into groups and as an icebreaker, had a worksheet of rebus puzzles (like “geg geg” -> “scrambled eggs”). I’d mostly seen the ones on there before, so I answered the first few to give my group an idea of what the heck was going on, but they weren’t really into it, so I wasn’t sure where to go from there. I mostly kept quiet but answered when someone asked directly, “So what’s THIS one?” What’s a good way to handle that?

  17. the.kat*

    Not that it helps at all, but could Bob have been thrown out of his “work persona” by the abnormal week the company was having? I’ve been at work events before where things are just bizarre and have found my careful “work.kat” mask slipping. In that case, he may have realized it and pulled himself back.

    I have loved ones who feel this strongly about logic and puzzles. If it’s not challenging for them, it’s not fun or morale boosting. In their mind, it’s stupid… and worthless. I can see at least one person I know getting more and more frustrated by how easy everything was, sitting down on this own time to make this a proper challenge, falling in love with his brilliant idea and then being horrified and offended when he was told “no” again. Time and experience would tell him not to react this way, but an intern might easily walk himself into this trap.

    Again, it doesn’t make it any better, but I see how this could happen.

    1. Anxa*

      “If it’s not challenging, it’s not fun of morale boosting”

      YES TO THIS!

      Bob’s lack of professionalism in describing his problems with his coworkers’ ideas is a huge problem. Bob going out of his way to replace another person’s work is a huge problem. I personally wouldn’t even chalk this up to inexperience, but I think the majority of people see this as an experience issue.

      That said, OP, if you DO decide to talk to him, keep in mind that for some people the product you were looking for is NOT a morale booster. I was clenching my jaw reading this post because to me this project would be a complete waste of time and be a terrible tease of a chance to do actual puzzles. Grinning and bearing ‘diversions’ like this is very frustrating for me and something I try to just go along with and mentally detach myself from. In social situations it’s much more easy to navigate and I’m more upfront that I don’t want to play a game unless we’re all invested in it (I’m not competitive, but I am serious).

      In fact I think that there are two lessons for Bob to learn here. One’s about professionalism and being a better team player, and one’s about the fact that you sometimes have to resign yourself to mentally checking out so the majority can do their thing.

      1. LBK*

        (I’m not competitive, but I am serious)

        Were you once voted the worst audience participant Cirque du Soleil ever had?

        I think maybe you and kat are being a little too serious. This isn’t meant to be a Mensa competition, and sometimes for work things you do just have to grin and bear it. I am an avid puzzle solver (Games Magazine was my Bible growing up) and I love being challenged, but I’ve done events like this and they were super fun. It’s not entertaining because of the rush of solving the puzzle but because it gets everyone out of the office to interact and work on things we don’t normally work on (and where the stakes aren’t as high and stressful as actual work). It’s supposed to be relaxing, not intellectual.

        I don’t normally agree with the assessment that gets thrown around sometimes that this site is anti-fun, but “the puzzles at this work event aren’t hard enough” seems like a pretty stuffy complaint to me.

        1. CMT*

          Agreed. Plus it doesn’t address the real issue here, which is Bob’s behavior. “The puzzles aren’t hard enough” isn’t a good enough excuse to be rude and dismissive to coworkers.

          1. LBK*

            Also true – he could raise that point without being insulting, stubborn and a bit insubordinate.

        2. Emilia Bedelia*

          I think “grin and bear it” is pretty much the opposite of “morale bloating”.
          Of course it’s important to be professional, but I would not have fun with this exercise either and it’s pretty demoralizing to not have fun and have to pretend that you’re enjoying yourself. As someone with an awful poker face for this kind of thing, this would stress me out a lot.

          1. LBK*

            I…don’t really know what to tell you then. I agree that generally morale boosting activities aren’t the best way of actually boosting morale, but that doesn’t give you license to be a pill about it and expect it to not look bad.

        3. Anxa*

          There are many ways to relax. There are many ways to have fun. I’m not at all anti-fun (although I do prefer non-forced fun activities).

          Puzzles are literally meant to be challenging. Boring puzzles just aren’t fun for me. The activities the OP describes sound awful, but I routinely grin and bear it. I wouldn’t complain about puzzles not being hard enough. And I think that Bob needs to learn to grin and bear it, too, and this is a valuable lesson for him.

          I may not be a good cirque de soleil audience participant, but that’s okay by me as I don’t care for audience participation. Fortunately, my coworkers and patrons have seemed very receptive to my unstructured staff development activities and my more structured games in the past, which have received glowing praise from participants.

          But I do think that if the OP does decide to talk to Bob about this (which would be a courtesy because Bob displayed some pretty awful behavior), it wouldn’t make sense to operate under the assumption that Bob was working against developing a morale boosting project (although his lack of courtesy was definitely working against morale) because he may have genuinely thought a more difficult puzzle would be more fun.

          1. CMT*

            But that just sounds like you’re making excuses for his behavior. In the end I think it matters less why he was rude and dismissive and more that he understands it’s unacceptable.

            1. Anxa*

              Wait, no!

              I definitely don’t think it’s okay for him to behave that way, and I’m surprised that point is being lost.

              What I AM saying is that if the OP does sit down to have a discussion with Bob about this (a courtesy after the behavior he displayed), that I think the conversation would be clearest if the OP understands that Bob literally may have a different perspective about boosting morale. It wouldn’t do much good if they stress that the idea was supposed to have a fun staff event if the event they were expecting is only fun for certain types of people. The OP may literally think that these types of events are universally fun.

              1. OP*

                OP here, chiming in late since I was away this weekend. Hoping to clear up some things about this situation.

                I totally see where you’re coming from in terms of different things being fun for different people, but I think you’re reading a little too far between the lines. You say “The activities the OP describes sound awful”, but I never described any activities beyond saying they were puzzles. This wasn’t a morale event in the sense of “you are mandated to come have fun”. This is a small-group event we’ve run in the past, and people were rushing to sign up because it’s gone so well in the past. As far as some people not having fun with easy puzzles – sure, that may be true, but the way we’d agreed on structuring things meant that Bob and Dave’s puzzle had to be complete before the group could go on to “win” the challenge. The whole thing was supposed to take 50 minutes, and of the groups that did Bob’s extra-hard version, one group used google to quickly solve it, and the others all took at least 30 minutes, and needed multiple hints from Bob. It was especially brutal on ESL employees, whom we have a lot of. Ultimately, Bob’s puzzle empirically was taking too long to solve, regardless of how fun it was.

                I do agree with you that Bob’s puzzle was so hard because he is the kind of person who enjoys hard puzzles. I am too! And I am certainly not planning to tell him “dumb yourself down for people”. The real issues were that he a) replaced someone else’s work and b) was dismissive of coworkers’ intelligence.

          2. Jackie*

            I absolutely agree.

            Reading the OP I started to really feel for Bob. I’ve been there. I’ve been the intern all excited about finally getting to do something fun only to find out that it’s supposed to be boring and stupid. I once had to work with another person to make a “trivia contest” where every single one of my questions was shot down as being “too obscure” or “no one could possibly know that”. It ended up being one of the very few times in my life that I have had to go to the bathroom and cry. It was so incredibly frustrating. I also felt so devalued by the person I was working with.

            It sounds like Bob is about to learn that if he’s actually pretty smart, that means that most people are less intelligent than him and he needs to get used to lowering his expectations. Either that, or he needs to find a place to work where people are encouraged to use their strengths rather than hide them.

            OP – a question for you… Why were you so against having a challenging puzzle? Many people like things that are hard. It seems like such a weird thing to reject the intern for. Why not have a mix of hardness levels and then have hints or something?

            1. OP*

              The structure of the event (which Bob helped create) meant that certain puzzles had to be solved to “unlock” the others. Bob’s puzzle was simply taking up too much time of the 50 minutes each team had to finish, even with liberal hints, and was especially tough on ESL speakers, which our company has a lot of.

              I agree that one takeaway here is that some people are better at some things, but I wouldn’t say that it’s proof that some people are “smarter” than others. Some people have better lateral thinking skills than others and some are simply more practiced at puzzle-solving, but that doesn’t make them smarter, just better at those things. In fact, Bob did seem to think that we were “dumbing down the puzzles for people who aren’t as smart”, but to me that’s pretty insulting towards the people who didn’t do well on his puzzle. He doesn’t need to lower his expectations, he needs to tailor his approach to his audience.

          3. LBK*

            The Cirque du Soleil line is a joke from Arrested Development (one of the characters is a lawyer who bills himself as extremely serious and uses the CdS thing an example of that claim).

            What I’m getting at is that these kinds of workplace activities aren’t really meant to maximize the fun for every participant. They aren’t a chance for you to participate in one of your hobbies with your coworkers there. I mean, they aren’t supposed to be excruciatingly dull either, but mostly they’re just meant to be some kind of activity that everyone can participate in. The fun comes from being with your coworkers and getting to do something with them that’s goofy and low key and not work.

            When we had a game night in my department, one of the “puzzles” was seeing which team could build the tallest tower in 60 seconds just using balloons and masking tape – which isn’t the most cerebral exercise ever, but it was still a pretty hilarious spectacle to have everyone madly blowing up balloons, tossing out architectural suggestions, trying to keep the tower upright, screaming as balloons popped, etc. To say “that sounds boring because it’s not challenging enough” completely misses the point and frankly makes you seem like kind of a snob.

            1. Anxa*

              That it’s a hilarious spectacle is subjective, though. It wouldn’t be a big deal to me to have to sit through a silly balloon assignment; I don’t need to be entertained at my job or to have engaging games. I think that the thing you described would frustrate me more than entertain me. Although there’s the entertainment factor of bonding with the other slightly bored coworkers.

              I’m not really sure how it’s snobby to admit that you have a low frustration tolerance for this kind of thing and have to put a good amount of emotional labor into grinning through events like these. There’s nothing remotely braggy about divulging that you’re a weirdo who doesn’t find the same things fun as most people, despite wishing you could fit in and be more mainstream.

              I really don’t know where you get the impression I would want to have a cerebral exercise at all; what I am saying is that puzzles are a strange suggestion for a game if you don’t want anything challenging, because the point of them is to be challenged. You even said they aren’t supposed to be excruciatingly dull, so you must understand how dull activities can be frustrating.

              I personally would much prefer Bob’s puzzles than Dave’s, but I think I’d have a much more pleasant time talking with Dave during the activity.

              1. Anxa*

                BTW, when I endorsed the quoted “if it’s not challenging, it’s not morale boosting” I meant specifically to activities like games and puzzles and those types of things. I actually much prefer non-competitive and non-challenging staff building exercises. It’s things like games where the rules aren’t enforced, the set up takes long for little reward, and unpuzzling puzzles that would diminish my spirits more than bringing them up.

                I admittedly get a little tense at parties when I’m in the middle of some great conversations with friends, then someone declares we must all play a game, and then they start to leave halfway into it and start distracting other players and you have to kind of sit there wondering “are we still doing this? what’s going on?”

      2. KM*

        I don’t know the exact dynamics of how this puzzle worked, but there are ways of doing puzzles as a game where the focus is more on the game than the puzzle (Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes looks really fun to me) — but if the focus is completely on who can solve the puzzle it activates whatever schema people have about intelligence, and that’s a prickly issue for anyone who’s an outlier in either direction.

        That has nothing to do with how Bob expressed himself, and I agree that there’s some truth in the idea that part of being at work is resigning yourself to the fact that committee basically never do anything cool or fun, but, for what it’s worth, if my office gave people something that looked like an intelligence test and it didn’t test intelligence, I’d be pretty annoyed.

  18. Hooptie*

    There’s a real opportunity here to educate Bob on expectations and boundaries. It appears that he may be the type who is going to go balls-to-the-wall and overdo projects, which doesn’t do anyone any good. I had an employee like that, and spent so much time ‘pulling back on the reins’ while explaining what the expectations were and that I didn’t need for her to go above and beyond what I was asking for all the time, that I hesitated to keep giving her projects simply because it took so much time to manage her.

  19. Otherside*

    Let’s look at this from the other point of view. I know he’s not your intern but are you challenging them enough, really pushing them to learn? It sounds like Bob is looking for more of a challenge and this was his attempt to get it. Being young and confident can be hard when everyone wants to dumb it down and you see this as a chance to make a challenge. If you had multiple puzzles why not let him make one that would have been more challenging? Games like this can be a nice distraction but make them too easy and nobody enjoys them, too difficult and people become upset and frustrated. Might be worth while to talk to his manager and take a look at his work load, see if you can find something really difficult but not time sensitive to really push him. I agree you need to talk to him about his behavior but I think his manager needs to take a deeper look at why he did it, more so than what he did.

    1. LBK*

      That’s not really what being an intern is about, though. An employer doesn’t really have the same level of interest in keeping an intern engaged like that, for one thing because they’re stuck there for the duration of their contract anyway, but also because part of the reason you hire an intern is to have them do the tedious low-level stuff that you don’t want to waste your higher paid employees’ time on. It also doesn’t make sense to me to invent a chance for him to do more intense work when it’s inconsistent with what you actually need done.

      Part of being an intern is learning and preparing yourself for the working world, and one of the big lessons of the working world is that sometimes (or perhaps most of the time) you’ll get stuck doing boring, tedious work, and you just have to suck it up and get it done.

      1. Engineer Girl*

        This. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve had new hires say “this is boring and beneath me”. To which I say “we all get to do our share of boring.” It comes with every job.

        1. LQ*

          This is the thing that’s impressed me about our intern this summer. I’ve given her some mind numbingly boring tasks. She’s never complained. But you know what? As it became clear she could handle them I gave her a couple projects that were more about sort of digging around and detective work. And she still has one of the boring projects that she works on a little bit each day to change up what she does and so she gets it done.

          1. LBK*

            Yes! Totally agreed. My company uses tons of co-ops so we have college students working in every department year-round. The ones that stick on a smile and work hard at doing whatever boring crap we throw on them are the ones who get to do some of the more fun projects when they’re available.

        2. Anxa*

          I think I was a little bit too willing to do the grunt work at my last internship; my supervisor almost had to discourage me from doing too much of that (to be fair, it was true that I should have been doing more shadowing and working, even if that meant more work for them). I did leave with a guarantee of a strong recommendation which cited my work ethic and willingness to get all of the jobs done.

      2. Libervermis*

        Agreed! Plus the OP isn’t his manager. Even if the internship isn’t challenging Bob enough, that’s no excuse to be a jerk.

    2. LQ*

      I’m not sure who “them” is? If you are talking about the intern then the “challenge” shouldn’t be making a puzzle. It should be the work. If the puzzle is a morale booster it doesn’t have to “push them to learn”. If I wanted to be pushed to learn I’d do it on my own time.

      It kind of doesn’t matter why he called his coworkers stupid. That’s never ok. If you dislike someone’s opinion at work you don’t just say their ideas are stupid. You can say. “What about making a black diamond style puzzle for people who are interested in a very challenging puzzle?” Then if your coworkers say “No, we don’t have the resources/time/it doesn’t accomplish the goals” as an intern, go ok and learn something.

      If he needs to learn more maybe he needs to learn about the work place and how to behave in it. This is a serious thing, it is a skill you can learn, just like you can learn to make or solve puzzles. This is a skill he can actually work on and that the suggestion here is to push him to learn on.

    3. Moonsaults*

      His manager is not his teacher or mentor. Internships are to learn about business and often times business is boring and not challenging.

      It’s up to him as an adult now to ask for something to challenge him. I have often let my employers know that I can take on other challenges or offer to do projects they’d otherwise not think to put on my plate. It’s a two way street and expecting a manager to focus on one intern with everything else they do in a given day is asking a lot out of them. All for what? It’s a temporary position that Bob is the one who is supposed to get the most out of in the end, not the company or management itself.

  20. Libervermis*

    OP, you say that after the first day Bob stopped being so aggressive and “mostly” stopped insulting other people’s puzzles. While it certainly sounds like someone said something to Bob to get him to back off, he still couldn’t keep the occasional snide remark to himself. Definitely say something to both him and his manager (after checking to see if someone has already talked to him about it) and maybe back down on the softening “sorry” language when you do. You don’t have to get harsh and dictatorial to say “Bob, your ideas were good but didn’t fit the purpose of this exercise. You can be frustrated about that, but insulting your coworkers isn’t okay.”

    I’m in academia, and there’s definitely a lot more questioning and debating that goes on within (some) classrooms because that’s part of the goals of that class, but I always emphasize to my students that you disagree with/comment on ideas not people, and that you do so with substance rather than insults. If one of my classroom discussions, projects, or presentations involved students insulting their group mates I’d be quick to shut that down. It’s not an appropriate way to interact with people.

  21. The Bimmer Guy*

    A really important takeaway from this is that someone being a superstar and coming up with really good ideas does not mean that person gets to be a bully, especially if that person is an intern, who can be promptly put in his / her place as a matter of course. A person’s job is as much about fostering good relationships with coworkers as it is the actual work itself.

    And what is it with rude interns lately?

  22. JanetInSC*

    Bob the intern should be advised and coached about his poor behavior. However, I wonder if his project could have been a stand-alone puzzle that would be optional…with the caveat that it was harder than the others. A few folks might have enjoyed the challenge.

  23. De Minimis*

    Wow, and I thought I had it bad with my student worker who only showed up when she felt like working and didn’t listen to directions!

    My boss didn’t want me to tell her that was the reason we let her go, and I still think I did her a disservice by just saying that her assignment had ended. I think that she knew what it was really about, though.

    1. Anxa*

      Whoa. I would think that the best thing to do in that situation would be to let her go, not serve as a recommendation, but then help the student learn what went wrong.

      Not listening to directions can be a tough thing, because there are people who struggle with auditory instruction (guilty myself), people who need a moment to absorb things, and then people who choose an action that directly contradicts your directions.

      I remember in the past being gobsmacked by some of the behavior your student workers were getting away with. Student jobs were so competitive where I’ve been that I was pretty surprised.

  24. Milton Waddams*

    Although it would probably mortify the risk-averse, I’d counter with, “Yes, but so are some of our customers.”

    The honesty isn’t a problem — nor is the willingness to take responsibility for complaints. These are great things to have in an employee — not only did he willingly identify a problem, but then he goes out of their way to fix it. The thing that is causing trouble here is that he didn’t understand what the point of the exercise was. He built a better mousetrap at a cheese-tasting event.

    In my experience, a lot of this can come down to language — many companies lapse into “LinkedIn language” when describing side-projects like this, which can completely obscure what is actually being proposed and why to folks (like interns) who have never been exposed to it before.

    I would treat it as a teachable moment for both business euphemisms and connecting projects to their end-purposes.

  25. Zeph*

    I interpret this story a little differently. Yes, the manner in which Bob expressed his feelings wasn’t the greatest. However, it sounds like Bob doesn’t feel he has an outlet for some of his workplace ambitions. High performing employees react when they feel unable to perform as well as they can, including becoming agitated or, in this case, rude. While it would be good to talk about how to communicate feelings of this type in a workplace-appropriate manner, I would strongly recommend the conversation also focus on ways that Bob can perform at a higher level without feeling held back for largely arbitrary reasons. This should be emphasized if you speak to his manager (which I would be very cautious about; it will be perceived badly by Bob; I would feel very distressed in his place). If you don’t find a solution that works when an employee is a high performer, they will leave. Maybe your company can accept that. I definitely wouldn’t, and I wouldn’t work somewhere that didn’t value exceptional contributions.

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