my intern thinks he’s good at things that he’s terrible at

A reader writes:

I have an intern this semester who is book smart and a very hard worker. But there’s one big problem — he’s bad at things he thinks he’s a superstar with.

A few examples:

– He thinks he’s an amazing writer. The truth is, his writing is awful. He misspells words, leaves out words, has no organization, and generally writes in an unprofessional manner.

– He thinks he’s great at public speaking. In reality, his presentations are disorganized. He speaks very quickly and loudly and uses a lot of insider language that most other people don’t understand. He’s also completely clueless about when he’s lost his audience.

– He thinks he’s good at digital. In reality, the social media posts he’s written are cringe-worthy. His attempts to edit websites have often resulted in me spending hours fixing his work. His photos and videos are blurry, have bad lighting, and aren’t framed well.

I’ve tried talking to him about slowing down and being more thorough with his work. I’ve also gone through all the changes I’ve done to his work so he understands why they were necessary. I’ve put him on different types of projects that he claims to be brilliant at so I could find his strength and make sure that he is lightening my work load instead of doubling it (which is what is happening now). It’s not working.

Even worse, he’s applied for a full-time job with my company and is convinced he’s going to get it. In fact, he’s already told me to be prepared to lose him before the end of his internship because everything went amazingly and he knows my boss is going to want him to start immediately. He doesn’t know my boss thought his interview was awful and he failed his writing test.

I work in a creative industry. I think this kid has a lot of potential. But I fear he’s just not a good fit for our industry.

Any suggestions on how I continue to manage him for the rest of his internship? Is there a tactful way to let him know I think he’s great, but he’s just not good at this work?

So … when you say you think he’s great but he messes up everything he tackles and has no sense of his own abilities, I have to wonder if you really think he’s great or if you’re saying that because it feels like a kind thing say.

And hey, there’s nothing wrong with being kind. But I suspect it’s muddying your thinking here, because you have an intern who’s screwing up left and right and you haven’t told him that, and you need to.

So let’s talk about what being kind really means in this context.

Being kind in this situation would mean giving clear and specific feedback about where he isn’t currently strong and needs to work on improving. That’s true for anyone you manage, but it’s especially true for interns, who are supposed to be learning from the work they’re doing for you. He can’t learn if no one is willing to tell him where he’s falling short and what it would look like to do better.

Being kind in this context also would mean giving him some feedback on his interview so that he’s not thinking he’s about to be hired when that’s so far from the truth. (And yes, it’s on him that he’s making those kinds of assumptions, but he’s young and inexperienced and part of your role is to guide him.)

It is not kind to let him continue thinking he’s fantastic at things you’ve seen he’s terrible at. He’s going to pitch himself to future jobs based on a wildly inaccurate self-assessment, and if he bluffs his way into a job based on those things (which could definitely happen since with junior-level jobs, it’s common to hire people who don’t have much track record to look at yet), he’s going to end up getting fired. Maybe repeatedly! It’s not kind to let that happen just because you didn’t want to give him honest feedback.

It sounds like you’ve given him some feedback, but it’s been about specific changes you’ve made to his work or vaguer advice about slowing down and being more careful. It doesn’t sound like you’ve sat down with him and talked about the big picture. You need to move from “I changed X in your work because of Y” to feedback about the pattern you’re seeing and what it means for him overall.

Ideally, once you originally saw that his skills in an area weren’t what he’d claimed, you would have just been very straightforward about explaining the gap between his skills and what the work requires. For example: “The presentation skills I’ve seen from you so far are not at the level we need in order to give you projects like X and Y. To present professionally, we would need you to ____ (fill in details of what competence looks like in your context).” And ideally you’d show him some examples of what doing that well looks like, to help illustrate the difference and give him an exemplar to work from.

But at this point, where there are so many areas where this has happened — presenting, writing, social media, web work — the problem is so large that you really need to be thinking about whether it makes sense to keep him on. You’re not doing him any favors by allowing him to think (a) that his skills are sufficient when they’re not, or (b) that he can continually fail at project after project and stay in a job. Because really, if he were an employee rather than an intern, you would have needed to fire him by now. If you don’t want to fire him because he’s an intern, then you need to be up-front with him that his skills aren’t sufficient to do the kind of work you’ve been offering him, and that you’re going to need to change his assignments to lower-level work. (If he can’t do lower-level work either, then you really would need to let him go.)

But truly, the absolute kindest thing you can do here is to be very clear and explicit about where his skills don’t measure up to the work you’ve been giving him. Don’t let him go off into the work world with such a significant misunderstanding of what he’s currently capable of and how people perceive his work. It will cause him real professional damage that you are currently positioned to prevent.

When you’re a manager, even of interns — especially of interns! — you have an obligation to deliver honest feedback. A lot of managers in your shoes prioritize their own comfort (because it’s uncomfortable to tell someone their work isn’t good enough!) over what’s best for the employee. Don’t be that manager.

{ 439 comments… read them below }

  1. Lady Phoenix

    You say he is a great employee with lots of potential…

    i don’t see it. It’s like letter writers who prefare how wonderful their romantic partner is before going into detail how much of a abusive, disgusting, patronizing, lazy, and/or terrible person the partner is.

    I think this is a case of “wrong person in wrong industry”, and this should probably be told to him now.

    1. No Mercy Percy

      My guess is that LW left out examples of what he’s good at because that’s less relevant to the question. LW is asking how to tell an intern that he’s bad at things he thinks he’s good at, so specific examples of this are more relevant than examples of what he’s good at.

      1. Falling Diphthong

        But specific examples of what he’s good at would provide clear direction–have him do those things. So I suspect the good qualities are more like “is positive and personable in casual conversation” and “does not trim his toenails at his desk.”

        1. Jules the 3rd

          LW does mention ‘book smart’ – there’s some way that LW knows that, we just don’t have the details.

          1. Michaela Westen

            Book smart – maybe he’d be better at something like analysis, then the actual creating?

        2. abc

          LW says he’s “book smart and hard worker.” The “hard worker” part may well mean things like “shows up when scheduled and doesn’t spend huge amounts of work time on non-work stuff” (qualities that can be hard to find in a student employee/intern).

          I’ve also encountered “hard workers” who put in long hours/overtime doing stuff I never asked them to do (or even stuff I specifically asked them NOT to do), to the detriment of the tasks they *have* been assigned but don’t like as much.

        3. AKchic

          Never discount the power of a person who knows not to trim their toenails at their desk.

          However, I would take a toenail trimmer if they are competent at their job over this failing intern.

          1. RR

            LOL, we had a guy at my workplace–super worker, in fact, I promoted him–but he would clip his nails at his desk and it drove us all bonkers! We finally told him he had to stop!

        4. Letter writer here

          Yes — this is what I mean by saying he’s a good kid. He is positive and personable and has a can do attitude.

          1. Falling Diphthong

            Does your work have a sales or customer service component?

            My brother-in-law–who is both very smart and personable, and also very successful in business–has long observed that if you can stand in the line for brains or the line for being good at getting along with people, the latter will get you a lot further in life.

            And I don’t discount the hard work or can do attitude–having directed student volunteers who needed “now that you have finished A, you should do B” spelled out for them because they would just sit otherwise.

        5. BethDH

          Or they’re real skills but are a minor part of the role. I noticed that all of the things OP mentioned were about the difference between knowing/understanding something and conveying it to others. The intern might be great at analysis and terrible at turning that into a product.

        6. JM60

          The OP says that the intern is book smart, so perhaps the good they see in the intern relates to that. Although being book smart doesn’t always translate to good performance, it can be reasonable to see potential in a person because they’re book smart.

      2. Helena Handbasket

        I don’t know…by the OP’s description, the things he’s bad at include writing, speaking, digital work, social cues, listening, humility, and (to a huge degree) self-awareness. I can’t see what other skills he has that’s making up for that, in any industry.

        1. RUKiddingMe

          And she says he thinks he’s a superstar. I wonder f that’s OPs wording or the interns. If this guy thinks he is so amazing at all that stuff then he is lacking any self-awareness and likely has an outsized and very fragile ego. My money is on the OP telling him he is not good at all of those things and him not believing her and thinking she doesn’t know what she’s talking about.

        2. TechWorker

          You can get by in tech without much of some of those…

          (Provided you have a healthy dose of other talent :p)

          A lot of this is teachable though right? I don’t think all bad interns are doomed to be bad forever.

          1. IndoorCat

            It is hard to teach someone who doesn’t realize how unskilled they are, especially something like writing.

            In college, my main gig was writing tutoring. Tutoring ESL students was fairly easy, because while their initial English writing skill level was low at the beginning of the year, they came to college *knowing* that English wasn’t their first language and that they’d need to spend extra time working and practicing at it to get up to speed. They took feedback well, even if it sometimes took a few tries for me to articulate a specific rule in a way that clicked.

            Whereas the worst students were those who got straight A’s in English in high school, but attended woefully underperforming schools and didn’t take AP or Honors courses. They were used to easily clearing an artificially low bar. I had students who tested at a 7th grade writing level as college Freshman, who were either pissed off that they were placed in remedial writing (and thus the credit wouldn’t count towards their credit hours despite costing as much as a qualifying course, but it was mandatory to pass in order to take a writing class that *did* qualify), or, despite their low test scores, were somehow convinced that they were actually excellent writers who had only made a few small mistakes.

            I read a statistic once (although I may be misremembering) that 4-out-of-5 American college students who place into remedial writing do not graduate in seven years. As a former tutor, that stat wouldn’t surprise me. If you don’t know what you don’t know, you can’t learn. The dropout rate is also high for remedial college math students, although iirc it was more like 40% instead of 80%.

            Personally, I don’t think students who need so much remediation (as in, they’re at an 8th grade level, not an 11th grade level) should be admitted, even to a state university. It wastes their money and everyone else’s time. But no state university wants to turn away any students because they want the tuition, and no high school guidence counselor at these schools ever seems to have the conversation Alison is now recommending. It really is a kind conversation, though. By the time they hear it from professors or bosses, they’ve started sinking costs, so they dig their heels in until they literally fail out / get fired.

            1. I Took A Mint

              That’s such a hard spot to be in because really the failing is at the school level, not the college level–now the college has to make up the gap. But I almost can’t blame the students for thinking that doing well in grade school means you’re good at the subject–what else do they have to go on? Then suddenly they hit a wall and one teacher is telling you that actually you suck–how do you know that teacher is actually assessing you fairly, when every other teacher has told you you’re great?

              I don’t know if that means students who have been set up to fail should not be given the chance to succeed at university. I can see how it’s hard to deliver that news and hard to hear.

              1. Jen

                I don’t think IndoorCat was saying that they shouldn’t be given the chance to succeed at university. Just that if they want to, they should do some remedial classes on their own, maybe through a community college, before re-applying to a university.

                It does seem unkind to accept someone and take thousands of dollars from them when you know there’s almost no chance they’d actually be successful.

                1. IndoorCat

                  Yes, exactly, although I also agree with I Took a Mint.

                  It’s frustrating because the k-12 schools, which are free, are supposed to get everyone to a certain level, or close to it. If they can’t, and a student really wants to go to college, ideally there should be another free (or reimbursed) class that could take that gets them college ready. Whereas even a single semester at Kent State is almost $6000, and that’s not counting room and board, books, “service fees,” etc. Most students from these backgrounds (including myself) cannot afford $6000 for, like, trial-and-error.

                  A $6k mistake is devestating, especially since you only get a six-month grace period after dropping out before you have to start paying your loans back. The only reason I’m not paying off loans despite coming from a working class background is sheer, random luck.

                  The thing is, until there is an option of a free / reimbursed remedial class, the best of several crap options is for someone to convince a student that they shouldn’t take out loans to pay for college because they’ll likely drop out. I hated the pressure to convince students to stick out the expensive remedial class, go to tutoring, and do all this extra work on a tight deadline because they’d already sunk the costs in.

                  Frankly, a lot of them were also actually working to pay for food and rent and stuff; they didn’t realistically have time to go to class, go to tutoring, go to work, and have fulfilling relationships. So tutoring got skipped, and then when they inevitably failed or dropped out, there was this attitude from the administration, like, “well, we offer all these resources, it’s not our fault the students are too ignorant to take advantage of them.” And it’s like…actually it is your fault? There are ten VPs making six figures, and y’all are convincing low-income, remedial students to make bad financial descicions by selling them a pipe dream.

                  I think almost anyone is capable of learning to write at a collegiate level, but not in four months under so much pressure, and not at such serious personal expense.

            2. Alternative Person

              When I was teaching Academic English Skills to ESL students, I started to feel really bad for native speakers because it can be very hard to access help and you don’t necessarily know where you’re going wrong, especially if you were doing what you were told was good in high school.

              I’ve seen some stuff from native English speaking Professor level staff that makes me cringe because Academic courses teach ESL students better.

    2. Snark

      “Dear Prudabbielyn Hax, my husband is a wonderful guy and so good with the children. There’s just the small matter that he strangles neighborhood small animals and spikes them on our fence as a warning to the others. The neighbors disapprove. What do?”

    3. Arctic

      People write in about their problem. Not all of the wonderful things. If the LW says she sees potential why tell her she’s wrong when she knows this person and we don’t?

      1. Observer

        For the same reason highlighted by Snark.

        The OP likes this guy, and he does have some intelligence. But, the OP is also pretty clearly not looking at the pattern – at least not completely, because even so, they note that this may not be the right field for the intern. But they seem to be trying very hard to be “nice” and to not be unduly negative.

        If there are other things that this guy is good at the really speak to potential that would be worth noting in this context.

        1. Lissa

          To be fair to LW for putting that stuff in – it could be she is trying to seem balanced and fair. I have seen people who write in about a coworker/employee etc. and highlight all their bad qualities and the comment section can go in a “you obviously hate this person and are biased against them!” direction, which is less likely to happen with a romantic partner – so if I were to write in about someone who was driving me bananas I’d very likely include stuff like that too so that people didn’t assume I was a cliquey bully or something.

    4. Shark Whisperer

      I get the feeling that LW thinks he’s a good, personable person, he’s just not good at the work. That’s a really tough situation! You want the person to succeed because you like them, they just aren’t good at this thing. Being a bad writer and presenter doesn’t make him a bad person. he’s just not good at these things and doesn’t have the experience to know he’s not good.

      1. Snark

        There’s a certain type of college kid – who I ran into in college a lot because a) I was in some ways similar and b) because I went to a private university full of smart rich kids who sailed through easy classes and had been told they’d be titans of industry all their lives – who just has never really dealt with tough expectations or standards they had to stretch to reach.

        1. Asenath

          You can get bright kids who were never really challenged and so have a very unrealistic opinion of their abilities. They’ve always sailed through their classes – and now they’re in a spot where the expectations are higher and they don’t know how to handle it. Or can’t even see it – what they were doing all along must be good, because they got good marks for it…. They can be very nice people, too. Charming, with all the social skills needed to make a good impression and make you think they have potential. Maybe they do, maybe they don’t. That’s what needs to be determined about this intern. He needs honest feedback, and to have his work handed back to him for re-doing under supervision, to see if that helps. Presumably, he’ll get the message on the job application in the ordinary way of things, assuming this is a business that does notify the people they turn down.

          1. Some Sort of Management Consultant

            I mean, it’s easier to improve your skillset than your personality (though the fact that society rewards these sorts of qualities is a problem on its own) but it’s hard to do that if no one ever actually corrects your work.

            You put it very nicely.

          2. Falling Diphthong

            And it’s not necessarily novel, even if people are fond of blaming the generation after theirs for inventing (insert human thing done by young people).

            I started college in the 80s, and one orientation speech–from a guy who probably started college in the 1950s at latest–featured a reminiscence of sitting down in his first college class in his major, casually telling the guy next to him that he had been valedictorian of his high school class (of around 20), and discovering that every single person in the class had been their high school valedictorian.

          3. JessaB

            Yes, to the work handed back to re-do. Doing the corrections for the intern will not teach anything.

          4. SusanIvanova

            I did my high school calculus homework during roll call. The first few weeks of college calc seemed like more of the same. And then it got hard, fast, and I had no study habits and no clue what office hours were even for – I’d never needed to go talk to a teacher or ask one for help.

            Flunked out, went to junior college, went back and graduated.

            1. M&Ms fix lots of Problems

              This was my brother to a T. He was really smart, and sailed through all his high school courses, even honors and AP without ever really having to work really hard so he had almost no study habits. Enter college calculus and his first failing grade ever in his life (I think it was actually a D, but he needed a B at the lowest for his chosen major). It took a semester or so, but with help he did learn to study and survived okay. He learned some skills that he still uses today – but the really, really hard way.

              1. Pescadero

                That was me.

                I was really smart, and sailed through all his high school courses, even honors and AP without ever really having to work really hard so had almost no study habits. Enter college… and I sailed to an engineering degree without ever really having to work really hard or develop any study habits.

              2. TardyTardis

                Hear, hear! Having to struggle for a C in Zoology my freshman year was the best thing that ever happened to me–I was the kid who did homework while watching Dark Shadows after school, and not having that work for me *right away* was very good for me, I learned study habits and how to get help that first semester and I think eventually ended up doing almost B work in the class (though admittedly I took history classes for easy As, since reading about the scandals of the 14th century was really fun).

          5. many bells down

            This was meeeeee so much. I coasted through school with minimum effort, adequate grades, and a skill for acing standardized tests… and then I got to college having zero study skills. I could not handle my first go at college AT ALL.

        2. Some Sort of Management Consultant

          YES – this!

          I have the exact same experience (and a lot of these people *do* become successful… annoyingly enough.)

          1. Snark

            Yeah, some folks make an entire career out of sailing between the Scylla of their competence level and the Charybdis of positions that would routinely approach it, and while it seems like quite an effort that could be directed at gaining competence, it’s always a fascinating feat to observe.

            1. Some Sort of Management Consultant

              Ha!
              Yeah, I definitely recognize that.

              I mean, I myself am a privileged rich white kid who went to a prestigious college, so I definitely skirt close to this more often than not, but I am at least able to verbalize challenges I’ve faced.

              Some people still astound me though.

          2. Observer

            True – but they also generally DO wind up doing a lot of growing up. I’ve seen it happen.

            1. Liane

              “True – but they also generally DO wind up doing a lot of growing up. I’ve seen it happen.”

              Often because someone sat them down and told them what they needed to do to Grow Up, & how to do it. Or several someones. Granted there are some people who realize on their own that they really do need to learn & use manners/punctuality/grammar, etc.

              1. Observer

                Oh, definitely. That’s why Alison is so correct in her advice. Everyone will benefit if this young person gets the information he needs to start actually living up to whatever potential he has.

          3. Knork

            And someone can find their niche. Maybe with constructive criticism and practice he turns out to be a great photographer and still terrible at everything else. So he’ll think he’s a great photographer (correct) and a great writer (delusion)–but being overconfident about his writing skills isn’t really going to harm his photography career. Sigh. I know those people.

            1. SierraSkiing

              Unless his overconfidence means he keeps trying for positions with both photography and writing components, and then he gets a reputation as “that guy who writes like a kindergartener” that overshadows his reputation as “that awesome photographer.” So telling him, “you’re great at photography, but you are far below the standard for writing quality in our industry” would help him orient himself towards future positions where his weaknesses won’t overshadow his strengths.

              1. Liane

                Definitely not the OP’s intern. From the question: “His photos and videos are blurry, have bad lighting, and aren’t framed well.” This isn’t a description of a great photographer or videographer.
                I do hope the intern has some skills/talents OP didn’t mention, so she can tell him, “Your writing needs improvement in X, Y, & Z. Also you need to study up on lighting so your images are usable. But you are an excellent Brush-Washer and have a lot of Shampoo Formula knowledge from your classwork, so I think llama grooming might be a better career for for you than llama glam photography.”

          4. Busy

            UUUUUGH its all connections. I turned down a full ride to Bucknell because of this. Touring there was one of the most surreal experiences of my life coming from a community that spread between coming from millions and next to homeless, trans people and uber jocks, and every ethnicity you can imagine. A lot of my own friends were fringe punks who did very (illegal) punk things. But we were friends since first grade, so what are you gonna do? Bucknell was white, upper middle class, all hetero craziness. Not saying that in itself was crazy, no. What was crazy was during the tour, they touted out this guy of Latino decent to talk about diversity – I mean he had a clearly different accent, dressed differently than the other students, and was clearly 5 to 6 years older. And they made a big deal of this guy. I wish I could describe it. And again, even then, not so out there. But the guy wasn’t really a full on student of the school apparently and talked excessively about how hard Bucknell was working to be more inclusive and how welcoming (basically all the white, middle class kids) everyone was to all types. It was like being on another planet.

            Flash forward a few years, and I had a team of interns to manage. Interns were from another private expensive college. All white. All hetero. All not knowing how to interact with ANYONE in our company of blue collar and immigrant workers. I had to give them a lot of feedback on that.

            But see, it is the same thing here. Those guys had NO IDEA that a whole world functioned outside of their limited experiences, because they went to school with carbon copies of life experience, social class, and family income. They all got jobs, just because they had connections. But once they get out there whether through internships or a full time job, none of them did well. Not at first – their degrees weren’t going to put them in front of upper middle class people. Except for my interns!!!! Because I made sure they got that feedback!

            1. Some Sort of Management consultant

              Oh wow, yeah, I really recognize this. It’s a veeeery narrow worldview.

            2. Michaela Westen

              This feeds into the idea that a person with a degree will automatically be a competent employee.
              Sigh.

              1. Busy

                Well that is probably due to an old cultural ideology. See, years ago, only small portions of the population were expected to go to college. College was meant for people who functioned “above average”. Everyone else just graduated high school and went to work. Now, it is the expectation to go to college. College is the new, expensive version, of what high school used to be. I think its like 60% + attend college? Most of those people are not functioning in the range that people of the past did. Graduating college now is akin to graduating high school in like the 80s and before.

                Which is also why we happen to not need college as free, but go to back to the days where high school diplomas were useful.

                1. Kelly L.

                  I think that’s kinda seeing the past through rose-colored glasses, though. Sure, people who really were exceptional could sometimes manage to get into college even if they weren’t well-off, but college always had its share of the “Mom and Dad bought my way in” folks too. Incompetent people graduated from college Back In The Day too.

                2. Michaela Westen

                  The big problem is when employers started requiring degrees for jobs like secretary and clerical. It started a spiral where people thought they or their children *had* to have a degree to get a job, and colleges preying on this and promising fabulous careers to everyone who got a degree.
                  ~14 years after I noticed this disturbing trend, a college degree is almost useless in the job market – and liberal arts degrees never guaranteed jobs anyway. It was all about employers looking for a shortcut and colleges taking advantage. And anyone with a basic understanding of economics could have told them this would happen.
                  One of the reasons employers gave for this was, high-school graduates often didn’t have basic skills – so going back to requiring HS won’t work unless the education is good – but there are plenty of college grads who also don’t have basic skills… at least if college is free the student loan debt won’t be crippling the economy, so that would be something…

                3. Cathy Gale

                  Usually when people talk about how college has changed, they mean the recent past that older family members participated in (1950s-1980s, maybe 1990s).
                  They may be aware of the even longer history (where Ivy League schools deliberately limited Jewish and other non-WASP students who were clearly well-educated and met standards for admissions, many schools continued to limit female enrollment [or do crappy things like not let them walk in the front door of the student union, aka University of Michigan] and the GI Bill later changed college attendance rates on a national scale). The GI Bill and Title IX were the beginning of a *presumed* levelling based on talent, especially at non-Ivy schools. Thus Busy’s comment if you were “above average”, you might be college material. Those of us who weren’t born with a silver spoon or labeled as “gifted” started to think we had a chance. Once you got to college, then you realized there were frauds like “Aunt Becky’s” kids, who had been given every privilege and weren’t that smart.

                4. wittyrepartee

                  Above average…

                  Also, you had to be extra above average if you were: a woman, a person of color, had any visible disability, or didn’t slot nicely into a defined gender role.
                  One of the most prominent mathematicians of her day (her work was essential to Einstein), Dr. Amalie Emmy Noether, had to teach under her adviser’s name without pay for YEARS before her university was willing to give her a post-doc (but still no pay).

                5. Cathy Gale

                  ITA Michaela Weston. An excellent case has been made (Peter Capelli) that the issue is companies not wanting to pay for training, beginning in the 1990s, and assuming that a college degree proves the graduate should be “ready out of the gate” for a much more specialized post (a STEM field), or for a general one (e.g. liberal arts, business, etc). The graduate now gambles on the field, paying for their training. Where before, the idea was, you could start without a high school diploma and get trained in your field on the job, go to part time night school if needed, etc.

                6. Busy

                  Its funny that you all point out these past barriers to entry, because yes they did exist. The thing is, they still DO exist. Now the burden is put on your family even more to send them. You look at college as a way to make a higher income to pull yourself out of poverty or whatever. My point is that that wasn’t what college was for BEFORE to begin with. It was going into fields of study were advanced learning was literally needed.

                  Now you are paying an exorbitant amount of money to get what you could have gotten with a high school diploma years ago. And having college available to all isn’t closing any gaps at all. I mean we all see now what it actually takes to get into a privalegded school! All we have to do is look at the scandles happening right now. Look at what all those parents had to do and how much they had to pay just to get their crappy kids in a school. Even if you didn’t cheat your way in, do you think an average American has access to half those extra activities that are apparently required to get into a well respected school? No. All your affordable schools are just extensions of high school. Just now you have to pay for it. Even if it was made “free”, you still will be paying for it like we pay for K-12 public education now. There is no “rose-tinted glasses” here. It is just shutting down this weird ideology we have on needing higher education for all. When all that is doing is extending adolescent well into the 20s and not having the most robust and healthy working and contributing to society. And that honestly works whether you are capitalist or socialist. And its the truth. Even in socialism, people are still needed to do certain jobs. The society still needs their most robust, energetic, and healthy working as soon as possible. It is not sustainable to continue the way that we are no matter what politics you lean towards.

                7. Michaela Westen

                  Yes, Cathy Gale, and the thing I noticed was the devaluing of actual experience. I had been working as a secretary for a few years – a lot of temping and short-term jobs – and suddenly a degree is required to do something I already know? And I have technical aptitude too!
                  It seemed like a way to discriminate against people who don’t have degrees. I wish everyone had stood up to it and said no, we’re not playing this game, but they didn’t, they went out and got degrees and debt, and here we are.

            3. Media Circus

              Heh. I attended the state university 45 minutes to the east of Bucknell, and it’s such a different world that you’d think you were on a different planet. I had one prof who taught classes at both my school and Bucknell, and she had *fascinating* things to say about the differences between the student bodies.

        3. Artemesia

          And many of these plan to go right into business consulting because they have so much to teach the world.

          1. Lora

            Hahahahaha*sobs* Am cursed with one of these right now. I pray every day that he decides having to produce something other than PowerPoint slides is too haaaaaard and hecks off back to McKinsey.

            1. wittyrepartee

              Lol, I got fired from a consulting job like this. Now I’m producing datasets and research.

                1. wittyrepartee

                  I have not. I’ve only been reading AAM for a month or two. Maybe this Friday. That place was… special.

            2. Anon4This

              Ah yes, McKinsey, who were very interested in my husband’s skills until he told them he didn’t graduate from an Ivy.

              I guess that’s the only real skill that matters.

          2. TechWorker

            Looool but the companies hire for that?? I have a friend who I’m sure, 5 years into his consultancy career, is doing good things, but when he started and was telling us about the job it was like ‘yeah so I do some research on google and then go into companies and tell them how to run their company’. They had a week of training. A WEEK. (But a top degree…)

            1. Cathy Gale

              That’s why the war stories are so interesting. The MC firms treat them like raw meat, travelling all the time. I only learned about it my last year of school when I saw some materials at a Big Name School I was crossregistered at. Most don’t recruit outside Big Name Schools.
              I wonder if this time, with the college advising scandal and discussions about Jared Kushner getting into a top college, the United States will really consider how our attitudes about “elite people” cause a cascade effect of problems. With apologies to wittyrepartee, who works with data now, I was not that impressed with the management consultants I met on a job assignment the following year. Bain is supposedly very prestigious, but in their wisdom, they have driven the leverage-buyout trends that have killed a lot of retail companies like Toys r Us.

        4. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock

          Yeah. It can be really hard to teach folks who’ve been told their great at things to approach their work like they’re honing their craft.

          I was not a rich kid who was told she’d be a titan of industry, but I was told that I was a good writer. That’s not entirely true—I was just comparatively not that bad compared to my peers. When I found out I wasn’t a great writer, it was kind of a harsh blow. But I sucked it up and came to realize that writing is a skill that you have to practice and cultivate (kind of like needing to use a foreign language in order to maintain proficiency).

          Switching from a growth/cultivation-mindset instead of a mastery-mindset has also been really helpful for me in other ways. Now I know that it isn’t about acing a test or demonstrating knowledge, it’s about focusing on becoming better at specific skills.

          1. IndoorCat

            +1 growth mindset! Yes, this. This is the difference. Everyone begins as a beginner. But are you willing to grow, or are you already sure you don’t have to?

          2. selena81

            I always liked the ‘10.000 hours to become an expert’ thing: _nobody_ will make it to the top on ‘natural talent’ alone.
            If you are lucky enough to have such a talent (with math, with words, etc) you may be able to hang on in a very simple and very underpaid version of your dream-job, but if you are not willing to put in the work you will never grow your skill-set.

      2. Sloan Kittering

        Yes when you like someone as a person it can seem very heartless to say they aren’t good at their jobs at all. I always feel like it’s a conflict between our capitalist system that says your only value is what you produce, and our empathy that values nice fellow humans.

        1. Asenath

          Oh, I don’t think it’s anything to do with the capitalist system, and everything to do with people being multifaceted. We like nice people and sometimes forget that nice people don’t always have other great personality traits. One of the nicest kids I knew was a sneak thief. He was still nice, you just couldn’t trust him near anything he liked. And in this case, I suspect a very nice young man who doesn’t have either the needed work skills or the self-awareness to know what’s lacking.

        2. Not So NewReader

          People who don’t tell the truth when they really need to are not that nice. Additionally, the absence of constructive criticism can be read as coddling. (It can also be from not knowing what to say or how to say it).

          Better to tell me my fly is open while I am still backstage than let me go out to talk to 1,000 people without mentioning the fly problem. I will find out eventually that you let me down.

          I hope someone tells this guy to stop saying he is great at everything. That alone is a good size problem. It’s really not that cool to say, “I am great at X” unless you are a world-class champion or something.

          1. selena81

            my motto is ‘if you never tell me that i suck i will not trust you to tell me that i am great’

            I’ve met way to many people (including many managers and counselors) who stuck to the easy thing: only telling someone what he is doing good, which is a positive and non-confrontational conversation for both of you.
            These people tend to justify their silence on all the IMPORTANT stuff by telling themselves ‘if i say nice things it will boost his confidence, which according to pop-science will magically motivate him to become good at everything else’. Which is pretty much nonsense afaic: you should not deliberately kick someone down, but otherwise confidence or lack thereof has little to do with performance. While lack of truthfulnesses can be a big hindrance to performance: you cannot improve what you do not know is missing.

    5. Wake up!

      Maybe I missed it (because Alison also mentioned the “you say he’s great” thing, but I don’t see the OP saying *anywhere* that this is a great employee. The closest she comes is saying he has potential.

      1. Psyche

        “Is there a tactful way to let him know I think he’s great, but he’s just not good at this work?”

        I don’t think the OP means he is a great employee.

        1. Wake up!

          Oh, thanks. It didn’t even occur to me that she meant that to imply he was a great employee. I’m sure it was a colloquial “he’s a great kid, but…”

        2. That Girl From Quinn's House

          I agree, I think she’s saying that he’s a great person. I also think being able to split a person’s personality from work performance is a valuable skill. I’ve seen so many people who are good at work but terrible human beings, or lovely people but terrible at work, cause problems in the workplace.

    6. Jennifer

      I agree with you. Maybe he’s a nice person. Or there are one or two things he does well, but the things he does wrong seem to be pretty essential to the job. Like a chef that’s good at managing interpersonal issues with the staff but a terrible cook.

    7. Hey Karma, Over here.

      I think great describes his personality. He’s a pleasant guy to be around. He’s positive. He’s polite. He has a professional appearance. He shows up on time, doesn’t call off. He is eager to start projects. His assessment of his skills, although incorrect, is not presented in a bragging way. He doesn’t put down jobs as too simple or beneath him, but rather as something he’d LOVE to try his hand at, “I won’t let you down!” And he starts a project. And his finishes it.
      Just what everyone dreams an intern will be.
      Except he’s terrible. He is terrible at everything he does. And OP tells him. OP explains what is wrong and what needed changing, and great young man genuinely listens and says, “I see.” and “Thank you.”
      Just what every manager of an intern hopes to see and hear.
      Except he is just terrible.
      Rip the band aid off.

        1. wittyrepartee

          You know, I’ve had people tell me that I’m not a good fit in an industry in a kind way- and it was useful. Like, the best time was someone saying “I don’t think this is playing to your strengths. Yes, you can struggle to get this right, but you should look into finding a place where your ability to ____ and ____ will go to good use, and where you can work on _____.”

          My weakness is detail orientation, I’d be a terrible editor. I’m great at content though! This is something I’ve learned.

        2. TheAssistant

          I once worked slightly above a team of two admins. One was a great person. I like her. We’re still connected on social media. I’d have a beer with her. But I advocated really hard for her to move out of the role she was in. The role was entry level and I would point out mistakes and how to fix them. There were so many checks and balances for her work that it was really easy to spot – and correct – her mistakes. But each mistake would be made over and over again, with no recognition of how to fix it. She was fundamentally ill-suited for the role, and eventually made a huuuuuge mistake that was unfixable, and likely cost us donations. She was fired. She’s a good person. She’d be terrible for any job that requires organization, managing a lot of information, or attention to detail.

          On the other hand, her counterpart was also a great person. But when you found one of her mistakes, she’d recognize how that could have snowballed, and would take immediate action to not only fix it, but set up her own systems to ensure that particular mistake wouldn’t happen again. She’s a great person. She’s also well suited to the role, but also higher roles that build on organization and attention to detail skills. I tried to poach her when I moved on from that job.

          If someone was able to guide the first person earlier, she may not have been fired from her first job.

          1. TardyTardis

            I knew someone like that first person–she was at another plant feeding info to me, good at some of the outdoor jobs at a plant, and horrible at desk work. But if she was permanently placed in the outdoor job, they would have had to pay her the same as the men out there already. (Yes, these companies still exist). And so I had to correct her work until she finally moved on somewhere else.

        3. selena81

          Sounds like a though spot to be in: you don’t _want_ to say anything bad too or about him.

          Please don’t be a coward who ignores the problem till it fixes itself (when his internship ends). You took on the responsibility to guide him, even though you presumably never imagined that might be ‘guiding him towards on entirely different career’.

  2. No Mercy Percy

    Alison is right. Giving honest, direct feedback is the kindest thing to do (even if it doesn’t feel kind).

    When you give him feedback on the bad, also give him feedback on what he’s good at. You say he’s book smart and a hard worker, so let him know those things too.

    1. Lynca

      I’m of two minds when it comes to that. It’s easy to spiral when you don’t get glowing feedback. It hurts. But the problems here are egregious. This is someone that doesn’t have some spot work to do in one skill set but multiple ones that need to be built from the ground up. It honestly sounds like the person is not a good fit for the field. And it’s kinder to lay out the hard facts that you either have a lot of development to do in order to continue or you need to be exploring other options.

      Given it’s an intern I’d have a hard time not discussing whether they’ve given any thought to a different field.

    2. Psyche

      He should really know that he failed the writing test. Right now he doesn’t even know how far away he is from getting a job in that industry. Doing poorly in an interview can be subjective, failing the writing test is less so.

      1. The Original K.

        I worked with a guy who swore he was a good writer. He was friendly with my boss so she let him write something as part of a campaign we were working on. (To be fair, he was not a marketing/comms person; he was the subject matter expert on the product.) He was awful. The writing was unusable. And I kept thinking, “He is fifty-ish years old and believes he’s a good writer but his subjects and verbs don’t agree. What happened here?”

        If this intern failed the writing test, I 100% agree that someone should tell him – and tell him clearly. Show him the test. If he doesn’t have basic grammar skills, better he learn that sooner than later.

        1. Lissa

          Yeah. Not saying someone needs to break his heart like those american idol singers who think they are amazing because nobody has ever had the heart to tell them otherwise, but he should definitely know there’s a basic skill he’s lacking.

    3. Me

      Oooo I disagree. I think it’s important to give positive feedback but with this kind of person, it’s best if that’s a totally separate later conversation.

      The people that I have worked with and occasionally given direction too, that have a total lack of awareness about their skills have a peculiar talent. When given negative feedback and positive feedback, they either only seem to hear the positive or they seem to dismiss the negative as not that serious.

      This doesn’t mean yell at the kid and beat him down, but this conversation should be directly about what he lacks and needs to work on. Praise can be given when he makes progress toward meeting standards.

    4. Ice and Indigo

      A piece of feedback that I think covers a lot: ‘I like your enthusiasm, but you need to double-check your work, not just assume you’re good so it’ll be fine. Even the most talented people need to be careful as well as enthusiastic.’

      If he’s inexperienced and over-confident, those things can be fixed if he’s willing to work on them. Maybe he won’t become good at every skill he thinks he’s good at, but the first requirement for improving at anything is realising you need to improve. And that’s a skill he needs to build.

      Because, reading over OP’s description, what stands out to me as the common quality in his bad work is that he’s careless. He doesn’t organise his ideas properly when he writes or speaks; he doesn’t proofread his writing; he doesn’t check in on his audience to make sure they’re following him; his digital work is full of mistakes; he doesn’t set up his lighting or focus right when he takes a picture. All of these seem like the same problem: he assumes he’s good at something, so he does it in a hurry and then doesn’t check over his work.

      That seems like it might be, at least in part, an immature understanding of what being good at something is like.

      Is it possible he dashes everything off in a blaze of excitement, and mistakes the excitement of performing for the satisfaction of a job well done? Figures that if you’re good, things are easy for you, so does things the easy way rather than the careful way and assumes that makes him good?

      In a high-up adult, this is a maddening trait (although it provides employment for those of us who can actually make stuff work and get called it to fix it), but in a young person, it might be something he can fix if it’s caught early.

      So I’d have a word with him about learning not to let himself get carried away and take a more careful and realistic assessment of what he does. That’s advice that would be useful whatever he ends up doing.

    5. Anonymeece

      I would usually agree, but when the problem is a lack of self-awareness about weaknesses and strengths, I think that could backfire; he may take those to heart, and decide to make that His Thing, or ignore the rest to concentrate solely on that.

      I think it might be possible in the context of, “This may not be the right fit for you… but I have noticed that you’re a hard worker and intelligent, so you may look into [other fields] that use these skills more.”

      In this case, too, it depends on what “hard worker” means. If it means he really tries and researches and goes above and beyond and volunteers, okay. If it means he shows up on time and mostly doesn’t goof off, then that’s just a normal skill and he’ll need it for any job.

    6. dumblewald

      I agree. And if he doesn’t react well, I wouldn’t see that as failure in your communication. People usually react defensively in the face of criticism, but sometimes people mature (especially if they notice they are getting the same criticisms from different people), and it may eventually hit him at some point what they’re doing wrong. Part of this guy’s issue is he is overconfident, which might inhibit his ability to internalize feedback from other people or be willing to take after exisiting standards of work, but that’s not on you.

      The biggest service you can do for him now is tell him his current work is not meeting standards, give specific, actionable feedback for what he needs to do to improve in the future. After that, there is not much else you can do. Part of the use of internships is that it allows them to try out jobs and fail without major repurcussions.

  3. Snark

    “I work in a creative industry. I think this kid has a lot of potential.”

    His writing is atrocious (and more than that, sloppy and careless), he can’t present his ideas publicly in an effective way that connects, he thinks badly lit, framed, and shot images and video are presentation-worthy, he interviews poorly, and he is apparently incapable of critical self-evaluation and is resistant to feedback critical to improvement.

    ……where, exactly, is OP perceiving the potential here? Because this kid sounds like a candidate for not finishing his internship, not a potential great addition to a team.

    1. Observer

      Yes, I was wondering what the OP was seeing that they are not sharing here.

      Because not only does he not have the direct skills, he’s also very bad at another indirect but critical set of skills. That is he’s not terribly good at taking feedback (if he still thinks he;s great at something after repeatedly having his work corrected, he’s NOT taking in the feedback he’s been given about those corrections), nor is he any good at seeing patterns. He’s also apparently lacks any self-awareness of capacity to asses his work in any reasonable fashion.

      Those are traits that are going to make him REALLY hard to work with and hard to train, and they are going to make it extremely hard (or impossible) for him to succeed.

      1. sunny-dee

        Or it could be that he has potential in the non-creative areas. Maybe he’s good at metrics / analysis or accounting or computer admin, but sucks at all of the creative work. He would be terrible at basically everything related to the job he’s trying to get, but really good at other areas that he’s not pursuing.

    2. Amber Rose

      I suspect it’s an attitude thing. He’s confident in his skills, but it seems like he’s also willing to do as he’s told, work hard and accepts the corrections without making a fuss. You don’t usually get that combo in interns. Or in people. Unfounded confidence is usually paired with a terrible personality.

      1. Snark

        That’s a fair point. Then, assuming that….yeah, it’s time to have a fairly excrutiating but honest and comprehensive conversation with him about the mismatch between how he represents his skills and what you have to do to get his work product up to snuff, and see how it goes from there.

      2. Lance

        I’m actually really quite curious what the discussions regarding the corrections actually entail, on that point. Is OP just pointing them out, giving some thoughts, and the intern is just humming and nodding? Because if they’re not contributing anything to that discussion… I think a good step would be to have them start doing so. Prove they can put some thought into this, prove that they can understand where any of the corrections are coming from so they can actually, maybe, start to have it sink in.

        1. Jessen

          I’m wondering that as well. I know it’s not an uncommon problem for young people to feel like asking for more detailed feedback is just showing that they’re dumb, or think they’re expected to work it out on my own.

        2. Collarbone High

          I agree, and I’d add that these discussions should try to suss out what the intern thinks of the corrections. Does he understand why they were made, and agree they needed to be made? Or does he secretly think the LW is ruining his brilliant work?

          I’ve worked with people who were very good at *accepting* feedback, but never incorporated it into their work because they were saying “oh thank you, this is such good advice” but thinking “LOL, my work is great, whatever.” If the intern is one of those, the LW might be fighting a losing war.

      3. Hey Karma, Over here.

        This is exactly what I wrote. He’s not just some nice kid in for the summer, he’s a good employee. He takes instruction, finishes projects, appears pleasant and eager. He just sucks at the actual work. Definitely show him his writing test and explain to him skill level.

    3. Amy Farrah Fowler

      My guess is that the OP is conflating enthusiasm or perhaps a likable personality for potential. Someone can be a nice person, but also be completely incompetent.

      1. PJs of Steven Tyler

        We have this situation in our office right now and I’m trying to figure out ways to get everyone else to see that if this person has no ability to understand the industry after several years and no common sense that would enable the leap from not knowing to gaining knowledge, then we are all going to be in trouble.

      2. Hey Karma, Over here.

        Yes, he’s a great employee just a terrible presenter/tweet writer/photographer etc.

    4. TootsNYC

      he is apparently incapable of critical self-evaluation and is resistant to feedback critical to improvement.
      This right here would shoot him down in almost ANY industry. I wouldn’t hire him to work for me in a warehouse or in retail—and they are industries that don’t usually require writing skills, etc.

      If he’s this un-self-critical, he has closed himself off to learning.

    5. Sara without an H

      I think I would like to inject the question Alison usually asks managers about feedback: “How direct have you been?” My guess would be, not very.

      It’s obvious that the OP likes this kid, so is she softening her language unduly? I’m also concerned that she says he’s doubled her workload. For example on the bad writing, is she fixing his mistakes herself? It would be better for him and for her to send the work back and insist that he rewrite it to specification, and keep redoing it until he gets it right.

      Like most librarians, I’m a frustrated teacher, but it really sounds to me as though OP isn’t being direct or specific enough to get through to this (probably very likable) young man.

      1. Letter writer here

        I had been softening my language, because I do like this kid… or did…

        I wrote to Alison about two weeks ago and, since then, there have been a number of incidents that have made it a necessity to forget about the fact that this is a nice kid and speak pretty bluntly. The mistakes he’s making with simple administrative work are unacceptable.

        His response? Every time I sit down with the intern and have a “tough” talk about the quality of his work, there’s a new excuse. Excuses so far have included: his roommate’s grandmother died, he was sick that day and really shouldn’t have come to work at all, he had two quizzes at school that week, etc.

        1. Falling Diphthong

          I’ll give some originality points to “I can’t do my work correctly because my roommate’s grandmother died.”

          1. valentine

            about two weeks ago and, since then, there have been a number of incidents that have made it a necessity to forget about the fact that this is a nice kid and speak pretty bluntly
            This was always the case. He can’t or won’t change, at least not soon enough to save this job, but it’s a disservice to sugarcoat when plainspeaking is required. Please tell him he failed his writing test and use one for future internships because I don’t understand how he got through in the first place (the shiny attitude?), unless someone else wrote/fixed his written materials.

            “I aced the interview and your boss will want me to start straightaway” isn’t a can-do attitude. It’s delusional or self-deceptive (and rude). What benefit is there in happily working hard at doing worse than nothing? Wouldn’t you be better off without him?

            You don’t need to entertain the excuses. The important thing is what, not why: What he did wrong and what he’ll do to avoid it, like TheAssistant’s second admin.

        2. Blue

          I think you need to have a conversation about the big picture here. Something like, “I understand that you have other things going on. However, you do an internship as preparation for the work world, right? And in the work world, you are expected to get your work done and to do it well. When you’re in a professional position and make these kinds of mistakes, this often, you risk losing your job, no matter what else is happening in your life.” I think you can say, “I’ve been cutting you some slack because you are an intern and here to learn and because I appreciate your enthusiasm, but I would be doing you a disservice if I didn’t make clear what the ramifications would be if you were an employee.”

          I work in higher education and have had my fair share of conversations like this. It might be a wake up call for him. He might also refuse to hear it and tell everyone he knows that you’re a terrible person. But it will be lurking in the back of his mind the next time he runs into trouble with something like this.

          1. Observer

            Well, it MIGHT be lurking in the back of his mind. But maybe not. It depends on the person. Some people are ALWAYS the victims of bad luck and mean bosses.

            Having said that, I agree that the big picture conversation needs to happen.

        3. deesse877

          You may have done this already, but it can help to spell out that the excuse is not enough, and that once you’re out of school it is never enough. That may seem obvious, but it’s not, to many people (not just college students). They may not even understand that “getting the work done” is the main goal; they think “maintaining a good relationship with the boss” is the main goal, and to them a BS excuse looks like a good vehicle for that.

        4. CM

          How are you responding to the excuses? Because that’s another work habit that needs to be nipped in the bud while he’s an intern. Hopefully you’re telling him that everyone is expected to perform up to their job expectations, and while you want to treat everyone humanely, having stuff going on in your life doesn’t excuse you from performing at work.

          1. Michaela Westen

            There’s always something going on in life. He needs to learn how to get the work done anyway.

            1. Ceiswyn

              I was just coming here to say this.

              There is always something. Always. If you can’t work through something as minor as your roommate’s grandmother dying, or having a couple of quizzes, then you can’t work. Full stop.

        5. Ice and Indigo

          Ah. Then I’d say he needs a talk about the general principle, ‘The work needs to get done. If you genuinely aren’t able to do it, you need to tell us so we can make other arrangements. Otherwise, the fact that there’s a reason it wasn’t up to standard doesn’t change the fact that it’s *not* up to standard, and that’s something that needs to be fixed, otherwise other people will end up paying for it.’

          If he’s a nice kid, is it possible he’s still hanging on to the idea that work is basically like homework? Ie an excuse for not doing it has the same result as doing it? Because that could need spelling out too: ‘This isn’t like academic work. If you have an excuse for academic work being poor, it may get you off the hook, but that’s because academic work is done for your own benefit; if you don’t do it, the only person who suffers is you. Professional work is done because we need to get products out the door, so if it doesn’t get done, other workers here will suffer because they have to pick up your slack.’

          1. Ice and Indigo

            (When I say ‘academic work’, I mean undergraduate, getting-an-education work rather than postgraduate gotta-teach-students-and-produce-papers work, just in case that was unclear.)

          2. Anonymeece

            To be honest, I teach in undergrad and have a degree, and those excuses wouldn’t really fly even with academic work. I had a professor who refused to grant a classmate an excuse for her homework when she went to the ER and ended up staying overnight in the hospital.

            1. Ice and Indigo

              That … seems a bit excessive!

              Anyway, it doubtless varies from institution to institution. I suspect if he was under the more rigorous kind of teaching, he wouldn’t be this careless and over-confident.

              1. Anonymeece

                Oh, I totally agree the absence should have been excused! I’m just saying that even in undergrad, the types of excuses Intern has offered would not be acceptable.

            2. wittyrepartee

              Oh god. Nooooo. That should have been excused.

              I had a student come in late, missing a quiz. She would have received a zero if I hadn’t noticed her holding up her bent un-splinted black and blue finger to show her friend, explaining to said friend that she had rushed to class but needed to go back to get an MRI on her hand. I made her leave. Other kids that should not have come to class: kid with an open wound, kid who wanted to show me her strep infected tonsils, a veteran who needed a mental health day. @___@

              1. wittyrepartee

                The crazy eyes was a depiction of me, not the veteran. He was very polite and just didn’t participate in the group work I assigned, then bumped into me on the bus later and was like “yeah, that was a bad day”.

        6. Anna

          This is way more work than you signed on to for an intern. If it were merely skill-based things, I would say coaching and so on would be fair. But this is a level of accountability I know very well and will continue until consequences are either made clear or consequences happen.

        7. Anonymeece

          While there are some allowances to be made (close family member dies, going through a divorce, etc.), I always wonder what they think will happen in the work world. Like, do you think you won’t have any personal emergencies? Do they think that Personal Life Stuff stops happening because you’re busy at work?

          I mean, I’d give up half my pay if it meant that I could just work and not worry about getting that notice from the landlord or having to buy groceries or having to attend a family reunion, but that’s unfortunately not how life works.

          It might be worth it to ask him point blank how he thinks things like “roommate’s grandmother dying” (really?) excusing his work will go over at a full-time position.

        8. Story Nurse

          He’s setting things up in his head so that when you let him go or don’t hire him full-time, he’ll characterize it as you being unfair and unaccommodating rather than him completely dropping the ball.

          It’s very hard to get through to someone like this, unfortunately. Until he grapples with his insecurity and allows himself to admit that he sometimes fails at things, he’s going to keep shoring up his ego with untruths and excuses, anything to keep from seeing himself as a failure or a screw-up or even as someone who has something to learn. That’s not a problem you can solve for him, so the best thing you can do is protect your company by being scrupulous with documenting all the problems in his work, in case his self-defense extends to making a fuss over being let go.

        9. kneadmeseymour

          Aha! The origins of the unwarranted confidence reveal themselves. I may be projecting here, but I have an image in my mind of a kid who is used to sailing by on the strength of his charm and privilege and making excuses (or having others make them) on the occasions when charm and privilege aren’t enough.

          In any case, as Alison says, I think it would be a real kindness to lay out for him the gap between your expectations for the role and the standards of his work. It may not get through to him now, but maybe it will have an effect over time.

        10. Cathy Gale

          Legitimately, if he is sick, he’s really not going to perform well – and he should not go into work. He should learn from that.

          1. Observer

            Was he actually sick, though? Given that one of his excuses was that his room-mate’s grandmother died, I have to wonder what he calls “sick”. Also, if there were ONE incident where he said he was sick, that would be one thing. But at least 4 excuses in a 2 week period? Either he’s having a REALLY bad run or he’s not up to the job. But, if it were the former, he totally acknowledge it.

        11. Genny

          TL;DR: One of the lessons I most remember from my teenage years is that everyone else is equally tired and busy, so those excuses aren’t going to cut it. It might be worth sharing something similar with the intern: everyone is busy, tired, stressed, not feeling great, etc. Yet they still managed to produce at east acceptable work. If you can’t produce acceptable work, then you need to stay home.

          Full story: One night at the community orchestra practice, I was generally being unpleasant and rude. On the ride home, my mom asked me what was up with the bad attitude and I blamed it on being tired. She told me that every other person in that room had come from a full day of work and caring for their family. They were all at least as tired as me, if not more so, yet they weren’t acting the way I was. They all managed to at least have a veneer of politeness and pleasantness, and if they could manage that, then so could I. That lesson has stuck with me over the years. It sounds like intern would benefit from a similar talk.

        12. Not So NewReader

          “Bob, I noticed that when I try to talk with you about the quality of your work, you always seem to have something going on. Perhaps now is a bad time for you to be doing this internship. Perhaps you should wait until life clears up a little bit for you.”

          I am not saying this with a sarcastic tone. Bob has to decide if he wants the internship or not. You could review with him that some folks use their work time as a reason to put life stuff on pause for a moment and just take a mental vacation from what is going on in daily life. At home of course, then home becomes a mental vacation for all that is going on at work.

          Then I would move on to say, “This is what holding down a job looks like, Bob. It’s finding ways to jump all the obstacles that life can throw at us.” Then I would try to land on, “If you really want this internship to work, then you need to stop finding reasons for having an off day. It’s a pit, where every day can become an off day.”

          Or you could come in from the other side: “Bob, I am here to help you get experience so you can find work. Most jobs will not allow excuses for shoddy work on a regular basis. If you hand in one piece of work below par, then for the rest of the year your stuff should be above-par. People will long remember that one piece of poorly completed work.”

    6. Anna

      Do you think people are born knowing how to do any of those things? Because while he may not be there yet, I’m not sure I’m ready to give him advise to completely change his career plans based on skills that are learned.

  4. Amber Rose

    Normally I think people get a certain sense of satisfaction in shutting down someone who’s really cocky when they actually suck, because that cockiness is usually present in people who are unlikable. In the circumstance that we actually like that person, it feels “mean” to go over their faults because it’s kind of uncommon to find someone who’s confident and also not a jerk about it. It feels like scolding a puppy.

    If you like this kid, you need to be “mean.” It’s not actually, it’s a kindness especially this early on in his work life, and you don’t have to be harsh or cruel to address larger issues. But saying that won’t make you feel less bad about it, so please do accept that sometimes you feel like the bad guy but you still have to do what’s best.

    1. Not So NewReader

      ha. Some of the hardest things I have had to listen to came from folks who really liked me. I am sure they sweated the conversation. However, they felt they had to tell me, in the same way one driver will call over to another driver, “hey your tire looks low”. Injury/loss of life. In the employment world we face firing, loss of reputation and so on. No one wants to see others crash, literally or figuratively.

  5. Lady Jay

    I teach college kids. I’d probably say that somebody who was enthusiastic about class work and excited to do the work “had a lot of potential”–because enthusiasm and excitement are habits of mind that (ideally) keep somebody engaged in the work, and help them get better. So maybe the intern is enthusiastic, likes the work, etc?

    So give his enthusiasm somewhere to go. Sit him down, describe what he’s doing (your photos/videos are all blurry) and the impact of his actions (those blurry photos actually decrease engagement.) Then wait to see if he can transfer his enthusiasm into a better product, once he has good feedback.

    If not, well . . .then I’d agree he’s “not good at the work.”

    1. Batgirl

      Yeah….I don’t really understand how she’s judging him as ‘not a good fit for the industry’ before he’s even had the feedback that he’s far short of industry standards.

      If he has a teachable personality and is willing to commit to do overs, then it’s all possible to learn!

      I have to wonder if it is more of a ‘this job, right now’ issue than an industry one. If there isn’t the teaching time and energy or if there aren’t lower level skills available, cut him loose and let him him find something else either in the industry, industry-adjacent, or another industry entirely. But he can’t make that call without the feedback.

      1. Anna

        This. I work with young adults and I would never presume they wouldn’t be fit for an industry based on the skills they come in with or what they are lacking at this moment.

        1. serenity

          Thanks for saying this.

          The comments on this page saying he’s “delusional” or writing him off entirely have rubbed me the wrong way. He’s a kid, still in school, who has a lot of rough edges that need polishing. He may not be a good fit for a job in OP’s company *at this time* and he may or may not end up polishing all of those rough edges, but c’mon.

          1. Someone Else

            Assuming he’s a college student and not a high school student, the types of things she’s saying he’s failing at are things he should already know. If he finished high school he should be able to write coherently and know a blurry photo is not useful. I’m not saying he should be brilliant, but it sounds like apart from being able to do the things well, he doesn’t seem to understand what constitutes “well” or “poorly” and that’s a really bad sign to me. Sure, he could be taught, and sure I bet he didn’t get as direct feedback as he deserves yet. But if he’s gotten corrections regularly but still thinks he’s kick-ass he’s missing the boat.

            1. Anna

              Nope, not true in the slightest. Unless you are dealing with people coming out of high school, you don’t know how woefully lacking some of the skills they leave with are. If someone accepts poor writing and blurry photos, you will think poor writing and blurry photos are acceptable.

              I don’t know his guy’s specific situation, but there are a lot of assumptions being made about what he should and shouldn’t know based on absolutely nothing more than he thinks he’s better at them than he is. To me, that sounds like he’s been lied to about his abilities for a long time and doesn’t think the OP could possibly know what she’s talking about.

              1. Someone Else

                I can’t tell if you’re agreeing or disagreeing with me? I’m saying he should already know how to write decently because he’s NOT straight out of high school. Not that he should be excellent at the specific type of writing this job requires, but basic subject verb agreement and the very very basic stuff OP mentioned. Unless he went to a terrible high school that accepted and gave good grades for terrible writing, he should already know how to do this. It is possible he did go to a terrible high school that passed him without these basic skills (and thus convinced him he’s great at writing and that he has no idea what “great” means in this context) but I was excluding that from my definition of “should”. By which I mean, a supervisor of a college intern should reasonably expect said intern to have basic writing skills, and it appears this person lacks even that.

            2. Batgirl

              I work with young adults and…it depends. There are certain high schools where nearly everyone leaves with a coherent style and there are ones where hardly half do. There are kids from great schools who are up the wall at home and scrape by even with brilliant teaching. It truly just depends. I personally had it rough at university because my background wasn’t the best. It’s still happening.

              1. M&M's fix lots of Problems

                Agreed Batgirl. I know a person who teaches at a high school where 100% of the student body is on free or reduced lunch. With this student body, half of the battle is getting the class there and making sure that they have what they need to learn (and this is not a slam on the people in that group that want to learn – I know that group exists across the whole spectrum). There are other obstacles in their path.
                Then there are the kids that have always been able to skate through life on the merits of their charm or what have you. There are also the kids that have always been able to skate on their native intelligence and never really had to work hard before.
                The real question is which group does intern fall into? Is he the kid that came out of a HS where there were other things had to prioritize sometimes over learning? Is he somebody who has always been able to skate through things? Or is he the person who has always been able to BS or charm his way through life? Because how you approach fixing the issues changes based on what you have to fix in the first place.
                (Based on some of the OP’s comments I’m guessing that he is probably one of those people that has always been able to BS or charm his way through the things that he doesn’t know. But now he’s hit reality with a vengeance and needs to get aligned with the fact that personality and charm can only take you so far if you don’t have the skills to back up that charm.)

            3. I Took A Mint

              I disagree. One thing that definitely improves with age and experience is judgment. He may not know how to distinguish between “a little blurry but we can fix it” and “unusable.” Especially in things like writing and design and photography where having an eye/ear for “what looks good” or “what sounds good” is a skill in itself, and not everyone who has that eye/ear can clearly articulate what exactly makes something good/bad or teach someone how to improve.

              I think OP should pick the area you think needs the most work/has the most potential, point out the pattern of mistakes, and help teach him how to improve his judgment and self-evaluation. Just listing everything he does wrong could crush his self esteem. But showing him how to catch his own mistakes and improve will teach him to fish for life.

    2. boo bot

      “…give his enthusiasm somewhere to go.”

      I think this is a great way for the OP to think about this! Hearing clear feedback is an opportunity for him to wield his boundless energy productively. Also, I would have him fix his own work if possible – it can be hard to absorb feedback if you’re just hearing it after the fact. It’s a lot easier to remember for next time if someone says, “here’s the problem, you go fix it.”

      I also noticed that the OP said she’s put him on different projects and nothing’s turned out to be his forte; I actually wonder if that’s part of the problem? If he’s just being moved from one thing to another, he’s not really getting a chance to get better at any of them, and keeping him in one place might help with that.

    3. CM

      I agree with this and about not foreclosing on his future in the field just because he isn’t awesome at it right at the start. I like the OP has been fishing for something he’s good at, but, since they’re not finding it, it might be better to figure out what he’s MOST passionate about / willing to invest time in carefully improving, and then walk him through a couple of projects related to that and see if you can get an improvement.

      I know the OP said they wanted the intern to help lighten the load, but often when you get an intern it increases your load because you end up teaching them and the amount of help they give you is actually minimal. That’s how an intern is different from a temp or a contractor (where you’re hiring someone who already knows how to pick up the slack on particular projects and/or do those projects themselves).

      So, I think the best, most nurturing approach is to let go of the idea that he can cover multiple creative positions and instead focus on the one he’s most prepared to learn about and find some small assignments you can really coach him through. That doesn’t mean you can’t tell him the truth about how his skills aren’t where they need to be for a full time position, but I don’t think the truth should be framed like a verdict so much as a benchmark for where we’re starting from coupled with the confidence that, if we work hard, we can get where we need to go (or at least make some kind of progress toward that by the end of the internship).

  6. FormerExpat

    I think part of the blame goes to our institutes of higher learning. I’ve managed a lot of interns and still do a big annual project with college students. I have noticed that lots of these students think that they are really good at writing and giving presentations, and they’re not! It’s really trendy for schools to emphasize writing (ask me how i know) and student-led learning. I think that lots of students do these kinds of courses…. and end up with an inflated sense of their own abilities. Fourteen weeks of a writing intensive class, and they know everything, right? (/s). I guess that you’ll have to be the one to bring at least one person back down to earth! But in the long run, it IS a kindness to be honest with someone about their abilities.

    1. MsMaryMary

      Is it still common, particularly in business programs, for a lot of the work to be group-focused? I did a lot of group work in college. I’m sure some of my classmates got an A in their professional communication course because it was a group project and I took all their contributions and copy-edited it into something readable.

      1. Some Sort of Management Consultant

        I did huge amounts of group work in college and grad school, but honestly, it was a pretty bad way to prepare for working. My colleagues are AMAZING, they always help out, I have support structures and excellent managers. (I am lucky, I know.)
        My biggest problem, or area of improvement, has been to actually USE the available support instead of suffering in silence and doing all the work.

        1. Autumnheart

          I’m an old who went back to school, and graduated in 2016. I wouldn’t say that a *lot* of my work was group-focused. About half my classes had 1 or 2 group projects, but each class also had other components where we worked in pairs during a class exercise, or were required to participate in online discussions as part of the curriculum.

          I only had one class where I had group members who tanked on the work. I did their work myself to guarantee my grade, but ratted them out, and luckily my instructor didn’t award “group grades”. All the other groups I had in my classes were comprised of responsible people who were great to work with.

          I can’t decide if it’s analogous to the workplace or not. I feel like it is–if not in the most flattering way. In college, you could get the instructor who grades each person on their contribution, or you could get the one who says “If someone doesn’t do their share, that’s the group’s problem, you figure it out” so someone gets an A for nothing. And there are definitely workplaces who reward each individual according to their contribution, and workplaces who refuse to address slackers while expecting the worker bees to keep everything running (and usually holding them to much higher standards than the slackers).

          1. Not So NewReader

            Where I landed was, “If you can do well in this setting you will find work places easier.” In part because of a cohort is not pulling their weight a (good) boss will tell them to shape up. I have never once seen a prof tell a student to shape up.

            One of the better groups I was in had two non-participating members. One member just did not bother. And the other member had the excuse of his sport for every single darn meeting. He never showed. So three of us did the work. Number Four showed up on the last day and tried to tell us what we should do- this on the heals of never coming to a team meeting. He got ignored.

            In another group, I had a co-leader. His big topic for conversation was how he got his dad to pay for everything. I said, “let’s concentrate on this here.” We had to do a report as a team. I wrote 75% of the report and brought it to one of our last meetings. He did not have a single page written. At all. And he was still talking about Dad. I have never experienced a work place this difficult.

          2. Media Monkey

            we had group projects where each person was asked to give a mark to each person’s participation. so in a group of 5, equal participation would be 20% each, and you could mark up or down from there. of course everyone wouldn’t agree, but if it looked like one person conspicously did less work than the others they got a lower mark

    2. Qwerty

      It starts long before higher learning! There are many areas where people are groomed their whole lives to believe that they are great at whatever they do, regardless of their skills. Rather than teaching people how to handle failure and feedback, they are simply not allowed to fail, nor can they be told anything negative. I’ve seen so many people struggle when they get college because those were the first classes where they were actually held accountable for anything or it was the first time they were challenged intellectually (therefore had never needed to study before)

    3. Anon for Now

      I think a lot of this is because so many of these college instructors don’t have a benchmark about what standards are for these things outside of academia.

      I remember taking a creative writing class and being told I was a good writer. And I probably was a good writer in comparison to my peers, at least when it came to writing a short story or a poem. However, that isn’t the type of writing that most people do in their work lives. It’s writing reports, writing up analysis, marketing copy, etc. It’s pretty specific. And I don’t believe enough people who work in academia are competent enough in that sort of writing to offer good feedback.

      1. Kelly L.

        Right, it’s different styles of writing. I used to be pretty good at creative writing, and I can hammer out a five-paragraph theme if I need to, but neither of them has a lot to do with what I write at work. Colleges will often have business writing courses, but it’s not necessarily integrated into composition or creative-writing classes.

      2. Cathy Gale

        Some of them, you’re right – they’re not competent. Others, they are. And they suggest someone is a good writer because they are — or because they are reading material that is much, much more atrociously written, and they see potential in someone else.

        I think academic instructors have to be given credit for the fact that there is now a lot of pressure to grade someone for “showing up”, and not to rock the boat by grading and critiquing toughly. A lot of instructors know if they red-ink someone’s work, that kid may complain, and that student feedback is considered in their bids for tenure or just to get rehired, if they’re adjuncts (casual hires who work semester to semester).

      3. Not So NewReader

        I was told I wrote well, too. I would never show anyone outside of the prof what I wrote. I thought it was trash. But it seemed to be what the course required. Finally, I showed my uncle one paper, he had managed people for decades. He read it. “This is trash”, he said. I laughed out loud.

    4. Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain

      Yeah, there is a big push for student-lead learning and lots of small group work at my university too. The problem, I think, it that it creates an echo chamber for the students. They’re getting feedback from their peers, who are just as clueless, and also less likely to give negative feedback, lest they end up on the receiving end.

      1. Sloan Kittering

        They’re also comparing themselves to all their shy awkward peers and assuming they’re at least above average. But when you enter the professional world you have to compare yourself to polished people doing something for a living, not a group of people randomly assigned to the task. It’s a learning curve.

      2. Rainy days

        Yes, and plus the fact that many K12 teachers are being told not to emphasize spelling and/or grammar in writing, but rather to grade on ideas, because otherwise they will discourage students or kill their creativity…of course I don’t want to kill anyone’s creativity, and in certain jobs one’s spelling abilitities genuinely will not matter…but for any job that requires using email, they do matter.

        1. deesse877

          The issue is not actually creativity, though I certainly think that the messaging from the academy to parents, K-12 teachers, and students has been really poor on this issue.

          Rather, we know from education research that drilling does not improve grammar or spelling. People who do practice exercises and get graded on them can improve their spelling and grammar, obviously, but it’s a correlation, not a causation. The only thing that causes permanent improvement is more time reading, and that is a slow, hard-to-monitor process.

          1. Former Expat

            High-five! Yes to reading! It really is secret recipe to becoming a better writer

          2. Bookworm

            The only reason I can spell is because I spent my primary school years obsessively reading and so have a reasonable sense of what ‘looks right’. I can’t *pronounce* half the words ofc but hey ho…

          3. Michaela Westen

            I have a very visual memory and that’s one of the reasons I’m a good speller. I also spent a lot of time reading growing up.

      3. Lissa

        I really wonder about this too! It seems like in the classes where I work there is so much student-led learning along the lines of “each group is assigned these 2 chapters, now report out to the class” style stuff, without a ton of feedback from the prof

      4. Not So NewReader

        I remember in first or second grade (mid 1960s) we had to sit in groups and discuss the alphabet. So we went right around the circle and each person stated how much of the alphabet they knew. No one knew the whole alphabet. This took three maybe four minutes. The rest of the period was focused on spitballs and paper airplanes.

    5. CheeryO

      I went through 5.5 years of engineering at a “good” state school between my B.S. and M.S., and in all that time, I had ONE teacher (an adjunct, too, not even a regular professor) who gave writing assignments AND graded them harshly. I didn’t give a single solo presentation in that time, and I never got any constructive criticism following any of my group presentations, despite being an atrocious presenter. Looking back on it, I’m absolutely dumbfounded. We were all so utterly clueless.

    6. JessaB

      Heck I dealt with a high school student who was doing a social science report on Lincoln. Because it was social science and NOT English class, the teacher did not care about the writing ability. The paper she asked me to go over with her had already been touched in first instance by the teacher. There was not a single well written line in the paper, not a paragraph without numerous grammatical mistakes. And worse, the research was weak and in some cases even flat out wrong.

      Again, this was a paper that had already been past the teacher’s desk. I shudder to think what would happen to that girl if she made it to college with that lack of ability.

      For some reason in the last ten years or so, high schools have so separated out English classes from everything else, “Oh the information is more important, this isn’t English, etc.” When I was in HS if I submitted the most well researched, perfect set of information, in garbage English and lousy grammar, I’d have been failed. Schools used to care how you wrote, no matter what subject you were writing on. That for some reason, at least in Florida where I lived at the time, is no longer true.

      1. Mrs_helm

        Yep. I also went to HS in Florida. English/writing/presentation was integrated into every subject. There was a mandate for students to write/get graded on (some large number) of words per year.

      2. Not So NewReader

        I saw this in the late 60s with science teachers saying, “I’m not hear to teach you people how to spell.” Uh, we are a class of fifth graders….. He never once checked spelling on anything.

    7. deesse877

      I am in higher ed and…the simple truth is that grading writing, collaboration, and presentation skills accurately is really hard work (as in, double your prep and grading time, easily) and few faculty are willing or able to do it.

      Often what happens is, the class will fall in a sort of bell curve, based on the individual students’ prior preparation, and the instructor will just endorse that with slightly-inflated grades. So everyone at the middle of the curve will get a B, a few will get A’s and a few C’s or lower, and no standard has been enforced at all.

      This system gives a lift to privileged mediocrity, certainly, but for students with marginal skills it’s even worse. If everyone around them is similarly poorly prepared, as can happen at a lower-ranked school or one with a lot of first-generation students, they get a B for less than nothing. Then they graduate having no idea that it’s even possible to improve.

      This pisses me off, but it’s an institutional problem at the core, and I have no idea how to fix it.

      1. Cathy Gale

        Does your school have a writing center? You can take the class there one day, have the staff come in to teach a skill, or have students do some kind of “scavenger hunt” assignment that forces them to check out the writing center (or maybe use the online services such as Purdue’s Online Writing Lab).
        One of my best friends is an excellent English professor. He has the students do a lot of revisions before the final grade, so they get used to the idea of revising and improving their work. Each iteration is worth some points but the point is also made that you can’t just turn in slop. The students really like him, as well, because he teaches them the kind of “growth mindset” that was earlier discussed in these comments.

    8. Anonymeece

      Co-signing this. Part of the problem too is that they don’t realize the fluctuations of expectations. I work at a community college, and the standards are lower here (at least where I work) than for a four-year university. And those standards are not the same as they are for the working world. So some students get an A in English Lit 101 at community college and automatically thinks that’s the same as getting an A in Harvard English upper-division classes, which ultimately translates to, “But I’m a great writer!” when they’re not, the expectations were just lower.

    9. NotTheSameAaron

      I’m wondering if he was “passed forward” in school or maybe he thinks “I’m so awesome that people go out of their way to sabotage my work.” In either case, he needs a serious, realistic talk he can’t brush off.

  7. Greyhound

    As a specific suggestion re: presentation skills, I would provide him a video of someone who presents in a way that you think works well (of you, a colleague (with their permission) or a publicly available video like maybe a TED talk or something) and encourage him to videotape himself presenting something and then watch the two and compare. I’ve been told I speak too fast when I’m presenting but while I’m up there I feel like I’m speaking waaaaaay too slow and that I’m taking forever and going to run out of time. Practice has allowed me to straighten that out, but it can be really hard to know how you appear/sound while you’re presenting in the moment. I have found watching myself very useful for determining specific changes I can make and things to work on.

      1. Southern Yankee

        I agree. Toastmasters is especially useful in giving people a place to practice speaking and get constructive feedback in a way that isn’t directly connected to work. Speech about a work topic, a hobby, a vacation, family, etc. It really is a case of practice, practice, practice. Toastmasters tend to say “it’s a safe place” which I find to be true.

          1. JessaB

            The more a comment is about grammar, proofreading, and related things, the more likely there is a typo or weird phrasing in it. It’s a rule or something.

    1. LKW

      Ask him to video himself giving a presentation. Book a conference room. Then have him watch his own video after watching the good example and see if he sees a difference. If he doesn’t see a difference, maybe there is a bigger issue.

      Part of me thinks if you handed him back his work but represented it as someone else’s he might recognize how bad it is, but that would be deceptive and kind of mean. He may have such an over-inflated sense of self that is actually damaging his ability to determine whether his work meets an accepted standard.

      But I don’t think you should stay quiet.

    2. LaDeeDa

      I teach a PPT design and presentation skills class– I show a Bill Gates presentation, then I show a Steve Jobs presentation. From their PPT to their structure to the messaging is night and day.

    1. Wake up!

      Disturbing? A lot of people overestimate their own abilities. A *lot*. Frankly, there are a lot of popular bloggers who I think are horrible writers, but they clearly take a lot of pride in their own writing and obviously enough people agree to make them so popular. It doesn’t make them delusional in a medical sense.

        1. Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain

          They could just have a topic or schtick that the audience cares enough about that they’re willing to overlook how poorly it’s written or presented.

          1. JessaB

            Or a really wonderful community, or perhaps they’re in a niche that isn’t well represented, sometimes you go to the only place you can.

    2. Introvert

      Yes, it sounds delusional, and OP has no responsibility to go along with the delusion. Having such a mismatch between actual and perceived performance is not sustainable. Maybe its a form of gumption, but OP needs to shut this down and remember that getting the work done is first and foremost.

      1. sunny-dee

        It’s the Dunning Kruger effect. People who are incompetent lack the required competence to accurately assess their own performance.

        1. Cordelia Vorkosigan

          Yes, this. Humans have to have a certain baseline level of competence in order to even recognize what good work and poor quality work look like. Without that baseline, you really can’t tell the difference between them.

        2. JessaB

          Sometimes even competent people don’t see it. It’s a really hard skill to be able to look back at yourself from outside your own head.

    3. Snark

      Delusional? In a particularly pedestrian and ubiquitous way, sorta. Disturbing? Not even a little. WTH?

      1. Falling Diphthong

        Yeah, I wouldn’t completely rule this out for someone in their 50s who’s always gotten by via the power of believing in themselves. But in someone still very wet behind the ears–and in a letter from someone who thinks he’s screwing up but is reluctant to pop his bubble–not particularly noteworthy. (Not typical, but the less experience you have the easier it is to have not learned much from experience.)

    4. Lynca

      I’ve known my fair share of college kids like this. They’re generally very personable, think they’re doing great because of their GPA, but have skill sets so bad you wonder how they even pass courses to get that GPA.

      I’ve met my fair share of middle aged adults that have a similar issue.

      1. Mazzy

        I’ve been dealing with a 30-something adult like this. No one has ever told them anything negative about their work. Not because there wasn’t anything to critique, but because everyone around him must’ve thought it would be a waste of time and not worth the aggravation. That was certainly the case here, until it got too bad, that we could no longer walk on eggshells around his work being so shoddy. Yes, it was awkward at first – someone who’s been told they’re great their whole life is going to get defensive and look like a deer in headlights when they get criticism, but over the next few months of them still constantly making excuses and deflecting blame for any errors, it became clear to the team that the issue did run deep and the weight the team gave their excuses kept decreasing. It’s been getting better and in retrospect, we should’ve been correcting their stuff much earlier.

      2. CupcakeCounter

        Yes and Yes.
        I was in college with one of these. One of the highest GPA’s in the program but absolutely ZERO work experience (not even fast food or retail in high school or summer break). All her focus was on school and extra curricular programs such as theater (to help with public speaking and to her credit she was really comfortable in front of a group and had excellent pacing and vocal projection so it obviously worked) and community-service type volunteering.
        We both interviewed for an internship and she was really shocked to see me there because this place had the reputation for only taking the “best of the best”. Later on during the post-job fair student get together, I overheard her telling another classmate how bad she felt for me since there was no way I was going to get the internship with my 3.6 GPA (which I managed while working 25 or more hours a week) and lack of “community and society involvement”.
        She got the internship but wasn’t given a offer sheet at the end (we are in accounting and it is very common for an offer to be extended after a senior internship) and another classmate who also interned there indicated it was due to an “I’m so awesome” attitude combined with a lack of acclimation to some of the hierarchy at the firm and a few other minor cringe-worthy items that most anyone who’d held a job before would have known not to do.

    5. Some Sort of Management Consultant

      Delusional is a pretty strong word.

      I’m not that many years out of school, and I’ve still met quite a few people like this, mostly men but some women too. They’ve often attended prestigious colleges and have just not had that many setbacks in life. I know that’s an extremely broad generalization, but honestly, in most cases I’ve come across it, it’s been a question of immaturity rather than a great character flaw or a symptom of mental illness.
      At least at my firm, we do reject applicants like this because we don’t want to end up in the LW’s situation, but that doesn’t mean the applicants are hopeless cases.

    6. Not So NewReader

      Delusional? No. He just has not met a mentor/prof/other established professional who has told him NO yet. Each person along the way probably figures someone else will take care of that difficult stuff.

  8. TootsNYC

    This whole letter made me think of when my daughter was 4, and she said, so very confidently, while we were at the swimming pool:
    “I’m very good at swimming!”

    So many people had praised her for every little thing as a means of encouraging her that she would have drowned. (Well, there was a lifeguard, but…)

    It scared the shit out of me–what if some grownup believed her someday, and let her swim unattended, or without testing her first?
    We had a talk about it, and I stopped saying, “you’re just a good artist,” etc.

    It feels like this guy has had his “self-esteem” pumped up so much that he’s just completely unrealistic and completely unprepared to LEARN.

    I feel kind of bad for him.

    And Alison is so very right–it is not kind to lie to people, even by omission.

    1. TootsNYC

      or even if you’re trying to encourage them. That’s how he got here–with all those parents and aunts and uncles and teachers saying, “you’re good at this!” when he wasn’t.

      (True self-esteem comes with good self-knowledge. We don’t do enough of saying, “This isn’t your thing, and that’s OK,” or “You have lots of room for improvement, and I expect it.”

      I went to college with a guy like this–he was so convinced of his ability (I think he got praised for writing full paragraphs in 4th grade or something) that he had simply stopped learning. He wasn’t open to hearing anything or critiquing his own work. His idea of an “in-depth feature story” was two pieces of paper (half full on the opening page and 3/4 full on the second) and three quotes.
      The day I realized he got the same exact degree as me was the day I decided my college degree was not really all that valuable, and I was glad I had some good experience to rely on.

    2. Snark

      I am trying, very very hard, with my little Snarkino to focus more on “wow, you really tried hard and look at all the progress you’ve made” not “you’re so good at Thing!”

      This is tough, because (tangential humbledadbrag) the kid just keeps doing shit like learning how to read without much visible effort, and he’s likely going to be a kid a lot like his parents were, who got there early and got a big head waiting for everyone to catch up, which they did, with predictable effects on the old ego.

      1. TootsNYC

        My mom used to give great compliments by zeroing in:
        “I like how you drew that tree, it looks like the wind is blowing.”
        or “That is a big word–good for you, for sounding it out.”

        Not only did they compliment genuine things, but they were SO much more credible than, “You’re so smart!”

        She also didn’t so much compliment; she’d “observe”: “You look like you’re having fun reading!” or “I bet you’re proud of yourself.”

        (also, I avoided that big-head problem for two reasons; the first was because people picked on me, so I didn’t think I had anything ELSE going for me but smarts; and the second, more pleasant one, was that I started focusing on HOW other people were struggling with the concept I grasped easily, and tried to figure out what they were missing, and how to explain it so they got it. (I basically taught 10th grade Algebra.)
        I didn’t become a teacher, but when I train people, I am really effective.

        1. Mimi Me

          I like: “You must be proud of how hard you worked on that”. It takes the focus off of whether I’m proud of them or not (Always proud!) and lets my kids focus on all the hard work they’ve put in. In fact, once my son did a project and got a B which he was happy with. When I said this to him he paused and said “you know, I probably should’ve worked harder on this.” It was one of those parenting moments that made me realize that I might not be doing a bad job at this.

          1. Jennifer @unchartedworlds

            Yes! the art of giving appreciation that won’t backfire is an underrated aspect of parenting.

            Book recommendation: Faber & Mazlish “How to talk so kids will listen and listen so kids will talk”.

        2. kneadmeseymour

          I was also an early learner, but also terrible enough at many other things (sports, social interaction) that it didn’t really give me a big ego. But I do remember that many teachers were falling over themselves to gush about things I could do without any effort, whereas I got zero acknowledgement for things that I worked really hard at but still couldn’t do well. Even as a little kid, that seemed like a bad approach to education.

        3. Lissa

          It’s interesting, because a lot of the people I know (formerly me) with the big-head problem were also picked on and kinda got the big head BECAUSE they believed all they had going on for them was smarts. It’s a really common issue in geek social circles where we were nearly all smart kids who were bullied in school, or at the least never popular/picked on – so many of us see all we have is smarts that when we get something wrong or mess up it’s the absolute end of the world – because it’s all we have. So there’s a real push to never ever fail, and completely deny the possibility OF failing. It’s sort of a – appears to have awesome self-esteem and be really confident, but underneath it extremely insecure issue.

      2. Lily Rowan

        Wow, I don’t know that I’ve ever heard it put just that way and you’re so right — “smart kids” are often just early learners, and people DO catch up! Just because I was reading at a fifth grade level in first grade (or whatever) doesn’t mean I stay four years ahead of my peers forever.

        1. LaurenB

          The internet is such a weird echo chamber of “I was so advanced of my peer group! NO ONE understands what it’s like to be reading Harry Potter in grade one!” I was born in January, attended school in a system where your start date was based on the calendar year… and it still took me till I was an adult to realize that for a good bit of my childhood, of course I was 10% more advanced than my classmates since I was 10% older than them!

          1. kneadmeseymour

            It does go to show how significant the ego boost is, though, even years later. I seem to recall one of Malcolm Gladwell’s books discusses the positive feedback loop of early academic achievement and the confidence it instills, which tracks with my experience.

          2. WomanFromItaly

            Ha! This is true. I am still legit proud of baffling my first grade teacher by bringing The Hobbit to school. Nobody knows what to do with a 6 year old voluntarily reading a 300 page book. On the other hand, I somehow managed to be 6 but like 2 years behind on social skills, so, well, there’s that. Also I remember trying to read The Fellowship of the Ring afterwards because I didn’t know they were written at different levels. First time in my whole life I tried to read something and simply failed. I couldn’t understand it.

          3. Lissa

            oh man, I know. I used to think I was SO special because I learned to read before I was four, but then the echo chamber internet of everyone being the smartest kid in their class, who was the only person in their group projects to do any work, super advanced people I now have really changed my tune. It’s also not like there’s all that much correlation between that type of advanced kid and success as an adult so except for being able to participate in said internet conversations/in real life nerdy kid discussions I don’t know that it really benefited me! (also now I feel old because the first Harry Potter came out when I was in high school!)

        2. Cathy Gale

          It’s more complicated. Intelligence is not the same as performance. There are many bright people who have abysmal grades, because they become bored with the limitations of school, or just want to spend all their time on a single passion (auto repair, playing guitar, reading manga) to the exclusion of everything else.

          Precociousness (being “ahead” for your age) and giftedness (being unusually smart or talented) are not necessarily the same thing. Some children are going to be exposed to certain things because of their opportunities, and eventually that edge will wear away. Some kids who are “four years ahead” will end up doing something their classmates can’t, like pursuing a tough academic subject, on a permanent basis. That’s giftedness. The way it shakes out, most people are above average at at least one thing or several things (not necessarily an academic subject). Which also doesn’t mean that with hard work (and the 10,000 hours cliche) you can’t develop a legitimate skill where you never showed unusual interest or talent.

          Giftedness does not wear off with age, though. And a few of the characters on “Big Bang Theory”, for example, like Sheldon Cooper, or Sherlock Holmes and various other ‘geniuses’ we see in fiction, would not be considered gifted, but highly gifted. Those people tend to stand out in our minds as being exceptional, but there are lots of bright people around us who have much better social skills, and are better at fitting in.

          Which is to say… Our performance doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Kids respond to the messages around them. If you’re a woman of a certain age, you may remember when you were told – sometimes directly – to stop pursuing an interest that was “unfeminine.” (It happens to men, too.) Or maybe people stereotyped you because of your race, and told you not to reach so high. A lot of exceptional students also struggle with perfectionism (e.g. the “geek” post earlier) and may fail to perform because perfect is the enemy of the good.

      3. Justin

        Yep, for these reasons, it took me until 7th grade to learn how to effort, and college to learn how to really excel.

        Some folks never get the wake-up though.

      4. Mockingbird

        I was a “smart kid” and trying to remember what my parents did… I think one big thing was getting me involved in stuff where I would be more likely to fail, like sports. Haha.

      5. Richard

        I’ve noticed this in the whole backlash to the self-esteem movement: “People need to stop telling their kids that they’re special and great at everything. On an unrelated note, my kid is special and great at everything.” It’s easy to see how this all came to pass!

    3. scooby snack

      Carol Dweck writes about the effect of that kind of feedback on kids in Mindset! It’s really illuminating.

    4. I heart Paul Buchman.

      It might help to know that a complete lack of awareness regarding their abilities relative to everyone else’s is a normal developmental phase for this age group. That’s why little kids always think they run fast or jump high – it isn’t about people constantly praising them, they genuinely don’t have the cognitive skills to make the assessment.

      In normal development this effect disappears around age 7-8 and there is a measurable (typical) drop in self esteem around this age just for this reason. I find the evolutionary advantages of this fascinating to ponder! Think how hard it would be to learn everything a pre-schooler has to learn (language, motor skills) if you felt social shame about your lack of ability.

  9. StressedButOkay

    Receiving honest feedback now is the best thing you can do for this intern. If it’s sugar-coated or not clear, there’s a better than good chance that he’ll learn nothing from this internship and that’s exactly the point of being an intern! And doing what’s best for him, even if it’s not comfortable or fun, is the point of managing interns.

    1. Armchair Analyst

      This but I think first you need to somehow – someONE – needs to coach him on How to Receive Feedback. i.e. Accept and consider the feedback truthful, consider the other person’s perspective, integrate feedback into practice.

      Right now there is close-to-zero chance that the intern will accept the feedback and integrate it and improve — he will think the manager and/or the whole company “blows” or “sucks” and “doesn’t understand him” and “he didn’t get a fair shake” etc. etc. And he will think like this for the next X years until he accepts feedback of his abilities and skills.

      1. Not So NewReader

        How to receive feedback. Oh my, yes. OP, you may have to say directly, “No, Bob, your PP was not awesome. I spent 4 hours correcting errors on it. And I went over the errors with you. Please do not say your PPs are awesome.”

        Hopefully, you can work into conversation that repeating the same error after being told do not do X, is not a good plan. Repeating the same error causes people to lose jobs.

  10. Jennifer

    I think the OP’s heart is in the right place but I couldn’t help but be reminded of the college cheating scandal when I read this letter. Many people can’t believe that the kids whose parents cheated their way into college did not know about the scam, but I believe many of them did not. Their parents have been snowplowing the way ahead of them their entire lives. They’ve gotten into the best private schools, got high SAT scores, passing grades, all due to their parents. So, of course, they assumed they got into an elite university all on their own even though they barely showed up to class in high school.

    Parents, and bosses, like this do young people no favors. Unless this intern has a fat trust fund to fall back on like these rich kids, he is going to get a cold slap of reality sooner or later. Better for him to find out he’s not very good at his job from a kind person like you who can get his career on the right path while he’s still young. Don’t coddle or baby him, but give him very specific feedback about why his writing isn’t very good or why his presentations seem unorganized. He’s going to be much better off in the long run. If he doesn’t respond well to it, well, then you have your answer. He isn’t willing to work hard and learn. But if he does respond well, then maybe he does have potential. Best wishes.

    1. Falling Diphthong

      One of the most applicable bits of psychology I’ve run across is the rule that people attribute things they’re good at to hard work and things they’re bad at to the luck of the draw. So if you’re good at the drums it’s because you worked so hard to develop the skill, and if you’re bad at surfing it’s because you just don’t have any natural talent in that area.

      If things are going well for us, it’s due to our good choices and hard work; if poorly, bad luck and events out of our control are to blame.

      1. Jennifer

        Yes, I have noticed that people get really angry when someone points out that they may not have earned everything they have in life. Like that they may have gotten an edge getting into college because their father and grandfather went to Yale also or because their parents knew the dean, or were big donors, or any number of things, which led to them having connections in the business world which helped them get the best internships, which led to lucrative careers. Nope, they’d have you believe it was all them. And then they look down on people who went to state schools or aren’t as successful.

        1. Mimi Me

          It’s interesting that you say this. Last night I watched a documentary called “Chef Flynn”. It’s about this kid who started cooking very young and now, at age 20, is a chef in a NYC restaurant. There’s no doubt that he’s talented, but he (and his mother) kind of glossed over all of the advantages he was given to help him get there. Yes, he had talent and the drive, but he also had a mother who was willing for re-do her kitchen so he could have top of the line appliances to cook on. He had thousands of dollars of pans and knives. He was home schooled so he could focus solely on his passion. This is not going to be the case for an equally talented and driven kid whose parents couldn’t do what Flynn’s mom did. I was a bit frustrated that they were so determined to make it seem like this kid had gotten their on his hard work alone when that was so not the case.
          Still…a very interesting documentary.

          1. Falling Diphthong

            Or when one of the business magazines promoted Kylie Jenner’s almost-billionaire position with the challenge “What have you been doing with your life?” Like ALL 21 year olds could make a billion in cosmetics if they just showed grit.

            1. Mimi Me

              And the thing that kills me with the whole cosmetics line – she has NOTHING to do with it aside from attaching her name to it. It’s not like she’s the woman who created that line of lotions and creams in her kitchen. She’s not crushing ingredients to a powder. She what? Picks a color palette and maybe comes up with a name for it?

        2. Lissa

          Yes! They get so mad in this specific way “Well, I worked my butt off to succeed and wasn’t given anything!” when they absolutely had the advantages of parents who helped, etc – the implication they may not realize is that if everyone just “worked their butt off” they could be just as successful, but that’s really clearly untrue. Of course hard work and talent matter but so do the family you’re born in, circumstances, and just plain old luck. Nearly every successful person had at least a few lucky breaks.

          It’s also like – they need to prove that they earned their way, which I get because it doesn’t feel great to have people tell you something you’re super proud of isn’t actually your accomplishment. But then you end up with people listing off all the ways in which they struggled and not the ways they didn’t, which is kind of insulting to all the people who also struggled and weren’t as successful.

  11. school of hard knowcs

    Why are you fixing his work? If this is a learning experience, he should learn. In the writing example, first paragraph mark the appropriate changes and then have him fix it, and fix it, and fix it. Video his presentation. Make comments on first 5 minutes. Then have him redo it, redo it, redo it. Otherwise let him go.

    1. Jennifer

      Exactly. I was just told “do better” and had to figure it out myself. Tell him what’s wrong and have him do it again. This is basic stuff. It’s so sad that employers have to do the job parents should have done years ago.

    2. LawBee

      Honestly, that’s a really time-intensive (and resource-intensive) approach – it’s a good one, but there just may not be time to have someone redo their work five times.

      1. Southern Yankee

        Yes, but it’s an internship which should come with some expectation of having to train or develop the intern. Not necessarily always set up that way, but I would expect to have to spend more time training an intern than a full time hire. At the very least, the intern needs honest feedback.

      2. Letter writer here

        THIS.

        We work in a time sensitive industry and my intern only comes in 3 days a week. Most times, there isn’t time to get him to do, redo, reredo, rereredo, etc. We have deadlines we need to meet so if he doesn’t finish the task or does it poorly, it falls on me to do/redo so that it’s done in time.

        1. Seeking Second Childhood

          Then find a longer-term project where there IS lead-time for him to make these changes.

        2. Ice and Indigo

          How about you take a task that was done last year, tell him you want him to do it by way of practice, then get him to compare what he did to what was done by a competent professional so he can identify the differences? That way you’re not depending on him for anything time-sensitive and there’s a model of ‘This what doing it well looks like’ already in existence.

          1. Joielle

            This is what I do! I also work in a very time-sensitive industry and have interns that are in two or three days a week. So I have some projects that were done in previous years, and basically have the intern re-do that project. It turns out to be an interesting experience because for some of the stuff, I have several versions that different people have produced, and you can see why they did it differently and what their approaches were. It creates no usable work for me, of course, but I see teaching as more of the point anyways so I don’t mind. And if the interns do well on the pseudo-projects, they can have some small but real projects to work on.

        3. boo bot

          I understand the need to meet deadlines, but I do want to push back a little here. The internship is supposed to benefit the intern, and I’m sorry, but this kid isn’t going to get any better this way – nobody learns by having their mistakes corrected for them.

          I’m imagining this is something like digital media, where if deadlines aren’t met, all day every day, the whole structure collapses, and I can only see two possibilities:

          (1) Don’t depend on his labor to produce day-to-day content/work product for the company, and give him an assignment that he can do and redo over the course of those three days a week until it’s ready.

          (2) Fire him.

          Both of those outcomes will benefit him: (1) gives him a chance to actually learn something, and (2) gives him the opportunity to learn that he’s not as skilled as he thinks he is, which gives him the chance to re-direct his energy.

          1. Cathy Gale

            I think most internships should follow your advice for (1) – because interning is supposed to be about benefiting them, not you, your company, etc!

            1. boo bot

              Yeah, I didn’t want to get too deep into that aspect of things, but I think a big part of the problem here might stem from depending on an intern for critical work that would otherwise be done by an employee, which is not a great plan for either the company or the intern (and it’s outright shady if he’s unpaid, but I’m happy to give benefit of the doubt on that).

              1. Alana

                Yep. I actually do work in digital media, which is pretty much as you describe, and I’ve learned this lesson with interns the hard way several times. If something is crucially important and must be done, assigning it to an intern is not the answer.

                I would never fire an intern for poor work product. We’d have a lot of tough feedback conversations, and they’d get progressively easier and easier tasks until I found something they could accomplish. If you don’t have a wide range of tasks that can be done by interns at various ability levels, you should rethink whether interns are the right answer for your staffing needs.

        4. Snarky Librarian

          Can you show him all the changes you had to make to his document the next time he comes in? That way he can see what a finished document SHOULD look like, and maybe notice how different the final product is compared to what he turned in.

          1. valentine

            But a proper document, like good public speaking, looks and sounds good/obvious/easy and when you don’t suffer the pain of fixing your errors, you can walk away thinking you could’ve easily gotten it right or simply disagreeing.

        5. EventPlannerGal

          I definitely see why that’s frustrating, but at the same time I’m not sure if you should be giving a significant quantity of time-sensitive, must-be-completed-by-somebody-on-time, must-be-executed-well, no-time-for-redos tasks to an intern. You give tasks like that to an employee, who a) you know will be able to reliably complete them on time based on previous job performance and b) you are paying (or paying more). Is there anything that you can give him that’s lower priority (the type of thing that you’d like to get done but just never have the time), or has a longer lead time or will only be seen internally?

          If you *only* have tasks like that available to give him, I would really start to question the structure of the internship and what your company is expecting to get from it. It certainly does sound like he is not performing well at what you’re expecting him to do, but if your company isn’t able to accommodate things like re-doing the work then that really doesn’t sound like the type of work is suitable to be given to an intern in the first place.

        6. Not So NewReader

          Or give him less work, have him hand it in mid-day, then pass it back to him for corrections.

          Since he is more of a harm than a help, I would be tempted to give him back his old work and fix it to what he should have handed in. This puts him in a neutral place where he is not pushing deadlines to the max on you. I would be very clear about what I am doing and why. I would explain to him that being given work with real deadlines is a position of TRUST. People are trusting us (notice “us” not “you”) to pull together a usable end item. Until he can reliably put together a usable end item he will have to use practice work as the company cannot miss deadlines.
          We used to call this technique putting the trainee somewhere that they can’t hurt us. Meaning miss a deadline, screw up work and so on.

          I used to test people with small project A. Make sure they understand the project and complete it on time. Then we would move to slightly more complex project B, again, make sure they understand and check their timing as far as imaginary deadlines that we set together. Each project would have increased complexity OR increased responsibility. For example, I might give them project A-1 before moving to project B, where A-1 is very similar to A but there is actually more responsibility. For example they have to set up A-1 on their own, or they have a real deadline they must meet.

          I had to check work. I built in stopping points. “This task involves steps 1 through 6. Stop at step 3 and show me what you have. If that much is okay then I will say to proceed do 4-6. If there are corrections, I will show you and this will save you a lot of hassle once you start back up.”
          Please consider set intervals where he has to check in with you before proceeding. When you see the completed project that should NOT be the first time you look at it.

    3. sofar

      This! I used to manage freelance writers. I had to unlearn my instinct of heavily editing and “fixing” their work, sending them the marked-up doc and then hoping they’d take that feedback and use it next time.

      I had to instead learn to do exactly what you’re saying — sending their work back, asking them to re-do it and encouraging them to call me with any specific questions.

      Some people were just hopeless, and we had to institute a small “kill fee” to pay them if, after multiple drafts, the work was still unacceptable. But better to tick them off than continuously beg them to write to bare-minimum standards and spending hours re-writing their stuff. Plus, I worked with a lot of new writers, just starting their careers — and it does them no favors to give them the impression that their work is professionally acceptable, when it just isn’t.

      1. boo bot

        Heavily editing and rewriting for them is also doing no favor to future editors, who look at their samples and assume that it’s all the work of the writer, then hire them and find out otherwise…

    4. Seeking Second Childhood

      Oh so much this. If you fix his document, he won’t see the work you put into fixing it — he’ll just put the corrected document into his portfolio.

  12. Qwerty

    You need to have a big picture talk with this intern! When you give him corrections, are you telling him how much more work it is creating for you? Or are you softening your language? If it is the latter, he is probably walking away from those conversations thinking that things are positives and you are just giving him tips. If you are using the compliment sandwich technique for negative feedback, many people walk away thinking that 2/3 of the feedback was good, so they are doing well.

    You need to give him honest feedback about the quality of his work and how much effort it takes for you to clean up after him, without padding it by complimenting his “potential” or smarts. It’s uncomfortable to give negative feedback, but softening the message only obscures it and this is someone who needs to be told very clearly what the state of his work is.

    1. TootsNYC

      also, are you pointing out how many mistakes there are, and saying, “this number of mistakes is in the ‘unacceptable’ range; it would get you fired at a real job.”

  13. MuseumChick

    This reminds me of a very old episode of American Idol. Someone came in for an audition and they were terrible. When the panel told him he shouted out “But this is my major!” He was objectively bad at signing but was apparently in school for just that. This poor kid spent years of his life on something he was bad out because no one had ever sat him down and told him that he was just not good a singing.

    This is why it’s kinder to be honest with people. Otherwise they could spend years wasting time on things they think they are good at when they are not.

    1. Falling Diphthong

      Yes, I do feel a lot of pity for this young intern. It’s usually easier if reality whacks you upside the head before adulthood.

    2. Snark

      Yup. Ran into a lot of those, both in college and teaching. I actually had one girl, wild-eyed, on the verge of tears, once tell me, “But I can’t get a C in bio! I’m premed!”

      And there was a small, asshole part of me that said – fortunately internally – “you know you can change that, right?”

      1. Lora

        Used to teach pre-nursing students who were Very Upset about not getting into nursing school after pulling a C- in some critical class. “This class is sooooo hard!” Um, this is a freshman-level class: if you think THIS is hard, then think long and hard about whether this is really the major for you, because it’s going to get a lot harder really fast. “But I don’t know what else to do!” Uh, I’m sorry to hear that…

        There are certain universities which shall remain nameless which are notorious for having no-grade systems and churning out interns and fresh grads such as OP describes – no calibration of what their actual talents and skills are. I had one fresh grad from the big Ivy version exactly once, never again.

        1. Snark

          Yeah. I used to TA for gen bio and microbiology. And no offense, kid, if you’re pulling a C here, you need to radically rethink your life plan in a way that doesn’t involve access to anybody’s organs.

        2. Environmental Compliance

          *raises hand* by far, I had the most problems with pre-nursing, pre-pharm, and pre-med students that probably were very smart in their little high schools, and then they got to Big University where I taught one of the freshmen level lab science courses and their bubbles imploded. It’s hard being a big minnow in a small pond and moving to a big ol’ lake where you’re now super little bitty.

          ” I can’t fail chemistry!!! I’m going to pharm school!!!” Okay, 1: you’re a freshman, you’re not accepted into any grad school. 2: It would have helped if you showed up to class. 3: If you can’t do frosh chem, I hate to tell ya, O chem isn’t any better. Nor is biochem.

          1. Lora

            Oh boy. My undergrad actually sorta specialized in getting kids into grad school, mostly for pre-med and pre-pharm. We had an internship program, which is exactly where I learned that I do not have the patience or compassion in me to be a doctor, despite having the grades etc to do so. Then I went to Big State U for grad school and ran into all the “butbutbut I need an A to get into medical school!”

            Explained many many times that getting into medical school is only fractionally about having the right GPA and MCATs – having a part time job as an EMT/paramedic or in a nursing home or some similar Working With Sick People thing in your life actually is much more relevant to the admissions committee after you’re above the bare minimum threshold level to get your application looked at. They didn’t believe me, really, until they got the rejection letters.

            Don’t feel bad about telling this guy that he sucks out loud at this, OP. I am very very glad to this day that I had a three month experience wherein I learned that I HATE dealing with cranky sick people for hours on end, and that the answer to “but what else can I do with my life?” is “almost anything!” I now know many many people who wish they had learned such a thing, but felt like they learned it so late in their career that it was impossible to change tracks.

            1. Environmental Compliance

              An internship program would be absolutely perfect for a lot of the “pre-” students. I was pre-vet, and worked a at a horse rescue…at which I learned I would be emotionally miserable if I continued. That feeling was solidified when I took a chance on an environmental research internship, which I learned I absolutely loved. Changed my entire career path – in my senior year of my undergrad!

        3. LawBee

          I have a few friends who went to Ivy League schools and they knocked the sheen off those institutions right quick. According to them, it’s all about getting in – once you’re in, the school is invested in keeping you there. You get out of it what you put into it. You can have the most amazing education in town, or you could coast.

        4. Aurion

          I actually just saw a post on Tumblr about this and just went “oh, you sweet summer child”. How dare they have weed-out courses? Honey, if you can’t hack first year general chem or second year o-chem, med school ain’t any easier.

        5. Nonny

          My university had no grades and I actually found it had the opposite effect: because we were given written feedback instead of just a letter/number, it was much easier to get into detail and nuance about what a students’ strengths actually were. It was a university that attracted a lot of the kind of students who were used to doing the bare minimum to get an A, and it was a really shocking but important moment for a lot of people to get that first evaluation that basically said ‘you’re not really trying very hard, are you.’

      2. Me

        I feel like that maybe should have been said out loud. Maybe not quite that harsh but…many people go into college really wanting to do career A, but find out through the elevated coursework that it’s just not where their talents lie. Either this C is a reflection of your work/study level, or its a reflection of your capacity for this type of material.

        I think a lot of college kids can benefit form this type of frankness.

        1. Blue

          Until recently, I worked as an academic advisor, which meant I worked with a lot of college students facing this reality. I totally agree – honest conversations are important. But I generally found it best to frame it as, “Well, now you have a sense of the time and effort necessary to succeed at this. Is this important enough to you that you’re willing and able to put in that work? If not, or if you’re not sure, let’s talk about some alternatives that might be better suited to your strengths and let you have a more balanced life.” But – and this is a critical but – these students already knew they were struggling, they just needed help grappling with what it meant for their Life Plan. This student apparently doesn’t grasp that he’s not getting it. Being honest about that would really be a kindness. It won’t be fun, and there’s a good chance he won’t accept what she has to say, but it may well plant a seed that needs to be planted.

        2. Anonymeece

          I have sooo many kids who think they want to be mechanical engineers, but have failed college algebra 3 times. And the problem is we vaunt these success stories about people who failed 20 times and still persevered, but (a) they’re the exception to the rule, and (b) I think there’s value in knowing when to give up and re-evaluate.

      3. PJs of Steven Tyler

        We had to sit one of our friends down once and explain to her that if she failed Bio 141 and dropped Marine Science 160 then she might not be able to become a marine biologist like she had always dreamed.

    3. Jules the 3rd

      I have such reservations about using the ‘bad singer = can’t have singing career’ stereotype. Dylan can’t carry a tune and Rod Stewart’s voice is nails on a chalkboard to me. Both had successful careers because they can write and deliver the emotions.

      2014 – 2017, I couldn’t even listen to the radio because Autotune took over, moving from ‘interesting effect used for a reason’ to ‘way to turn bad / mediocre singers into money makers.’ And they didn’t even write their own stuff.

      Being a great singer helps with a singing career (love you / miss you Prince, Freddie…), but secondary skills can sometimes carry you through a good career.

      The problem with this intern is that he doesn’t have any of the primary / secondary skills, so it’s not just ‘can’t sing well’, it’s ‘can’t carry a tune, can’t emote, can’t write, doesn’t know how to Autotune.’ A quadruple threat…

      1. JessaB

        If you’ve ever seen Kenny Rogers live and then listened to the studio version of the same songs, the man cannot sing in person at all. All his hits are studio helped, yet he’s had a massive career, and is still singing, and he’s a singer I like, but I’d never pay for a concert ticket unless someone I really liked was opening for him. You can be lousy in person and still have an amazing career recording things.

        And yes, whoever invented auto tune should go back in time and un-invent it. I was country when country wasn’t cool and now I only listen to the oldies station because seriously? Enough.

        1. Seeking Second Childhood

          I draw the line at putting peanuts in my coke.
          My musical tastes are all over the map… I was in heaven when Chet Atkins & Mark Knopfler played together.

      2. Hiring Mgr

        Just as an aside, Freddy Prinze was more of an actor/comedian than a singer. You may be thinking of his good friend Tony Orlando (and Dawn)

          1. Jules the 3rd

            Yes, Freddie Mercury. And Prince – two separate great singers. The range! The tone! Magnificent!

            But I suspect Hiring Mgr is being silly.

          2. Saucy Minx

            I assumed the reference was to Freddy Mercury, but I myself was mourning Freddie Fender.

  14. Psyche

    If you can’t (or don’t want to) fire him before the end of his internship, you could try moving him to non-urgent projects. Then when he submits something unacceptable, you can send it back and tell him why it doesn’t cut it and have him do it again. That way you aren’t spending so much time fixing his work and he will actually see that he isn’t doing well.

  15. Falling Diphthong

    I work in a creative industry. I think this kid has a lot of potential.

    LW, what do you mean by this? It sounds a bit like someone who has a lot of ideas for creative projects but no demonstrated follow-through at bringing any of them to completion–and anyone successfully working in a creative field, or a variety of other fields, will usually tell you that people with ideas are a dime a dozen, people with a demonstrated ability to follow through and solve all the problems that arise and put out a finished project the ones they want to hire.

    There was a letter a while back from someone applying for jobs in publishing who wanted to put their half-written novel on their resume as an impressive accomplishment, and commenters in publishing explained that almost everyone in the field has a half-finished novel. Finishing novels is much harder than starting them–it’s not that last little half step to oodge over the finish line after you finish all the hard work of having the idea.

    1. Not So NewReader

      Potential. Here’s the deal on potential, it comes to fruition shortly. Depending on the nature of the work OR the individual, we are talking a period of days or weeks. I don’t know how long you have been working with this guy but it sounds like months. No, if he actually had potential it would be showing in his work by now. You would be seeing incremental improvements.
      I say this as a person who has trained a LOT of people. Day one they are nervous as heck because they so badly want to do a good job. By the end of the week they are comfortable asking a few questions, they are working on keeping up with check-ins with me and other similar foundational stuff. He works 3 days a week, so I would give him two weeks to reach this point. I would expect to see small improvements. I would expect to see questions that show he is thinking about the task. (I put good questions on the same level as doing good work. A good question telegraphs how much thought the person is putting into their work. And if they pause to ask a question, that means they have stopped working. I really like this part, because if they are going off the tracks I can catch them and get them back on track just because they stopped. It’s when they keep going that the mistakes pile up and up.)
      When computerized cash registers first became a thing, the new hires were a bit overwhelmed. It was easier to delete a mistake right away than it was to back track and find it. My solution was to tell them to stop the minute they realized something might be wrong. This worked so well. I fixed the mistake, we went over what TO DO and they went on. It did not take long, the new hire did not need me to help any more.

  16. Overagekid

    I want to know what sort of work they do there.
    They say they do writing, photograph, video and lighting, which is a lot for one person.
    Maybe one of the issues is just they are doing so many different types of task.
    Maybe they are good at one form of creative work, and therefore assume they’re good at the others.

    1. Psyche

      It sounds like they keep bouncing him from project to project hoping something works because he keeps doing poorly. I don’t think he is doing it all at once.

    2. TootsNYC

      the types of mistakes sound like general widespread incompetence, not “I don’t know much about video editing yet.”

      1. pcake

        That’s how it sounds to me, too. I mean, blurry pictures in many high school projects would have lead to lower grades; possibly a fail if the class was a creative or photography-specific class. Not recognizing that blurry pics aren’t to any standard and not using spell check after having misspells pointed out? This person really isn’t trying.

  17. Constant vigilance

    I agree about the honest feedback. I also think that you need to be prepared for him to not handle it well. It’s possible that he will take it graciously and use it to improve, but with this degree of mismatch between his perception of his skills and his actual performance, you may have to deal with either complete rejection of the idea that he is doing anything badly or his being completely crushed. You aren’t responsible for his feelings, of course, but it’s hard not to feel that way sometimes.

    1. Cordelia Vorkosigan

      Yes, I also think he’ll be completely crushed. He won’t just be reassessing his skill level at these few tasks. It sounds like he’ll be reassessing his entire self-image, which is a really hard place to be. But I totally agree that you have to give the honest feedback to him anyway. It would be cruel to let him go on thinking he’s really good at these tasks when he isn’t.

      1. JessaB

        I’m on for crushed too, but I think it’s wrong that he wasn’t told he failed that writing test the very first time he mentioned that he thought the job was a lock. That’s seriously wrong. Considering he’s an intern, the interview team should have told him that.

      2. kneadmeseymour

        I suspect this is why the LW has been resistant to delivering the hard truth so far, but really, it would be much easier to absorb this blow as an intern rather than later on down the line. Many people aren’t willing to have this kind of conversation, which is how the Dunning-Kruger effect continues to run wild and free.

    2. YouGottaThrowtheWholeJobAway

      My former colleague at another company once had a summer intern who clearly DID NOT WANT TO BE THERE. This kid had been brought in by some family member or other personal connection, and his “dream” was to do sports-related marketing (the polar opposite of academic and nonfiction books, aka our products!). He spent the entire time moping around, and was kind of shocked when everyone would not only give him work to do all day, but then would also give him very gentle constructive criticism on his work. To his credit, he showed up and did stuff and took it, just unenthusiastically to the extreme. At the end of the summer, he wrote my friend a thank you note saying he learned a lot and appreciated the experience, but would be changing his major from Marketing to something else for the fall because it turns out he hates Marketing.

      Sometimes it’s not terrible to give honest feedback and risk “crushing dreams” because it could be that their dream is so far removed from the reality of the work it saves them a rude awakening down the line. It sounds like the OP’s intern really wants to be there, but it’s good to reinforce that while you can gain useful skills in college, the metrics are not at all the same and the bar for “good writing” in the real world is far higher.

    3. Airy

      Some kind of preamble might help, like “I need to give you some bigger-picture feedback about your work. This may be hard to hear but I assure you, it comes from wanting to help you improve and succeed. As you hear what I have to say, instead of trying to respond to it right away I’d like you to take time to let your thoughts and reactions settle. We’ll be able to discuss it again when you’ve had time to consider it.”
      A really common response to getting negative feedback is to jump into explaining and trying to defend oneself, whether out of arrogance or because one is terrified of being in big trouble, so explicitly not just giving permission but *telling* him to hold his response could prevent that. Not necessarily *will* prevent it, but it’s worth a crack.

  18. Middle School Teacher

    This letter is timely for me, because I’m dealing with something similar right now. When I go back to school next week I’m going to have to have a hard conversation, I think.

      1. Middle School Teacher

        Yuuuuuuuup. We’re going to be having the “why exactly do you want to teach?” chat next week. She’s a lovely person, but she’s struggling, and honestly my kids are so good it’s like teaching at Disneyland. If she can’t hack it in my class, a regular school will eat her alive.

        1. Queen of Cans and Jars

          I used to teach, and it frustrated the hell out of me when we’d get student teachers who’d make it all the way to student teaching and were TERRIBLE at it! As long as you completed your portfolios, you’d get your license. Teaching is a career where the damage done by a bad teacher is WAY worse than what can happen if you’re bad in many other career fields. I was hoping that with the addition of testing as a requirement to get a teaching license, that may have helped somewhat, but I guess not. :(

          1. JessaB

            When I had student teachers (oh man 30 years ago, I am officially old,) the student teaching “grade” was a giant percentage of their final marks. You didn’t do good on it, you didn’t graduate with a teaching degree. Has this changed so much?

            1. Middle School Teacher

              Our university grades practicums on a pass/fail. I used to be ok with that because I could go into detail in my report about what was good and what needed growth. Now they’ve changed the report format so I can’t talk as much about those soft skills. The curriculum knowledge is there, but it takes more than curriculum to be successful in the classroom. If you don’t have guts and stage presence, if you can’t think on your feet, if you aren’t organised, middle school is not for you.

              1. JessaB

                No kidding, I can teach anyone curriculum (I was in kindergarten and first grade special education,) I can teach anyone to position a kid and how to fix the wheelchair that went through three kids before the one who now has it. I cannot teach how to make kids listen to you, how to hold their interest, how to make learning fun. Very few soft skills can be taught in the amount of time you have a student teacher. I hate the idea that the forms don’t give you more room for the soft skills.

        2. AH

          Oof. This happened to a friend of mine, she was so bad they had to cut short her practicum & when she was told she had a meltdown in front of the students. Her dream of being a teacher destroyed before it started.
          On this particular letter, I hope there’s an update.

          1. JessB

            I work at a university that offers teaching degrees, and honestly, finding out fast that it’s not for you is a kindness, although I’m sure it doesn’t feel like it at the time.
            In Australia, teaching is a 4-year degree, and lots of our students are part-time, so it takes even longer to complete the course. Failing fast saves you so much money and time. I always worry about students who leave all their placements to the end of their course- learning to be a teacher is so different to actually being a teacher.
            I agree that I’d love an update on this question!

    1. TootsNYC

      or a student?

      I want to encourage the middle school teachers of America to be honest in their encouragement.

      1. Middle School Teacher

        No fear of that in my room! I was one of those kids who skated through life in school and then faced the cold hard (expensive) reality in university. I don’t want anyone to go through that if they don’t have to. Better they learn now than when they’re paying $6000 a year.

      2. Kiki

        I think it is precarious situation for teachers of that age group because I’ve known quite a few very successful people who were told they were talentless or hopelessly bad at something in middle school when the truth is they were perfectly fine. I was told computer programming wasn’t my strong suit because I wasn’t immediately great at in middle school. I went to college for something different and worked in that field for a while, but I’m now a software engineer. My parents heavily restricted my computer time growing up, so I was behind all the dudes in the class who had computers to themselves since elementary school, but I’m quite good with computers.

        Honest feedback is good, but it’s a delicate road at an early age.

        1. Aurion

          I think that can be mitigated by giving (initial) feedback without judgement. “Your work in X, Y, and Z is deficient because of A, B, and C. You’ll need to improve on those.”

          If, after several rounds of such feedback and the person cannot improve on A, B, and C, then one can approach the “are you sure this is the right field for you” talk. No one reasonable expects miracles out of the gate from a trainee or student, especially when trainees don’t necessarily have a level playing field. But if you cannot get better even with specific instructions to do so, that’s a problem for your future in this field.

  19. ragazza

    Oh my god, yes, please give this guy a dose of reality before he becomes a CEO or a politician.

  20. JSPA

    Lot of slightly different scenarios here.

    1. intern is intentionally doing the “fake it to make it” thing. May be decent once warned off of that. (A rare, strategic fake is one thing, but you simply can’t fake the fundamentals–and you can’t fake if you’re not super-fast on the uptake–and you can’t fake if you don’t have a good internal yardstick and some situational awareness–and you can’t fake frequently, let alone constantly.)

    2. Intern’s been encouraged to think of themselves as being special by someone (parent? partner? Gaming buddy? People on Reddit?) really not equipped to judge…but whom intern (for whatever reason) trusts implicitly. Finding out who told the intern they were excellent, and instilling the essential kernel of doubt, may cure the problem.

    3. Intern may have a deep-seated inability to understand or accept their shortcomings, or to put themselves in context. School of hard knocks may be the only way to learn.

    4. medium fish in a tiny bowl–do the intern’s great academics come from a place where almost nobody comes out with marketable skills?

    5. broader problems with qualifications and honesty. Does the intern really have great academics, or is that smoke, mirrors, dodgy admissions to a good school (as recently highlighted in the news, but hardly a new problem) and a faked transcript (or harried professors and long-suffering student project team-mates) being bamboozled too?

    6. general difficulties processing reactions and feedback from others (this can lead to a faulty sense of what’s being rewarded, and thus a really counterproductive feedback process). I have had to deal with people whose ability to process human response added up to, “if there’s even a hint of a smile on someone’s face, they’re pleased.”

    I might preface any feedback with a dive into, “on what basis / based on whose feedback do you feel you’re demonstrably great at X? At Y? At Z?” And also, “what sorts of reactions do you take as evidence that people are happy with your work?”

    It’s absolutely not your job to teach someone “reading human reactions 101,” but knowing what’s driving the behavior can make it so, so much easier to deal with. You don’t have to frame something as a personal deficit to be able to say, “in work culture, most people strive to always keep a pleasant look on their face; a smile or handshake can’t normally tell you whether your interview went well or badly.”

    1. Snark

      This is a fantastic breakdown of all the factors that could lead to this.

      I especially liked, ” I have had to deal with people whose ability to process human response added up to, “if there’s even a hint of a smile on someone’s face, they’re pleased.” I have met a few like this. They are the exception to the compliment sandwich rule.

    2. school of hard knowcs

      Wow excellent comment, 6 should give the OP the plan on how to handle this.

    3. Batgirl

      Yeah, I would be really interested in The Story of His Greatness because he’s coming from education where progress is praised just as much as attainment.
      It could be he was on Level -50 and he’s now reached Level 0 and has rightfully been praised for the effort of going up 50 levels. I somehow don’t think it’s as simple as booksmarts not translating into workskills because of the issue with writing. It’s probably misread praise and then add in some Dunning-Kruger and this is what you get.
      I mean, when he is so close to being in the workplace the college feedback should be: “You’re doing so much better but to be ready for your final year/the workplace you will need to really work on x,y and z. X in particular is unacceptable so start there.” However it’s common for someone who only sees their own progress to not hear anything after the ‘but’. You have to give the harsh ‘not good enough for the workplace’ feedback or they’ll never get it.

    4. Jules the 3rd

      Well, not all the factors. You’re missing ‘possible dyslexia, ADHD, or other learning disability that has been compensated for in school settings but which Intern doesn’t know how to compensate for in the less structured professional world.’

      1. JSPA

        I actually was keeping all of those fairly well in mind.

        We’re generally discouraged from going direct to diagnosable conditions, so I tried to generalize. Especially as we’ve hashed through, before, how “do you have / you might have / people who do this sometimes have condition X” talks, and how they’re broadly legally problematic, even when meant to steer someone towards help and support.

        If you want me to overgeneralize inappropriately…

        Dyslexia doesn’t leave someone unaware of their issues, generally. Can drive “fake it to make it” or lead to “inappropriate trust in the praise of authority.” Some of the others (ADD, Autism Spectrum, and for that matter, even psychopathy–which does NOT have to render someone evil or unkind!– will functionally often fall under 2, 3, 6, and maybe (as a coping strategy) 1. Point is, you’re not allowed to address the presumed or suspected biological root cause. You are allowed to address concrete issues as they come up.

        1. JSPA

          This would be off-topic (I don’t want to apply it to the intern) but I realize some may be very distracted by my throwing psychopathy-associated processing disabilities into the list. So…

          https://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2017/02/a-revised-portrait-of-psychopaths/

          “inability to predict the likelihood of regret”

          It’s coming to seem like this is yet another perceptual spectrum deficit. Psychopathy is most often noticed when, in combination with life experience, it creates people who do terrible things. But some people who score very low for those awareness factors are functionally kind and caring (and functionally solid at predicting outcomes). It’s amazing what can be trained and learned.

      2. Ice and Indigo

        If the school settings compensated for a case of special educational needs, they’d have had to be aware that he had special educational needs. In that case, he’d have been in the position to ask for workplace accommodations as well.

    5. Seeking Second Childhood

      Would the grammar & spelling errors be a subset of #3? Or a separate #7?

      1. Countess Boochie Flagrante

        It can be all of the above. #2 is one I tend to think of as being behind a lot of people’s grammar and spelling problems — I can’t tell you how many times I heard from classmates in writing-heavy courses something along the lines of “I don’t need to know the comma rules, because I just intuitively know where they belong!” The Venn diagram of people who said this in my hearing and people who believed that comma rules are simply, “put a comma anywhere a speaker might pause for a moment,” is quite nearly a perfect circle. They believe that they’re so special that they don’t need to learn the rules and can just wing it.

    6. deesse877

      One small addition: trouble reading reactions can be cultural rather than individual. For example, people coming from very authoritarian high school settings sometimes don’t notice negative feedback until very late in the game at college, because to them, if no one is yelling or red-faced, it couldn’t be that bad.

    7. Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain

      A bit of a tangent on #6: That sort of black and white, all-or-nothing, extreme thinking is something that children go through as part of their learning development before being able to grasp complex ideas and use critical thinking to solve problems. At some point they learn there can be more than one right answer; there can be more than one right way to do a task; there can be degrees of relationships between Friend or Enemy; you can make mistakes or fail at some things and still good at other things, etc. Continuing to have black-and-white thinking, ie. “if it’s not awful, then it must be great,” can be a result of immaturity.

    8. Oh So Anon

      #3 is a big one. A lot of parents, including my own, always used the “don’t compare yourself to other people” platitude and similar stuff like “there’s always be someone who’s doing better than you”. They mean well, but how the heck can someone develop a well-calibrated internal yardstick without looking outside themselves?

  21. Person from the Resume

    I’ve tried talking to him about slowing down and being more thorough with his work. I’ve also gone through all the changes I’ve done to his work so he understands why they were necessary.

    But have you said your writing is awful; your social media posts are cringe worthy, and you’re a terrible public speaker? It sure doesn’t seem like it when you describe what you said to him. Now I know saying it that explicitly is harsh so you should chose slightly softer language but you have to tell him is not good at things he thinks he’s good at and there’s no way that’s not going to hurt a little bit.

    As Alison say, though, it is nicer to do it now that to leave him clueless as he goes off into the real world confused about why he can’t even get a job. A little harsh reality now allows him a chance to improve instead of “mysteriously” failing to get a job. It may or may not work. He sounds quite delusion about his skills, but I would say it’s part of your role as this intern’s supervisor to give him a dose of the real work experience.

    1. Not So NewReader

      When he brags about his skills, it’s fine to say, “Ummm. I gave you a list of corrections on X from the other day. Great work does not come with a list of corrections. So no, your work is not great yet. If you apply what you have learned and been shown, then you have to potential to do great work. But you are not there yet. And you have a ways to go.”

      If he persists in referring to his great work, then I would say, “Bob, we have talked about what great work looks like. You need to stop saying you do great work. There are people who have been in this field for decades and they do not go around saying they do great work. If you persist in saying you do great work, at best you will look out of touch. At worst you will gain a reputation for lying when people see that your work is less than great and needs many corrections.”

  22. animaniactoo

    Ask him if he’s ever seen the American Idol auditions. The REALLY bad singers who insist that they’re fantastic, and everybody they know tells them they’re great singers and their parents have invested 100s of 1000s of dollars into their singing lessons.

    Be prepared. Because like them, you may tell him the truth until the cows come home and he won’t be able to hear it.

    But you can try. And you’re going to have to be very very blunt. “You’re not unrecoverable, but if you won’t take advice and slow down, you will not improve, and you’ll continue to sound like those auditioners.”

    After that… he’ll likely have a fit the way many of those auditioners do. At which point, you tell him this evaluation is not up for debate and you would like him to take some time to process it and think about how he wants to move forward. Then he’ll either double down on how awesome he is, or he’ll ask for help or he’ll button up in shame and slink around. If he goes the latter route, he’s recoverable and you should reach out to encourage working to overcome his weaknesses. If he goes the former route… you might want to assess whether he finishes his internship.

  23. LawBee

    Oh, good luck, LW. I don’t envy the conversation you have to have with this guy – and you absolutely have to have it. He may be a great person, but he sucks at his job and it’s impacting YOUR job.

  24. WellRed

    LE, what industry do you think DOESN’T require him to be able to perform these functions you listed?

  25. ooo

    Praying for an update on this one, because I’ll eat my hat if this guy is receptive to the honest feedback and agrees that, although he didn’t see it before, he’s got a lot of work to do if he wants to improve.

    1. Tiara Wearing Princess

      The LW said, when confronted (after this letter was written), cited the death of his roommate’s grandmother, his not feeling well and havongv2 quizzes that week as reasons for his mistakes.

      Sheesh.

      1. ooo

        Lol. Yeah, the people suggesting the letter writer needs to adjust the tasks they’re giving him because an internship is supposed to give him a chance to learn something need to understand that his issues have nothing to do with the particular work he’s doing.

        1. EventPlannerGal

          Personally I would adjust the tasks not for the intern’s benefit but because it sounds like the tasks are too urgent or important to be given to an intern. The OP says that if he doesn’t do them correctly she has to redo them herself and there’s no time for him to do it, which seems like they’re basically real work on a real work timescale. A well-designed internship should account for the possibility that the intrern’s work will require redos or be of poorer quality than an employee’s, and it shouldn’t require doubling the supervisor’s workload to do that.

  26. Bend & Snap

    “When you’re a manager, even of interns — especially of interns! — you have an obligation to deliver honest feedback.”

    THISSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSS

    I did an internship in college (40 hours a week, unpaid), never got a lick of feedback on my work, and then my manager eviscerated me in my evaluation. I got a C for the internship and it tanked my GPA in my senior year. The complaints were things I was never instructed to do (sign my boss’s name to a batch of letters to donors) and had no idea I was supposed to do. It still stands out to me as an absolutely appalling work experience.

    This intern deserves feedback and guidance. Who knows, he might not be terrible at things if someone is actually teaching him.

  27. Noah

    I wonder if the internet understands his shortcomings and the bluster is an attempt to hide that.

  28. MuseumChick

    One more thing *pulls out soap box* college and universities are doing students huge disservices by passing them when they *really* don’t deserve to pass. It’s not just undergrad, when I was in grad school there was one girl who really, really did not deserve to pass. Her work was consistently sub par but the faculty had campus political reasons they didn’t want to fail here. Now she is out there with the exact same degree as me and my other classmates. It’s infuriating.

      1. MuseumChick

        From what I could gather, this person was a favorite of a long time, entrenched professor and there were major funding cuts coming, the professors running our program (this is my guess) felt that failing a student would reflect badly on the program and risk their funding.

        1. Manic Pixie HR Girl

          I get it, but this sort of thinking is SO counterintuitive!

          Also, passing people who shouldn’t = why even the best programs will never, ever, have a 100% job placement rate, even in the best of economies.

        2. Justin

          My doctoral program has a required 3.3 average.

          I’m gonna say at least one of my classmates is below that and trending down, but I also doubt this person will be sent home, because it would look bad if they chose this person instead of other applicants and they couldn’t handle it within a year.

          So yeah, that sort of thing happens.

        3. anonymous 5

          I’ve been pressured by my dean (!) to make exceptions to policies in my syllabus; to give students higher scores (even in the physical sciences, mind you); and, in a particularly disgusting case, to look the other way when a student turned in a Wikipedia article as a final research paper. I’m tenured, so was able to put my foot down. Adjunct and pre-tenure faculty don’t necessarily have that luxury.

    1. DiscoTechie

      The more I’m out in the world I’m glad I went to the state school for engineering that I did. The average freshman drop out rate has always hovered at 50 percent in the first semester. It seemed brutal and harsh at the time, but now I see it as getting to the point as quick as possible. Students who applied were self selecting. Overall the college had a 93% acceptance rate, but if you looked at the stats you had majority in the top 10% of their high school class. The reckoning of the smart kid in high school who didn’t have do much to be valedictorian happened pretty fast and without any cushioning. As one of those smart kids, the humbling experience of coming to realistic terms of my own intelligence, which is really finite, and understanding that my success was going to be solely based on my ability to work my butt off was the best thing that ever happened to me. Plus, I got to take Calc III twice.

  29. Dust Bunny

    Let me guess: This is one of those letters where the LW has been direct . . . but not really.

    LW, you sound like a nice person but at some point, you can take nice too far. You need to be a lot clearer with him about what is going wrong.

  30. LaDeeDa

    When identifying future leaders and high potential employees one of the first things I look for is self-awareness, and this guy is not self-aware at all! I often wonder in cases like this if the feedback he has been given hasn’t been direct, if it has been framed in a way that is more subtle, and he isn’t picking it up. Clear examples– this is what you gave, this is what I had to change/fix/edit.
    As far as presentations, record him. Let him see that trainwreck for what it is. If you have a chapter of Toastmasters at your company, get him to take it.
    If your company does DISC or any other type of assessment see if he can take it, to help him identify his barriers, and hopefully help him become more self-aware.
    And above all else, tell him he hasn’t been open to feedback/coaching, and if he wants to continue at the company and to to grow, then he needs to hear and take the feedback he is being offered. If he can’t do that dot dot dot

  31. Justin

    Be direct with him. It is not going to click from hints. Be direct. MORE direct than you think I mean. Really direct.

    This reminds me of some of my classmates. We’re getting doctorates. But the time-management skills are really lacking. We’re in our first year and everyone wanted extensions for things on the syllabus from day one. I don’t understand. We’re supposed to be able to handle the initial work. How can we handle the harder things if the beginning is a struggle?

    1. Justin

      (That was really just whining, sorry. But I get the impression some folks really do get coddled all the way up to very high levels. Do him a favor!)

      1. LaDeeDa

        I was told by a former boss that I was too strict with deadlines… um… ?? I still have to work with some of those people who think a deadline is a “suggestion.”

    2. topscallop

      A friend of mine, who is in her early thirties, has gone back to grad school to get her master’s after 10 years of professional experience, and all her classmates are straight out of undergrad. She tells me that none of them show up to planned meetings or study groups. I was appalled the other day when she said she waited an hour and a half for a girl in her program who had asked to pick my friend’s brain and get advice on her professional goals. My friend took the time to go to a coffee shop and provide advice and guidance, and this girl just never showed up OR apologized. My friend used the time to get her own work done instead. She says they’re all like this, which makes me desperately hope they all get wake-up calls soon and despair for the next generation if they don’t.

  32. Lepidoptera

    There’s only so far you can go with coaching someone who’s objectively bad at a creative undertaking. You can teach grammar and style guides, but you can’t teach an innate understanding of word flow. You can teach aperture and the golden ratio, but you can’t teach an instinct for photo composition.

    Even if you give him examples of quality projects to study and learn from, all you’re doing is giving him source material to vomit back at you. In that scenario, you’ll always be the one doing the heavy lifting. At some point, he either has to sink or swim with the natural talents he does or does not have.

    1. Batgirl

      I believe everything can be learned, but when someone’s ability level is very low, there are definitely limits of time, motivation, availabilty of free teaching, money and just generally knowing ‘there are definitely things you are better at than this’.

      1. Ice and Indigo

        You can learn to get better at anything, but creative abilities are among the absolute hardest to teach. You can teach the technical aspects, but that gets you to the level of ‘minimum competence’, especially in something nebulous like language use, where the technical aspects are things like spelling, grammar and avoiding mixed metaphors. After that, the learning curve gets a lot steeper, and if someone’s producing work that’s still really not good, they may have trouble even understanding the concepts that they haven’t yet mastered, never mind how to master them.

        And yeah, maybe if someone spends years or decades on something they can learn it, which can be a beautiful thing to see. But as you say, time and motivation are key, and a lot of creative ability tends to be self-taught by people patiently working away and learning by doing. That’s not very applicable to an office context. If he wants to do that, great, let’s wish him lots of luck! But it’s probably not where he should be looking for his next job.

        He should learn how to communicate coherently, because that’s a basic professional skill, but outside of that, I’d focus on the stuff that can be fixed before he makes his next job application.

        1. Batgirl

          Yes absolutely. Creativity is the very tip of Maslow’s pyramid! Of course it’s the hardest to reach.
          I take the point he should work on base skills first; that only makes sense to walk before you can run.
          It’s just that creativity is not dispensed by angels or handed over by the fairy who got invited to the christening.
          It’s not magic; it’s a higher order skill.
          It’s the result of unglamorous work, driven by whatever motivation is to hand, and it’s available to anyone who wants it and is gifted with the (sometimes rare) opportunity to get it.

          1. Ice and Indigo

            I’m not going to speculate about fairy godmothers, because the last time I did that something cursed my cattle.

  33. Michaela Westen

    I’d just like to say to give the feedback slowly and carefully. If he has a distorted self-image, bringing all these things at once could cause a shock to his system and make him spin out or get depressed. He could feel like he’s being attacked and bombarded with bad things.
    If you have time, maybe bring him one thing with an assignment to correct it, then a few days later the next thing, and a few days later the next… and that would give him time to adjust gradually.
    When I was young I kept getting fired and no one would tell me what I was doing wrong. They said unhelpful things like “it’s not working out”. It was so discouraging, I thought about turning to crime. Don’t be like that. Thanks!

    1. Observer

      It’s bad that no one would give you straight answers. But the opposite of that is not “provide information in dribs and drabs.”

      In this case, this suggestion is quite bad. For one thing, the OP is already dealing with an increased workload due to this intern’s incompetence. For another and more fundamental thing, the OP *has* been giving him feedback already, and he is NOT connecting the dots. They’ve told him to slow down and be more careful about errors. They’ve given him the corrections and explained them. And he’s still not getting is!

      At this point what he needs is someone who can show him the pattern. And that won’t happen with this kind of slowly spaced out approach.

      1. Psyche

        I agree that giving the information slowly would be worse. Telling him every few days that he sucks at something else would be extremely demoralizing. Better to rip off the band-aid and then give positive encouragement as he improves.

      2. Batgirl

        Ah… a ‘connect dots’ style of feedback has only got a chance in hell with a high ability person when the change required is something like a question of preference. Saying “I changed x to y – infer and deduce why” is a high skill question. It’s also useless because you aren’t going to insult a high skill person by just straightforwardly saying “The preference is y”. Just say it.

        To someone who can’t produce acceptable written material, that style of feedback is worse than useless, it’s misleading and will read as “You wrote something really good; here are some tweaks which make it great. I love teaching you stuff!”

        1. Observer

          Well, that’s my point. If you just keep on giving him individual items, he is not going to get it. What the OP needs to do is to connect the dots for him and explain the pattern.

          They have already given him a bunch of the dots. Now they need to say “you made these mistakes in this, that and the other job. You also made those mistakes in x, y and z projects. That indicates that you lack skill 1 and you also fail to take action z when you need to.”

          So something like “As I showed you, you made significant grammar errors in these projects. You also got your facts wrong on those projects. This indicates that you are not a good writer. You also apparently don’t take the time to check your work for errors. These are issues that make you work unacceptable.”

          No guesswork for the intern.

    2. Michaela Westen

      If they sit him down and tell him basically “you suck at everything”… I know that would have sent me into a tailspin. He’s under the impression he’s good at these things. Telling him “No, your sense of reality is all wrong, you suck” is the message he’ll get if this is done all at once.
      I would have felt very threatened and hurt. I probably would have run away because I couldn’t face them. And I would have wondered if anything I perceived was real, and if I was crazy.
      If it was one thing with the message, “here, see the corrections, do it this way” and then I’d think I did just this one thing wrong, it’s not so bad, and get used to that… and when I’m used to it, the next thing… and so on…
      That would have worked much better with me.
      Of course OP knows him and we don’t, she is the best one to determine the approach.

      1. Not So NewReader

        The part about “I am good at everything” I have seen handled with, “We have people who have been here for decades and they do not say such things. You will do well to stop saying that yourself. No one believes you because they know for a fact that senior people are not good at everything, therefore it is impossible that you are better than that. Everyone can improve, no matter how long they have been in this field. If you want to succeed here you need to focus on improvements and let go of the idea that you are good at everything.”

  34. nnn

    Also, are there things he’s good at? If yes, it would be a kindness to focus his energies towards those areas.

  35. Kiki

    I’ve seen this happen before with people who are so positive and enthusiastic that nobody feels comfortable telling them that they didn’t do well. In my experience, these people are very prolific, but not necessarily good at what they’re doing (They have a blog, are very active on social media, take a lot of photos, etc., but the quality of what they produce isn’t improving). It’s hard to “bring someone down,” but you’re actually giving this intern a gift by giving him an accurate assessment.

    1. Kiki

      His great personality could also explain his belief that he’s really good at social media. People who are very friendly (or very good-looking) often have a lot of friends, followers, and/or engagement on personal social media accounts, but that doesn’t necessarily translate to doing social media for an organization.

  36. ENFP

    Do Universities provide any practical training or prep work for those undertaking an internship?

    1. LaDeeDa

      No, and often their career counseling and resume advice are awful. We hire a lot of interns every summer and I work with our university recruiter to give them a 2 day workshop which includes a personality assessment (similar to DISC) that identifies their strong areas, communications styles, and blind spots, a general business/office etiquette, and I during the lunch hour I bring in a business dining etiquette expert to guide them on how to properly navigate a business lunch or dinner, and we conclude with a diversity/culture awareness-we are a foreign-owned company and the etiquette and expectations from that area of the world are very different. I am trying to set them up for success and to also entice them to come back and work for us when they are done with school… it seems to help. We have had only had one sort of etiquette type issue, and about 60% are offered and accept full-time positions.

    2. TotesMaGoats

      My university requires a professional behaviors class that I teach. We do cover letter, resumes, professional behaviors. I use the letters from this website as discussion material. Personality assessments are the first assignment I give.

  37. YetEvenAnotherAlison

    IMO the kindest thing you can do for him is to tell him the truth about where his skills rank in terms of expectations. Since this is the “real world” and not class, he may have received significant praise and kudos in class because his work is better than the others in his class. For example, with respect to presentations – you would say – here are the basic expectations of a presentation – 1. organization of material 2. ability to read the audience, etc….then give him examples of how he FAILED – yes FAILED to meet those expectations. Please give him blow by blow of what he did or did not do in the presentation. Please do it in no uncertain terms. Trust me when I tell you this – you will be doing him a wonderful service. If you feel mean for being so “harsh” you can couch it with the fact that this is why one interns – to learn about the standards and expectations in the real world. Even with my years of experience, if I have a trusted manager or peer in the room when I present, I ask for feedback and SHUT MY MOUTH and LISTEN if the person is kind enough to tell me the good, bad and the ugly. The stakes are low for your intern (or lower now) – there is time to mentor, polish, tutor and that is what internships are designed to do. It is up to him if he learns something from it – hopefully his ego will allow him to do so.

  38. animaniactoo

    OP, there was a lot to unpack in your letter, and I just found one piece that I think I missed earlier.

    I’ve also gone through all the changes I’ve done to his work so he understands why they were necessary.

    Stop doing this. Mark it up, hand it back to him and make HIM fix it. If he never has to correct his own work like this, he won’t take it in the same way and he’s far less likely to improve in a hurry. At a minimum, when you get it, it should need tightening up, NOT entire revisions to correct misspelled and missing words and bad accompanying artwork. Tell him you need the finished presentation, not the first draft – and what he’s given you is basically at raw first draft stage. Do it even if you don’t have the time to use whatever he’s turned in. Make him go back and fix it and fix it right until he can hand you a competent report on that one report. Then you can assign him new reports to do, and be clear that the first version he hands you of those needs to be as complete as that is.

    1. Manic Pixie HR Girl

      Yes, this. My writing skills were relatively strong, and even still my boss (and in turn, his boss), consistently marked up my memos and had me make the changes myself. I went from being a decent writer to a really strong one, and it really doesn’t take a lot of time. If he’s that smart, he’ll be able to tell from the markup and corrections why it is better just from reading it as he makes the corrections.

      Tracked changes + comments works really well for this.

    2. boo bot

      This is so important, and worth emphasizing. Just showing him the changes isn’t going to stick. If it seems like the necessary changes are too hard to explain without giving him the answer (that should be capitalized, your using the wrong form of you’re their…) then tell him, but have him be the one to type it in; that’s not punitive, it’s just that for a lot of people (most people?) just looking at a page someone else fixed isn’t going to stick in their memory in the same way as making the changes themselves will; even the physical act of typing helps.

    3. Psyche

      Honestly, if it’s that bad hand it back before marking it up and tell him to fix his grammar and spelling. Then you can focus on content (and the spelling and grammar mistakes he misses).

    4. Ice and Indigo

      This is good advice, not least because learning by doing teaches you a lot more than just getting told. If he has to go through something multiple times until it’s up to standard, that’ll be quite a thorough education in understanding what the standard actually is – which seems to be the biggest hole in his skill set. It’s like learning a route by having to drive it until you stop getting lost, versus learning it by driving it once while following the GPS.

  39. Jules the 3rd

    LW, I recommend you have the talk with him about overall shortcomings, then explain the focus of the remaining time in the internship will be on the most basic skill, writing.

    Have him re-write his work himself, over and over until at least grammar and spelling are correct. You can red-pen the problems, but don’t tell him how to fix them. This reduces your workload from the current level, and gives him a really effective learning opportunity. Yes, you will be doing a little more work than if you had no intern, and yes it’s work his teachers should have done, but it’s a way to get through the internship, giving him some skills without totally stressing you.

    If he shows significant improvement in basic grammar and spelling, then you can introduce the advanced topic of outlining and organizing, for use in both writing and presentations. Don’t spend time on teaching him, though – just send him to a website that explains outlining and its usefulness.

    Yes, I know good presentations use minimalist slides, with the presenter giving the interesting details, but even good presenters start with the ‘write everything on slides in an organized manner and read them’ format, and it sounds like he’s not even at that level.

  40. LawLady

    While in grad school I TA’ed an undergrad econ class that is one of the first ones where rather than problem sets, students are asked to formulate research questions, find and analyze data, etc. Basically it’s the transition from “learning about econ” to “doing the work of econ”. Some students really struggle with that, or just don’t enjoy it.

    I had to have a few tough conversations where I talked with students about what course of study was right for them. I tried to be kind but candid and realistic.

  41. Joielle

    Does anyone watch 30 Rock? This reminds me of the episodes with Liz’s boyfriend who’s really hot so everyone just tells him he’s good at everything so he ends up being REALLY incompetent and not realizing it. Like, he’s a surgeon who’s never heard of the Heimlich maneuver.

    Is the intern really attractive? (KIDDING)

    1. JKP

      Or on Arrested Development when her posh British accent made everything she said sound really deep and profound.

  42. AngryAngryAlice

    Alt headline suggestion: “My Intern is Acting Like Most Interns Who Forget They’re Still Just Interns, and I Don’t Know How to Break It to Him that He’s Still an Intern”

    In case that rewrite wasn’t clear, what I mean to say is that I cringed reading this letter because it reminds me of my intern days in some ways. Granted, I was generally very good at the job, but I did have my fair share of embarrassingly misguided inflated ego moments (not to mention my complete unawareness when it came to acting professionally… ugh).

    I got the sense during my few years interning that most interns experience this to some degree, although this one sounds particularly clueless. It’ll be tough to break it to him, but I agree with Alison that as of right now, you are doing him no favors.

    (Also, I felt bad for this, but I burst into audible laughter at this line: “In fact, he’s already told me to be prepared to lose him before the end of his internship because everything went amazingly and he knows my boss is going to want him to start immediately.” This dude is about to get slapped in the face by the hand of reason, and it’s going to leave a mark.)

  43. Frogsandturtles

    Sometimes people with severe undiagnosed and untreated ADHD have pretty inaccurate view of their abilities. Often they can have shaky self-esteem and believe they are terrible at everything, but sometimes it goes the other way. In my (admittedly limited) experience living closely with someone like this, they believe that their “creative” (otherwise known as chaotic) and “spontaneous” (inability to plan) approach to work, combined with their humor and charm, is all they need to bring to the table. The grunt work of details and deadlines is seen as kind of irrelevant — which I think is not out of being a jerk but because ADHD makes it really difficult to see that grunt work and details ARE the work. And that coming up with awesome ideas is only like 2% of the process.

    Since severe ADHD means pretty much being unable to see or understand organization or planning, only the spontaneous now — the metaphor of color blindness is sometimes used — for them, the awesome idea part is more like 100%. Which is great if you are hanging out and socializing, but not so great if you are actually trying to accomplish something important. ADHD also makes it difficult to remember or put to use constructive feedback — it must be repeated many times because that sort of thing is like the color green for someone who is color blind to green. And because folks like this are often fun to be around & can be very likeable due to all the emphasis on the present moment, their charm can actually can allow work-related stuff to get pretty bad before any consequences kick in.

    Anyway, maybe irrelevant but the wide mismatch between this kid’s perception of his abilities and the reality made me think of this.

    1. JSPA

      Add Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, and a whole host of other disorders, syndromes, and “ways of being.” But all of that is really only relevant from a managerial point of view if understanding the disorder provides a path to changing the outcome. And as Alison often points out, our only point of input is the situation and actions, not the disorder or the person’s biological situation. The manager can encourage the use of a checklist, but the manager can’t BE the checklist.

    2. Anon for Mental Health Stuff

      My son is like this, and believe me it’s a very difficult condition to parent! (Especially when you yourself have ADHD and general executive function issues.) Like, we want to encourage him and not send him into a shattering depressive spiral (which he’s prone to!), but at the same time we want to teach him to take constructive feedback on board… how?? How do we walk that line?

      I see a lot of comments here blaming the intern’s parents among other things, but it is a far more nuanced situation for parents than that. Half my family has a history of suicidal thoughts, the child included, and it is really, really hard in my area to find a good therapist for teens who is taking on new patients. We are flying by the seat of our pants half the time here.

      1. Observer

        Blaming the parents in a case like this is a fool’s game, to be honest. Your situation is only one example of why. We have no idea why this kid has a distorted sense of self and of how the world works. So, besides the fact that it’s utterly useless to the OP, it’s just not very fair. It’s making all sorts of assumptions that we simply have no basis for.

    3. Countess Boochie Flagrante

      This feels like a mostly unrelated rant about ADHD. Not cool to armchair diagnose and you’ve not said anything actionable for the OP.

      Many young, inexperienced people think they’re better than they are, and I would venture the majority of them do not have ADHD.

      1. Ice and Indigo

        I agree it’s not that applicable to the question asked, but I wouldn’t call it a rant; I do a lot with SEN kids and I found it interesting.

    4. pcake

      My first thought was Dunning-Kruger effect. The original post pretty much describes it to a T.

  44. The Man, Becky Lynch

    My heart hurts and I’m having flashbacks to the kindest sweetest soul I had to fight to get let go because nobody knew when it was time to throw in the towel on the guy.

    This guy may grow into himself and fix his huge issues but you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make them drink. He’s at that spot where he needs reality checks and no kitten gloves. He’s in the ring, teach him how to move or life will KO him one way or another.

    Reminder that good people aren’t always the right people for various jobs. His failure to adapt and grow to your industry doesn’t make him less nice, kind, excited and good as a human but he straight up stinks at The Job.

  45. Gina Linetti

    This guy sounds like a walking case of the Dunning-Krueger effect, no doubt brought on by helicopter parents who smoothed his way and told him he’s a superstar his entire life.

    I don’t envy you here, LW. That kind of conditioning is very hard to break. Your intern might have to be given the cold, hard truth more than once before he gets it.

    1. Ice and Indigo

      C’mon, we don’t know anything about his parents. How is speculating about them helpful to OP?

    1. Beth

      Or the even more complete self-confidence of an older white man who’s been floating along on the entitlement sea his whole life.

  46. UndefinedSuperhero

    Oh, this really struck a chord with me! I do all these things in my work, and have encountered similar issues. I cringe looking back on my early creative work, and I’m sure a few people have levelled these same accusations against me.

    One thing I did pick up from many who commented is a bit of a sense that this employee simply doesn’t have the skills to do any of these things. As in, he will never have the skills. However – while his ego is certainly an issue that will get in his way – if he is receptive to some coaching, all of these things can be improved. If you’ll excuse a lengthy post looking at each of them…

    Writing

    Of all of these, this is the trickiest one – really good writing skills seem to be something that some people just have. That said, there is a great deal that can be learned, and at the very least, poor spelling, grammar and wording can be worked on – it might be entirely possible to get this guy to a point where he is writing reasonably well, if not industry leading well.

    Presenting

    This can be worked on. Less technical jargon, more confidence, better pace are all things that can be strengthened. Again, maybe you can’t get him to be a riveting public speaker, but honestly in a lot of business contexts, ‘reasonably clear and concise Powerpoint presenter’ is enough, and can be built up to. Of course you’ll know whether this is enough for your sector.

    Social media

    There is no natural ability to this – at least not directly! Good social media is, from my experience a mix of decent writing, having good creative content, and a bit of knowledge as to how to strategize content. All of this can be worked on. Having an understanding of your company’s ‘voice’ – if this is established – can go a long way here.

    Photography

    Of all the creative arts, I’d say this is the most ‘technical’ and thus arguably the easiest to improve your skills on. Yes, of course some people just have what seems like an incredibly natural eye for it. But an entry level employee doing photography as part of many creative contributions to the business…. I suspect you aren’t looking for Pulitzer worthy stuff. Badly framed, poorly lit and out-of-focus….. are all things that can be fixed relatively quickly. You can learn a huge amount online and through trial and error. How much time to put into it really depends on how important this is to your business, but even if you use a single camera for functional images, a little bit of time reading up on aperture/ISO/shutter speed and maybe a bit of time using a free photo editing tool (being able to ‘rescue’ a bad image can come in useful) could help him get from ‘bad’ to ‘sort of OK’ reasonably quickly.

    Videography

    All of the above. I often have to do video for work, and have dealt with colleagues being very disappointed with what I was able to come up with using a single camera and a limited amount of experience. Always worth remembering that doing it in-house means a drastic difference in quality to professionally shot stuff that costs thousands per minute! But again… you can get to ‘reasonably competent for in-house’ by just spending a bit of time reading up and practicing. And the advice I wish I’d been given…. Shoot way more than you think you need. Having a few options to use in the final piece can be a lifesaver.

    It seems to me that you wouldn’t be expecting high-end professional quality in each of these from an entry level employee wearing a lot of hats! But if you’re working towards achieving relative competency in each, I think that’s fairly possible!

    1. pcake

      Yeah, but one of his writing problems was spelling, wasn’t it? My granddaughter used spell check in sixth grade as did all her classmates. She started using it on her own when her misspells embarrassed her and lowered her grades.

      And while his photography may well have many technical issues that could be improved on with a little learning – many of my friends’ and relatives’ pics are blurry because they have a slow lens and no idea of how shutter speed could improve things – my issue with the OP’s intern is that he didn’t realize that a very blurry picture has no place in his work. Again, my granddaughter and son both knew better at a pretty young age. As did I. I would never have included an obviously blurry pic with a report or anything else.

      This guy seems to me to be suffering from Dunning-Kruger effect – or perhaps I should say the OP is suffering from his Dunning-Kruger. He sees his inferior work as brilliant stuff, even after the flaws are pointed out by his mentor. He sees blurry photographs and misspells as brilliant work, so good he’ll be hired out of his intership without needing to improve or even complete it. It’s possible he’s congenial enough to keep getting jobs he’s not even slightly qualified for.

      Were I his mentor, I would do what others have suggested – don’t rewrite or redo his work. Talk to him about the issues, then have him fix them. Will it help? In my experience, probably not, but you never know. In any event, doing so will give him a chance to show he understands the situation and to improve.

      1. UndefinedSuperhero

        I agree – his ego is certainly a problem. If he isn’t receptive to feedback and continues to think his stuff is great after being specifically told the issues with it…. well then you’ve done all you can.

        I was more objecting to the idea that because his stuff is so sub-par now, it will never be good. I often find the gap between ‘terrible’ and ‘OK’ is a relatively small one, then the gap between ‘OK’ and ‘good’ a fair bit bigger, then the gap between ‘good’ and ‘outstanding’ the biggest and hardest for just anyone to reach. It would be helpful – to both his employer and him – to see what quality his work is once he is doing it carefully and without obvious errors.

        True, as you say, a lot of people learned this way younger – in high school even. But some didn’t, and it seems like part of an internship is teaching professional norms, even those that might seem obvious to a young adult. I submitted a lot of sub-par work in my early 20’s – not written so much, I was always pretty careful with spellcheck and the like – but my early photography efforts were an embarrassment – maybe not blurry but over-edited and poorly shot. I often ‘learned the hard way’ – I recall having NO IDEA how to shoot an event in low light the first time I had to. And I seemed to think ‘saturating the hell out of it’ was a way to make it look more professional.

        The OP has no obligation here, of course. But it would be a professional kindness to say to this guy, as long as he works for you, things like the below:

        (For writing) ‘Your work is often full of spelling mistakes and grammatical errors. I need you to be more diligent about catching these – take time to read it over and be sure to use Spellcheck’

        (For photography) ‘Can you see how out-of-focus and poorly lit this photo is? And its the only one you submitted. We can’t use this for out internal marketing. Can I ask that you use Auto mode for the time being, and take some time to read up on basic photography skills – your photography would improve greatly if you did. And always take a few different images – that way we can pick the best one. Oh and I know you can’t always help bad lighting – but download Pixlr and if it comes to it, you can use the Brightness/Exposure settings to help.’

        Now if OP has already been this specific and to no effect… well then he’ll have to learn the hard way.

  47. insert pun here

    Teaching someone to write can be really difficult. Telling them about the changes you made or showing them first versus final draft often isn’t enough, because it doesn’t show how you got from A to Z. Two suggestions:
    1.) Use ms word’s track changes feature as well as its comment feature. Really mark everything and use the comment feature liberally, to question word choice, order, sentence structure, etc. Send it back to intern and ask them to respond to all the comments and clean up the doc and send back to you. This takes time but probably not that much more time than it’s already taking you to redo their work. If intern has some ability/ability to learn, you’ll eventually start getting much cleaner copy. (With that said, the goal of “perfect copy every time” is unrealistic, even for professionals, so be sure intern understands that.)
    2.) If there is a specific structure to the stuff you’re writing, whether it’s official or just your preferred structure, spell it out and make it clear — don’t assume your intern will “see” it without it being pointed out.

    1. fposte

      Speaking as an editor, I find it so, so much faster to rewrite copy than to teach writing to somebody who’s terrible at it. I love coaching interns, but this would be a coach too far for me.

      1. Rainy days

        Yeah, I don’t think it’s the employer’s job to teach someone how to write unless it’s a writing-specific internship (where one would learn to write articles, press releases, ad copy, etc). If you’re willing to do this kind of coaching, it’s very generous, but it’s also going way, way above and beyond. There are enough people who write decently in the world already–and most jobs really only need someone who writes decently, not brilliantly–that it doesn’t make sense to expend this kind of time on a bad writer, especially one who doesn’t self-reflect or work on himself.

      2. animaniactoo

        Agreed, it would have to be broad strokes – comments on entire paragraphs, not sentences:

        Para 1: “Several misspelled words, 2nd sentence appears to be missing word “perpendicular”, overall sentence structure is clunky, reading flow needs to be smoother”

        Para 2: “Point of this paragraph is not clear. Also has a number of misspelled words, sentence structure could use tightening up.”

        Para 3: “Please revise rest of document with points in Para 1 & 2 in mind.”

        When you have a document that is further along and more refined, then you can start questioning word choices.

      3. insert pun here

        Well, if you are rewriting it all anyways, hitting “track changes” adds… a single second to the time you’re spending on it. The back and forth is more time consuming, and may not be feasible if there are deadlines in play, but it’s the best way I know of to demonstrate exactly what changes the writer needs to make. And it has the added benefit of making it very visually obvious how much work you had to do.

      4. Not So NewReader

        I am wondering how this guy even got this internship. Did he show samples of his work? Did anyone ask pointed questions about the work itself to see how he answered?

    2. Batgirl

      I’m a journalist turned teacher and you CAN teach people to write. Even older kids who missed all the early boats can get better… but it’s a full time job for you both.
      As the teacher you have to workshop it, give quickfire-style good quality feedback, teach them to self critique while the student has to improve the quality of what they read, consciously develop their own writing processes and have methods for developing and editing their copy. Most of that has to come from a place of ‘everything I put down as a first draft will suck’ even though the day of fast turnaround will come.
      It’s not really something that can be tackled in an office style weekly mentor meet up with a keen beans rube who has no idea that over confidence is the enemy of a good self edit.
      As a dedicated teacher, I have helped one or two shockers per class improve, but I too would have had to cry uncle if too many special projects were on a ‘work-ready’ level course.

  48. Penelope Garcia’s glasses

    While he does sound terrible, it also sounds like you’re sending him off to do work on his own. The one thing that could salvage this is to maybe do stuff like shadow other staff.

    1. Not So NewReader

      Yes, working independently is something that is earned. Unknowns need to be tethered right to a more experienced person. They can’t be cut loose and doing whatever.

      1. Penelope Garcia’s glasses

        That’s not really what I meant. I meant that working independently isn’t easy when you start and that it could help for him to shadow others.

  49. VelvetPaws

    One of the best things that ever happened to me was having a boss who, after a couple months, sat me down and said “I like you and you’re smart. And I know you’re a bit shy and it can be hard dealing with people. But you are not doing x and y, and if you don’t start, I’m going to have to let you go.” He went on in that vein for about 20 minutes, and I tried not to cry. I was humiliated, embarrassed – but he made it clear that the ball was in my court. If I wanted to keep my job, I had to step up. Or I could leave. The next day I came in determined to succeed. I did everything I’d been avoiding; after a couple years, it was clear to me that the job wasn’t the best fit, but it was due to my temperament, not my effort or skill. I am still so grateful for his feedback, because he gave it to me early enough so that I could course-correct and succeed. (30 years later, we are still in touch!) And while that job wasn’t for me, everything I learned in it was directly relevant to the rest of my career (and even today)

  50. voyager1

    LW,

    You have plenty of quantifiable issues with the intern, and you have plenty of good advice from AAM. But please whatever you do don’t call him “book smart” when you give feedback. It is just a backhanded insult and any good feedback will be tuned out you give him.

  51. Orange You Glad

    If he’s not lightening your load, but doubling your work, let him go. You’re not doing anyone any favors keeping him around and ignorant to his shortfalls. If firing him is not an option then find some other area in the company to use him. Maybe there’s some “grunt work” another department needs done.

    I hire co-ops (sort of like full-time interns that get paid) and I just went through firing one for the first time in 10 years. We gave that guy so many 2nd chances, it just wasn’t working out. At the end of the day I spent so much time worrying about him and his mistakes that it was affecting my work output.

  52. Not One of the Bronte Sisters

    It seems to me that the problem here is that LW is in a creative industry and this kid has no talent. It also sounds like he cannot take feedback. Or, he is listening to each bit of feedback alone, but not getting the full message, which should be, “I’m sorry, but at this point in time you really suck at this.”
    Furthermore, creative fields aside, it sounds as though he is not only not a talented writer, he is a DREADFUL writer–multiple errors in grammar, syntax, usage, etc. I do not know how he got through the SAT and I taught at Kaplan TestPrep for ten years. I would get him a Strunk & White and tell him to study it front to back. I can’t speak to the other aspects of this internship, but it sounds like this young man wants to be around creative people. There are plenty of careers in creative industries which don’t require talent themselves.

  53. UndefinedSuperhero

    You talk about ‘talent’….. but for most of these things, its not a question of talent… or at least not in exclusion. Content writing, photography, videography and social media marketing are all crafts, which can be improved through study and practice.

    I think if he studied up a bit about the basics of photography and videography, was a great deal more dilligent about checking his writing for spelling and grammatical errors, read up a bit on social media, and maybe spent some time learning from people in the company who ARE good at these things, he could well get to ‘decent’ in at least one, probably more of these fields.

    The narrative from some seems to be, ‘this 20 (?) year old kid writes badly and takes unusable pictures… he will NEVER be good at these things and you need to lose him!’ But I think if he is a hard worker and his ego dies down a bit, it might be worth establishing what ‘good enough’ looks like for an entry level employee here, and what would need to happen to get him there…. and THEN if you are truly confident its not doable, you can consider his future. But deciding that a college aged kid has no future in the sector based off his early work might not be fair, especially when all indicators are that he would improve a fair bit just by ironing out technical errors!

  54. Zipzap

    This intern sounds so clueless about his own lack of ability and talent in so many areas, that I don’t know how well he’s going to take or believe constructive criticism. This doesn’t mean the letter writer shouldn’t give it. But it may TAKE getting fired from a few jobs and hearing this criticism from several people before he realizes he has a lot to learn and improve on. I wonder if he had the type of parents who constantly told him how great he was at everything, whether it was true or not, and that’s why he thinks he’s a superstar at everything? But that’s another story. Good luck OP. May you have better luck with future interns.

  55. Kat in VA

    All I can say is, I wish I had this kind of blithely ignorant self-confidence in my work. I struggle with impostor syndrome on the daily. I really really wish I could be so oblivious to the realities of the work world that I am absolutely self-assured that I am The Rock Star Of The Company™ rather than feeling like I’m overwhelmed, underwater, and one step from getting screamed at.

    (I should note I have never been screamed at or even spoken to sternly at my current job. This stems from years of abuse, many years ago, before I made my way back into the workforce. Old abuse dies hard, it would seem.)

  56. JES

    I’ve worked as a writing tutor for a couple of years. I’ve learned that most people think they’re worse writers than they are. The fact that he thinks he’s great at that in particular while being so objectively bad at it shows a profound lack of self-awareness and arrogance. He won’t do well in any field until someone tells him that.

  57. Edith

    This is my fear. (As someone who usually don’t overestimate my abilities) I’m always nervous/terrified that I will think I’m doing okay when in reality nobody will just KINDLY tell me that I’m not, and preferably what I should be doing differently, and instead just yell at me/fire me for something I wasn’t even aware of. Give feedback, do it often and before the whole thing is to infected to correct.

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