do I not respect my work commitments if I ask for a day off?

A reader writes:

I need some gut-check advice about a situation at my unpaid internship. Am I wrong in thinking the following behavior is mean and inappropriate?

At the end of my unpaid internship, I emailed my supervisor (a week in advance) to find out if it would be okay to take a day off on my last week. I work only a few days a week, but I also go to school full-time while doing a semester abroad. My family was going to be in town visiting the country and I hoped for more time to show them around. I said that I completely understood if it wasn’t possible, but I would like to take a half or whole day off. My work had been winding down and I had lots of time on my hands at work. (This is a whole other issue.)

My boss sent me a terse message saying the time off had been “noted.” I assumed this was an approval.

The next day when I arrived at the office, my boss asked me if I wanted to know what she “really thought” and that it “wasn’t good” for me to take time off. Apparently the next intern was coming in for onboarding and she needed me there. When I asked if it was at all possible to take a half day, she informed me that “it’s up to you if you take your work commitments seriously.”

I am a grad student with several years of professional experience. I know how to accept being told no. I took this opportunity to explore something I was passionate about, and while I don’t think this has been a successful internship (for several reasons), I think this is an unwarranted response. I’m also unpaid, have done all my assigned work in a timely manner, have volunteered at work-related events (that keep me after hours), and am in a foreign country with family visiting.

When I said I was okay with a no, she insisted that she “doesn’t tell people no.” She also said she wasn’t going to put all that in writing, which sets off a lot of alarm bells for me. I’m also angry that her original email seemed like an approval, getting my hopes up.

Would a short email reply that said, “Sorry but we really need you that day! Let’s discuss in person” really have been so unreasonable?

I ask because I’ve had some really weird (read: terrible) office environments before, and I am concerned I have missed some kind of unspoken rule about asking for a day off.

No. She’s an ass. You were fine.

“Taking your work commitments seriously” doesn’t mean you never ask for any time off. There are some jobs where it would be a hardship to have someone gone during their last week, when that week is being used to wrap up projects and transition work, but (a) it doesn’t sound like that was at all the case here and (b) even if it were, there’s nothing wrong with a polite request that makes it clear you know it might not be possible.

It’s also true that some internships are so short that it’s understood from the start that you’re expected to show up for all of it. If you’re doing, like, a one-month internship, it’s not unreasonable for an employer to prefer you not take time off during it. But otherwise, if your days aren’t full and you ask politely because you’re in a foreign country with family visiting, that’s not “not taking your work commitments seriously.”

That’s “being a normal human who assumes a polite, straightforward question will get a polite, straightforward answer.”

Which leads us to your manager’s ridiculous way of handling this.

If she didn’t want to approve the time off, she should have just told you that. That’s her job. Claiming she “doesn’t tell people no” while making it really obvious that she didn’t want you to take the time is nonsense. She’s trying to rely on guilt rather than straightforward, direct communication. That is the sign of some serious trouble in the management part of her brain (and I’d bet money there were other significant problems with her management skills as well).

And to be fair, there are times when the simple act of requesting a day off can make someone seem like they don’t take their work commitments seriously. If you’re in charge of organizing a major event and ask for a day off in the week leading up to it when there’s a ton to do, then sure, it’s going to look off (barring something serious like a family emergency). But toward the end of an unpaid internship when you have lots of time on your hands is not that.

Your manager sucked. Don’t let her make you second-guess yourself.

{ 133 comments… read them below }

      1. Tinker*

        Kind of wonder here if the manager is looking at “unpaid student intern” and thinking “this person probably doesn’t have much professional experience, so I can get away with a lot here and they won’t know any better”.

        1. AnnaBananna*

          My past experience is screaming at me that she’s like this with everyone in her life. Passive aggressiveness does not stay at work.

          LW – I would probably also double check what she’s going to say as your reference. I would not be surprised if it’s wildly different from your actual experience there.

      2. Antilles*

        Right? Expecting someone to always be at your beck and call seems like a pretty big ask if you’re not actually paying them for their time.

        1. Indigo a la mode*

          Yeah. When my team could only have an unpaid intern (MUCH to our chagrin), we were clear among our team that we were not expecting this internship to be a blood bond for him. If he needed a day off, that was his right – what were we going to do, short him on his check? fire him? We appreciated that he was willing at all to do work without money, honestly. He did a good job and learned a lot, even though he needed a few days off here and there.

          1. fhqwhgads*

            To be fair, at least around here internships must be either for pay or school credit, so while you couldn’t short his check, you could’ve theoretically said the absence was enough to “fail” the class. I’m glad your org didn’t take that position, but it is a thing, same as any class that considers any absence a reason to dock the grade.

    1. Fake Old Converse Shoes (not in the US)*

      Makes me remember of my first boss ever, who said I had to work overtime “to show respect for the rest of the team”. I was a part-time employee, so why don’t upgrade me?

    2. StrangerThanFiction*

      That’s the nice way of putting it. I tend to call it micro-sadism – watching someone wriggle on a hook just because you can without any blowback. I bet this manager gets together with the one who made her employee beg for her job and they compare tactics.

    1. HoHumDrum*

      Anyone who refuses to say yes or no and instead decides to just pressure you into making the “right” choice just boils my blood. I would be very tempted to respond to someone who says “I don’t say no” with “Great! Thanks for the day off!”

      1. Quill*

        Zero patience for these people. Ask for what you want and tell me what you need, the only thing guessing games do is waste work time.

      2. RecoveringSWO*

        But, actually. If LW can lock down a different reference besides her (which LW should do anyway), I would totally pull that move!

      3. StrangerThanFiction*

        …or, “You really shouldn’t let yourself be a pushover, you know. Everyone has to say No sometimes.” Though that might not play too well in the long run, it would be momentarily gratifying.

      4. Public Sector Manager*

        Maybe the LW only had 14 pieces of flair and since 15 is the bare minimum …

    2. Ermmm*

      when I hired and managed the intern program at my previous job, I was THRILLED when an intern’s parent(s) came to Los Angeles to visit and see their kid’s work (intern) environment, see the sights, spend time with their kid….I cannot imagine acting the way OP’s manager did, I can’t imagine saying what she said, it’s ALL awful. I mean, if it was a 3-week internship and the intern requested 2 of the 3 weeks off, that would be annoying. But this person shouldn’t be managing other humans. She is *really* bad at her job.

    3. East of Nowhere South of Lost*

      Yep, reminds me of my first boss who pulled this stuff all.the.time. When i requested off 6 mo in advance for something, she tried to guilt me into not taking the time. She was like ‘you can take it if you want too.’ so i did. I made sure my part of the big project was finished and I still got ‘in trouble’ because i ‘wasn’t showing respect to other team members who were not finished and having to work late’. Huh? My parts were done, not my fault others are not. I can’t do their work for them. I quit that job a month later finding something much better. She had never given us performance reviews, and the only feedback I got was stuff like i referenced, so I was convinced I was just not good at what I was doing. Nope. New job gave me stellar reviews and did SO MUCH for my confidence.

  1. Bubbles*

    That manager is not good. Take anything she says with a grain of salt, because she is wrong. And the fact that she isn’t willing to put it in writing means she knows she isn’t supposed to do this and she is doing it anyway.

    I wouldn’t be surprised if she has been told before to not do this and now she is using this as a workaround.

    1. Antilles*

      And the fact that she isn’t willing to put it in writing means she knows she isn’t supposed to do this and she is doing it anyway.
      Bingo. Any time someone refuses to put something in writing, there’s *always* a reason.
      In this case, the obvious inference is that the manager wants the flexibility to deny the conversation happened or claim you mis-interpreted things – either because she’s been explicitly told before not to do it OR because she knows that her superiors wouldn’t actually agree with that.

      1. DecorativeCacti*

        And I would recommend putting it in writing anyway.

        Send an email to her saying something along the lines of, “Per our conversation where you told me you ‘Don’t say no’ to requests for time off but indicated you would rather me not take time off, I have decided not to take a whole or half day off on XX.”

        1. AKchic*

          Or “… I have decided to continue on with the interpretation of your original email as planned and take the whole day off as my workload is light during my last week here, unless you have any changes.”

          And cc HR.

          1. Curmudgeon in California*

            This. If they don’t say no, then it’s a yes. They need to learn to be decisive, not passive-aggressive guilt throwers.

        2. RedLineInTheSand*

          I would change that last part to say that I have decided to take the day off!

        3. Amethystmoon*

          Excellent point. This is a case where the “per our conversation” e-mails cover your rear end.

        4. Arts Akimbo*

          Cc’d to boss’s manager! This boss isn’t going to give you a good reference anyway.

      2. Gazebo Slayer*

        Yeah, my boss often refuses to put things in writing and is weirdly secretive about apparently totally innocuous conversations with me, and it seriously undermines my trust for him.

  2. The Wade*

    Yeah this person sounds like a nightmare to work for. Passive aggressive mind games are annoying enough in a personal scenario, and it’s bewilderingly unprofessional in a work environment – from a manager no less!

  3. mskyle*

    Given that the letter writer is studying abroad, I wonder if there’s a cross-cultural component to this? I still think the boss is being an ass, though (if you’re going to hire unpaid foreign grad students, you should be ready to make some extra effort on cultural understanding!).

    1. LegallyRed*

      Agreed. This sounds very much like it could be an ask v. guess cultural divide, at least for simplicity’s sake.

      1. Librarian of SHIELD*

        I don’t think ask/guess culture flies when you’re somebody’s boss. As a manager, if an employee asks you a work related question, it’s literally your job to answer it. It doesn’t matter if the conversation makes you uncomfortable, you do it because it’s your job and you’re an adult.

        1. LegallyRed*

          Sure, but in the context of a “guess” style culture, the manager was answering the request. It would be interesting to know if someone from the manager’s culture would have been confused or annoyed by the manager’s manner of responding.

        2. Minimax*

          Yeah as someone who studied abroad in Japan I stepped all over guess culture.

          I can see that translating to work too.

          1. Julia*

            I work in Japan, and I still don’t think this would happen.

            I’ve had people go “hmmmm… not sure” or “that might be a bit difficult” when I requested a day off, which I know means no. But this boss said YES in her email, so ???

            1. Product Person*

              The boss didn’t say yes though, only that “the time off had been noted”. Which in her mind could mean “I took note that you made this outrageous request, and because I never say no, I can’t refuse, but I will remember it if asked to give references in the future”.

              (Totally ridiculous way of handling things, as Alison said.)

            2. Massmatt*

              No, the boss said “noted” because she is a jerk that wants it both ways.

              If it were Japan or another guess type culture the answer would have been a code for no, and there wouldn’t likely have been an obnoxious dramatic scene later, because that’s exactly what guess culture seeks to avoid.

              This manager is a jerk that wants to enjoy passive aggressive games at her (unpaid!) intern’s expense, that’s pretty much as petty as you can get.

              Try to get a reference from someone else working there or leave this off your resume, she SCREAMS “I will mess with people however I can”.

    2. lemon*

      That was my thought as well. This boss sounds eerily similar to an ex-boss (right down to replying “noted” to emails she didn’t like). She was from a country that has an *extremely* different work culture than the US and did things that were just so far outside the norm of anything I’ve encountered at another job. I started researching the work culture in her country, and learned that everything she was doing *was* normal in that culture. Learning that made it a little bit easier to cope with her (I still found a new job, though).

      1. misspiggy*

        Yes, I have been warned that a reply of ‘noted’ from colleagues in a certain area means, ‘I don’t want to do this, but it’s inappropriate to deny a request from you, so I’m going to pretend to accept it and do nothing. I know when the time comes there will be no consequences for my inaction.’

    3. PNW Dweller*

      I was reading comments to see if someone else already posted about this. I would be curious too- what country and how a national from that country would answer LW. I think cultural awareness is a two way street, the manager did not handle this well, but I don’t think ‘noted’ translated to yes. From there it went really, really wrong.

  4. Fibchopkin*

    In general, a manager that “doesn’t tell people no” is already a bad manager. It is literally her job to tell people “yes” and “no” sometimes. Add to that, your manager doesn’t like putting things in writing? Well, you already said this particular internship was not a successful one, and I’d say that it was setup for failure with a manager like this. I would just add that if it’s a program you’ve accessed through your school, I’d give this feedback to your internship manager at school or to the school liaison. Noon is likely to gain successful, normal, healthy work experience through a program with a manager like this.

    Sorry you got stuck with this :(

    1. The Cosmic Avenger*

      The LW did learn something very valuable: never work for someone who is a passive-aggressive manager!

    2. Jedi Squirrel*

      That was my thought as well. She’s a terrible manager.

      When you manage people, sometimes you have to say no. In fact, you may say no far more times than you say yes. That’s just the nature of things.

  5. Alton Brown's Evil Twin*

    Your manager is doing the “fifteen pieces of flair” thing from Office Space. It’s ridiculous.

      1. Quill*

        Don’t you want to do more than the bare minimum to express yourself?

        Sidenote: when facebook flare was a thing, my dad laughed for a full minute about it and that’s how I learned about the movie office space.

        1. Mina, The Company Prom Queen*

          Why are some managers like that? If they want more than whatever the “bare minimum” is they should whatever it is they want as the “bare minimum.” But then those that meet (and not exceed) that would still be met with disapproval. Just a viscous cycle. Managers like that really suck.

          1. boo bot*

            They want you to WANT to do more than the minimum!

            They want genuine enthusiasm, but they’re not willing to really consider what it would take for their workers to actually be genuinely enthusiastic, like good pay and benefits; opportunities for advancement; meaningful work; a healthy work culture without cryptic, unspoken expectations…

  6. Teekanne aus Schokolade*

    I was in the same situation in a “fun job” I took abroad (nannying full time for less than 400 a month)- my boss always stuck me with the “you should be grateful and honored I let you work for me” speech. It really got in my head, when in reality I had just as much education as she did, could easily have worked a corporate job, but wanted to live abroad on the cheap. After six months of being on-call and giving 110% I got sick of the attitude and packed my bags. You’ve done your best, now leave without regrets!

  7. Snarkus Aurelius*

    Manager: I don’t tell people no.

    Me: okay we’re all good then. I’ll take that day off.

    Manager: it’s up to you if you take your work commitments seriously.

    Me: clearly I do because I work here, and I don’t even get paid. See you!

    1. beanie gee*


      Also, it’s 100% possible to take work commitments seriously and also take a day off every once in a while.

  8. Mama Bear*

    I bet that the onboarding she wants OP to attend won’t actually require OP to be there and the manager is on a power trip. I hope OP finds time to spend with visiting family and puts this internship (and the boss) firmly behind them.

  9. IvyGirl*

    Be sure to mention this to your internship coordinator at your school, so none of this could reflect on you in any way. See who else you could use as a reference at this internship.

    Also – this boss is cray. You were fine.

    1. That Girl from Quinn's House*

      To be honest, an employer isn’t likely to check a reference located out of the country, unless they’re allowed to do it in writing. Unless it’s a multinational employer or a situation where the countries have a lot of cross-pollination (say, Seattle WA and Vancouver, BC), the time difference and lack of an international calling plan on workplace phones means no one is going to check that reference.

      1. IvyGirl*

        We’re required to contact previous supervisors, and are questioned by HR when we don’t, and have to provide the reference responses in writing, so a record of it has to be transcribed from a phone call or the email response provided.

        Sooo -I’d still be reaching out to check references. The rest is still relevant, especially since other interns are being placed there, with crossover.

        1. That Girl from Quinn's House*

          I had to do that too, but whenever we had someone provide an international (or inconvenient time zone) we’d ask them to provide another reference who was more local.

      2. Clementine*

        The expense for an international call is trivial compared to the cost of a full-time hire. And, often, if the two parties do have difficulty connecting they do the reference by email. It would be a very odd situation where an overseas location would prevent a reference.

        1. Miss Pantalones En Fuego*

          In my experience it’s the potential time difference that can be a problem. Hopefully the situation has improved now but about 10 years ago when I was first trying to get a job in the UK I had problems with people being unwilling to try to contact references in the US because there was a 7 hour difference.

  10. Annony*

    That manager would be very difficult to work for. I’m not a fan of people who say yes but mean no and expect you to read their mind. There are times when it is bad to ask off (such as if you ask off a lot) but that wasn’t the case here. I had an intern that was asking off at least once a week when she only worked two days a week. The reasons were legitimate (test coming up, interesting seminar, shadowing opportunity) but the volume made it get to the point that I had to ask her if she could actually make the time commitment needed to do the job. The answer was no. But it only got to that point because of volume. Asking for one day, even in the last week does not show a “lack of commitment.”

  11. Llama Llama*

    This might be an Allison question but how much wiggle room/power would this unpaid intern having in disagreeing with her manager and just going ahead and taking the time off? Say if the time off wasn’t approved (which seems ridiculous to me by the way) but the manager has no real justification for it (as in the interns duties are all completed, and there’s isn’t any emergency work to be done), since the intern is unpaid can they just be like “I’ve reasonably asked for the time off, I have no items on my docket, my family will be in town and therefore I won’t be in, thanks” I mean she’s not being paid, she’s made her case, she’s been polite. Worst case would be you might sort of burn a bridge but I think you could possibly spin it to be okay in future interviews if you show the issue was the on the company not you. Plus it’s unpaid so its mostly only going to be used for “I gained experience during my month in Spain” but it’s not really going to have clout anyway because its an unpaid internship. And it sounds like either way this manager would probably not be a great reference. At least that’s what I would do, I’d spell it all out and then be like I’ll be out on Monday, see ya later,byeee! I mean what can then do, fire you?

    1. Allypopx*

      I agree. Especially since the LW has other professional experience and already sees this as an unsuccessful internship. Just take your day off – she said it was up to you after all.

    2. Leslie Knope*

      My internship had a set number of hours I had to complete (320) in order to get my school credit. The structure the school suggested was 40 hrs/wk for 8 weeks. However, I actually worked 32 hrs/wk for 5 weeks, took a week off for a vacation, then came back and worked another 5 weeks. Allowing me to work Mon-Thurs meant I could still work a weekend job and afford the unpaid internship. My boss at my internship was very flexible and cool about it. He was just glad to have someone tackle a project his staff was too spread out to complete. Win win.

      If the internship was offered as a position by the company, but the intern isn’t receiving any kind of school credit for it, it would be up to the company to structure how many hours are worked and how much time off (if any) is offered. If the company is just thinking of the interns as unpaid labor, and peons to be pushed around, they might have a crappy attitude about the situation. If I was an intern in that position, and the only repercussion is that I might not get hired by a stingy company, I would be more inclined to take the time off.

      1. MissDisplaced*

        The internships at my former company were all paid, and lasted for six months. It was expected they’d take a couple of days here or there. Plus, pay was hourly, so they only got paid for hours worked, which made it easy.

    3. Ashley*

      I think it would depend on the internship. Sometimes there is a required number of hours that must be worked. My bigger concern would be would the manager sign the necessary close out paperwork or just refuse to out of spite creating a lot more work for the intern.

    4. Allonge*

      We have unpaid interns and an intern handbook type of document that specifies how many days of leave they get to take. And then of course if they need more, what exactly are you going to do? Obviously if someone does not come in at all we don’t verify them having been an intern with us, but, really… not a whole lot can happen.

  12. aebhel*

    “I don’t tell people no… I just play mind games and guilt trip them for asking!”

    Yeah, she sucks.

  13. Magenta Sky*

    One takes a position as an intern to learn valuable life lessons as a working adult. You’ve learned one of the most important ones:

    Sometimes, the boss is the most unprofessional and immature person in the work place.

  14. Sandangel*

    This manager sounds exhausting to work with. If she’s making such a fuss about this, imagine what she’s like for more important things.

    Take your day off OP, enjoy a day with your family.

  15. HelloHello*

    If you want or need a recommendation from this manager in the future, you might be stuck playing along with her head games and not taking the day off. But if you’d be fine to just forget this internship ever happened moving forward, I’d strongly encourage you to take the take off and hang out with your family. Travel like this, especially with your family there, is a special occurrence and you shouldn’t pass up the opportunity just because your manager is an ass.

    1. Ms. Green Jeans*

      I second this. I’d go in to work that day, but if asked I would state that my work commitment was questioned and I would say that impression was unacceptable.

      You could also reply to her email stating you’ll be in that day due to her concerns of your commitment to work.

  16. Daisy-dog*

    My experience with an unpaid internship while studying abroad (in UK from US). My direct supervisor often asked me how I enjoyed the city and we talked about bars, local travel destinations, food, etc. She granted me 2 requested days off – 1 for a trip to Barcelona to visit a friend, 1 for when my boyfriend (now husband) was in town. She also insisted I go home another day when I was coughing a lot.

  17. bluephone*

    “she insisted that she “doesn’t tell people no.” She also said she wasn’t going to put all that in writing, which sets off a lot of alarm bells for me.”

    Jesus, even Palpatine doesn’t resort to this level of mind game if only because it’s waaaay more work than just electrocuting the person (and that guy loved his overly-complicated schemes).

  18. Jennifer*

    Ugh…I can’t stand people who do this. At work or outside of it. You ask them a direct question and they say, “well, if that’s what you want to do…” or “you’ll do what you want anyway, I guess…”

    I asked you for a reason! Just say yes or no! It’s especially annoying coming from a manager whose job it is to make decisions. Even responding with “noted” instead of yes or no when you made the original request is just so annoying. Trust me, you did nothing wrong OP.

  19. Quill*

    You learned something valuable here: you don’t want to work for this manager because she’s unreasonable.

    1. Luke*

      I dislike even needing to post this, but OP was introduced to an ugly reality of business.

      Gallup released an eye opening study about why “great” managers are rare.

      While I disagree that 82% are the “wrong” hire, I do believe the demand for managers in firms leads to a scenario of companies filling roles with anyone available. Often , the pragmatic choice is between hiring someone with flaws like personality issues or leaving an extended vacancy, causing immediate productivity issues.

      Dealing with managers like this regrettably is a career skill we all must learn. OP

  20. Miss May*

    Manager: “Do you want to know what I really thought?”
    Me: “Nope! Can I take half a day?”
    Manager: “It’s up to you if you take your work commitments seriously.”
    Me: “Awesome, half day it is.”

    I only WISH I could do that. *sigh* Managers should be better than this.

  21. Librarian of SHIELD*

    OP, people take days off from work ALL THE TIME. I’m taking one this week. The fact that I haven’t set up a sleeping bag and a cot in my cubicle doesn’t mean I’m not committed to my job, it means I have healthy boundaries and a means of resting and recharging so I can do my job more effectively when I’m here.

    You were not failing to value and respect your commitments here, and it was wrong and rude of your boss to tell you that you were.

  22. Goliath Corp.*

    Argh, this reminds me of a former manager. I don’t work in the film industry, but due to some adjacent work I was invited to a set tour during the filming of the last episode of a very popular show. I asked my manager if it might be possible to take a couple of hours off during the middle of the day, assuring her that I would make up the time and ensure everything got done*. But she just looked at me with disdain and said “you know how busy you are.” And that was the end of that.

    *I work almost entirely over email across many time zones, so keeping regular hours is really not important.

    1. Oh So Very Anon*

      I don’t know you or your boss or your situation, but I might say this to my exquisitely capable assistant, meaning, “you know what needs to be done. If you take the day off, I know I can trust that things are handled.”

  23. RedLineInTheSand*

    I think you should take a whole day. You’re an unpaid intern, with extra time on your hands at work, and your internship is wrapping up. If they can’t do without you for a day, they have bigger issues.

    And, your boss is a jerk. Part of going to school abroad is about actually being able to experience another culture. Enjoy the time with your family!

  24. Radiant Peach*

    Is your boss from your host country? There may be a cultural aspect/misunderstanding to the way your boss responded to your request, as professional culture varies.

  25. Ms. Green Jeans*

    Let your advisor know, and/or whomever referred this organization to you. I had some feedback to share from my internship, and it turned out that what happened was not ok. That entity was not considered for further internship referrals by my college.

  26. Jaybeetee*

    *Stifles rant about the multiple problems with unpaid internships*

    As they said on Coyote Ugly, “She doesn’t own you”. Spending time with your family while they’re in the area is more important than twiddling your thumbs for no pay just to prove a point to someone you’ll never see again. Even if you were getting paid, reasonably employers understand that we all have lives and might occasionally want time off for those lives.

    My one frisson of concern is if this manager can determine whether you get a credit/pass a course. Maybe check in with your academic advisor in that event.

  27. Bob*

    Your manager sucks but unfortunately you probably need her for a reference. You should weigh the value of taking time off with getting a good reference. Also, think twice about applying there when you graduate.

  28. ynotlot*

    Um, and this internship is NOT PAID? Take the day off!!!!
    Given that interns are typically college or grad STUDENTS it is a given that they will have occasional scheduling conflicts. School comes first! (And often, other things like semesters ending and families coming!) So it’s ridiculous for this manager to be offended in the first place, regardless of whether they ‘need’ you that day or not.
    Secondly, if this internship is UNPAID, they can’t say that they ‘need’ you for anything. Unpaid internships have much stricter rules surrounding them. The internship must be mainly for the benefit of the student and not the organization. The unpaid intern should not be doing any work that a staff person would normally do. Additionally, the intern really should not be assigned to ‘create’ anything or do any projects other than alongside an experienced staffer. The point of an unpaid internship is for the intern to learn and benefit. It’s a burden on a company – you’re not an extra pair of hands, you’re a short-term ‘apprentice’ they’ve taken on.
    That’s in addition to all of the other reasons this is so weird and ridiculous.
    I recommend taking the day off. You don’t want to miss seeing your family over one day of an internship. Especially this one.

    1. ynotlot*

      ETA: Rules surrounding unpaid internships would be if this is in the USA. Otherwise, same exact point but substitute “ethical best practices” for “rules”.

    2. Minimax*

      Rules around unpaid internships aren’t even that strict. They have to be primarily for learning. Its still ok to have them do some office work. Especially if they are getting school credit.

  29. nm*

    Unless this internship/reference is integral to your degree/next job/etc I would take the day.

    1. SenatorMeathooks*

      I’d be so tempted to have responded to “I don’t tell people no” with a “Noted.”

      This is why I get in trouble. And why I have never-healing wounds in my lower lip from all the biting.

  30. JM60*

    “she insisted that she “doesn’t tell people no.””

    I’d be tempted to ask her for a million dollars.

    I don’t get why since people want to be evasive when they want to decline something. If you’re ultimately going to reject whatever is being requested, why be evasive and ambiguous? You’ll ultimately be essentially saying “no” anyways, so why not just plainly say no?

    1. SenatorMeathooks*

      I’d be so tempted to have responded to “I don’t tell people no” with a “Noted.”

  31. Enginear*

    They aren’t even paying you and still have the audacity to call you out on taking work seriously?! Bye Felicia!

  32. Ella Bee Bee*

    When I was in grad school I had an on campus job that was a disaster in many ways. I had a contract for 20 hours a week and I was expected to work 20 hours a week no. matter. what. If I missed even 30 minutes of work one day I was expected to work 30 minutes extra another day to make up for it.

    This wasn’t even a job where I had a lot to do, I just sat around half the time doing nothing. I got the flu and contacted my boss about not coming in, she told me that was fine, just let her know when that week I could make up the hours. I told her I’d be out for a couple days and could I take a day unpaid because I was also a full time student and had another job as well and there was literally no way to make up those hours of work. She told me my only choices were to come in or to make the hours up and there were no other options. She also said there was no way to record it as an unpaid day so If I didn’t come in I would be stealing money from them. Again, this was a job where I had nothing to do, it wasn’t like there was tons of work that needed to be completed that week. So I went to work with the flu for 3 days. About 6 months later I said something to a coworker about how frustrated I was that I couldn’t take time off if I was sick and a woman from HR overheard and said, “what are you talking about? You have paid sick days. (Boss) knows this, she should have told you!”

    Well I guess the HR woman talked to my boss about this, because the next day she confronted me on why I “hated working there so much that I wanted to take time off.” Some people just want to watch the world burn.

    1. Gazebo Slayer*

      Wow, that is amazingly scummy. And in our current situation with coronavirus that attitude is going to get people killed.

      1. OhNoYouDidn't*

        A situation with the “regular” flu could get people killed. It’s already killed 10,000 people in the US this year.

  33. Ray*

    Unpaid. So you don’t have “work” commitments. They have free labor expectations. And that is a them problem, nit a you problem. She is awful. Run from that place

    1. MissDisplaced*

      It’s been my experience as a graphic designer and marketing person that the pro bono and free/volunteer type jobs are absolutely the worst! Early in my career I tried doing a few of these hoping to gain experience and/or a reference and something for my portfolio, but they always ended up being major headaches with extremely weird, overly controlling and demanding people running things. They’re getting free labor and that still isn’t good enough for them. You learn quickly to avoid. I won’t do it anymore.

  34. Katherine*

    Telling people “no” is a necessary part of a manager’s job. It’s not your fault that she isn’t comfortable doing it. It’s unfair of her to shift responsibility onto you.

  35. Pobody’s Nerfect*

    Welcome to the world of horrible no good very bad managers. They are everywhere. Trying to find a job that doesn’t have one of these bad managers lurking around the corner, waiting to make your life miserable, is like running through the guantlet of medieval times. Recognize her for the idiot she is and move on, you did nothing wrong.

  36. James*

    To give a perspective of what a good boss can do: I work at a job site 300 miles from home on a regular basis. My boss’s boss made it a job requirement for me to be home more. With specific metrics I have to meet.

    The reality is (and he pointed this out to me) that time away from work is vital to productivity. Without it, workers burn out, run into family issues (divorce rates are higher than normal in my line of work), and generally lose productivity. Plus worker turnover rises when you don’t get a good work-life balance, and there are well-documented issues with that (errors during transitions, training costs, vacancies until you hire someone, etc). Giving folks an occasional day off to have fun is as vital as anything else a manager can do to maintaining their workers’ productivity.

  37. MissDisplaced*

    Your ask was normal and reasonable, asked for well in advance of the day in question AND provided for a reasonable alternative (a half day) if you truly needed to be there to do something. It’s also at the tail end of an unpaid internship, so unless you’ve missed a lot of other time, this seems like it shouldn’t have been a big deal.

    That boss is a jerk and that is a terrible way to manage. People like that will almost always try to warp your sense of what is normal, by trying to twist you into believing something abnormal is the norm, and you’re obviously doing everything wrong.

  38. LGC*

    *looks at other letters from today*

    Ah yes, Terrible Manager Tuesday. My favorite.

    For what it’s worth, I usually think that taking off during your last week is not a good look. I also think that you could have easily wrapped up everything beforehand, from what you’ve written. And also, her reaction sounds especially callous in light of why she wanted to refuse.

    Also, to bite Alison’s response to the hiring managers who didn’t want to give out their contact information: your former manager needs to use her words. If she really doesn’t want to give you the time off at all, she needs to say so. Like, I’ve had employees ask for time off that’s really inconvenient for me, but I don’t try to guilt them out of taking it. And if it’s going to cause major issues, then they can’t take it or need to adjust.

  39. Jmami*

    I feel you. This sounds like the terrible boss i had when i worked abroad. I took a one year contract which was extended to three and was paid well and good benefits but terribly managed. The manager NEVER let me take vacation time, even though i was given about 15 vacation days per year, which accumulated. So at the end of the three years guess who had to pay out of his budget $500 a day per 40 days of vacation time, that he hadn’t budgeted for that year? Yeah. Treat people with respect and be reasonable or it will cost you – literally.

  40. OhNoYouDidn't*

    Dang. That is seriously messed up. If my boss didn’t have the guts to give me a direct, “no,” and was playing these mind games, I’d take the approach of, “OK. If it was really important that I be here that day, I know you’d tell me that, so I’ll be sure to catch up on anything I miss that day.” And then I’d take the day off and not give it a second thought. She’s a manipulator and an ass, and I wouldn’t give her words a second thought. Take your day off and enjoy the time with your family. Those will be memories you’ll always cherish. Another day at work with that lady??? Not so much.

  41. nep*

    No. She’s an ass. You were fine.
    Your manager sucked. Don’t let her make you second-guess yourself.

    Hear, hear. (This is why I come here.)

  42. Letter Writer*

    Thank you so much for the response (and all the comments). I ended up taking a half-day that day! It wasn’t all day but it gave my family and I enough time to have a nice brunch and for me to set them up for sightseeing success.

    I really needed this response though, because I think she got into my head. I was terrified that this response was going to say I was the one out of line for taking a day off (during a 4-month long internship) and that I should have been anticipating her needs at this job. Since writing this letter I’ve had some time to reflect…I think this was a pretty toxic working environment.

    The whole experience was like that actually- it was a volunteer led non-profit and my onboarding was just her sales pitch of the organization and then I was told to go through their computer files to “find myself a project”. At the end of the internship, she informed me she had been waiting to see me take charge of all of the other interns and “exhibit leadership skills” because I was a graduate student. She also was upset that we had not planned a fundraising event, which other groups of interns had in the past. She never made it plain that this was an expectation until the end when she was displeased we hadn’t “come to that conclusion on our own”.

    I can’t thank you and your readers enough for the feedback, it’s made me realize how many of the issues were caused by her. (I had blamed myself for not being a ~good enough intern~)….

    Thank you again!!

    1. Former Employee*

      Wow! In essence this person was saying that she was disappointed that you and the other interns hadn’t been able to read her mind. Unless at least one intern included “mentalist” in their list of skills, I can’t imagine why anyone would have thought that doing something she never mentioned would be likely to occur.

    2. MissDisplaced*

      OMG! So, she has a bunch of FREE labor and she gives no direction on what she wants them to do? And then gets mad that they cannot read her mind and figure it out on their own? This person sucks!

      Even if you were getting paid, a well-run Internship program needs to be managed and the Interns need to have guidance in the projects they’re supposed to work on–or at the very least a list of things to work on. And some of those projects need to be setup in advance and ready for the Interns to take them over.

      If this was through your university, report her and the company. They can be removed from the program.
      You’re supposed to be gaining a LEARNING experience with an unpaid internship. Not learning what’s wrong with crappy, poorly managed companies.

    3. Deb*

      Oh yeah, this sounds awful

      Stay strong and realize that you will find some place that values your work !!!

    4. Rexish*

      Ah, sounds so familiar. I studied healthcare related profession and therefore we had quite a few internships (or clinical placemements). My favourite was with an instructor who started the placement saying “you will not touch a patient without my permission. This is very specific medicine and you don’t really learn this in school so just follow”. Then the feedback was that I should have taken more initiative and really made myself more useful and voulanteer to take more patients and instruct others. Like what? This was annoyingly common amongst my peers.

  43. Nee Attitude*

    You won’t be able to please a person like this. If you take the day off, then this person will likely retaliate (poor reference, terrible attitude, early termination of your internship, etc.). If you decide to work, then this person will likely retaliate (poor reference, terrible attitude,
    failure to convert you to permanent, etc.). I had a boss just like this and that’s exactly how they operate.

  44. Mina, The Company Prom Queen*

    Asking for a day off the last week of your unpaid internship where you no longer have much to do, does not make you a monster. At all. This manager is ridiculous. Take the day off and see who else you can ask to be a reference from this company if you can.

    1. Mina, The Company Prom Queen*

      Oops- didn’t see OP’s update comment above. I’m glad it all worked out for you. What a nutty manager.

  45. Deb*

    Cultural differences may be at play here.

    How we communicate across cultures is very different; as people from the U.S expect a yes or no, other cultures would be able to interpret “noted” as a no.

    I reserve judgement because

    If this took place in the US i’d be like wow your boss is awful .

    Some place like South Korea or Japan, where you are expected to work a lot and they are a high context culture, I would understand this to not be rude, but rather a relatively normal response.

  46. AnonyLawyer*

    Since she told you she “doesn’t tell people no,” I’d be tempted to go back to your email chain and respond, “Per our discussion, thanks for approving that day off!” LOL.

Comments are closed.