can an intern refuse to do menial office tasks?

A reader writes:

I work at a company with the general rule that any work you don’t want to do can be delegated to an intern. (Our interns are all paid and students.) Interns often find themselves assigned random menial tasks, like reformatting a PDF for a manager who can’t be bothered. On the reverse end of the spectrum, interns will sometimes be assigned projects that far exceed their pay grade — e.g., before I came on as head of learning and development, they tried to have an intern write a new-hire training program for every department in our entire business. Essentially, if the necessary knowledge or inclination to perform a task doesn’t already exist within the business, everyone figures an intern can research the area and come up with something.

The interns are hired for a specific role (like sales intern or marketing intern) and we don’t hire “general” interns, but this distinction isn’t always observed. A transportation manager might have a sales intern fix the font on a non-sales document, for example. As you can imagine, the interns object to being given random tasks they weren’t hired to do. They also find themselves overwhelmed with some of the larger projects that a full-time employee would normally be accountable for.

I manage a few of these interns. If they come to me and complain about the ineffectiveness of this arrangement, I sympathize and do my best to improve the situation. For example, if they’re asked to do something wildly beyond their abilities, I’ll reason with whoever assigned them something and get it reassigned. If they say “people should really learn how to format their own PDFs,” I’ll chuckle and say, “Don’t I know it!”

The problem is, by taking their side on the larger issues I think I’ve been giving these folks the idea that because something is a stupid idea, they shouldn’t have to do it. I’ve run into the issue of an intern asking me to refuse menial tasks on their behalf — even ones that could ostensibly fall under their umbrella. I agree with their general complaints — the way work is arranged here is sooooo stupid. And, if I had it my way, it wouldn’t be arranged like that and everyone would put on their Big Boy pants and learn how to format a PDF. But it’s extremely unlikely I will ever have things my way, and I thought that was clear to the folks who are interning. Lately, I’ve been saying, “I understand that’s frustrating, but you still have to do it.”

Still, I’ll hear them talk amongst themselves sometimes (or even to me, on occasion) and they’ll be up-at-arms about something that was a Stupid Idea. Some of these ideas are REALLY stupid, mind you, but there are stupid people in charge of lots of places and folks still have to do the work assigned to them.

So, my question is this: where is the line of refusal for an intern? How do I advise them? In truth, it’s not fair to treat every intern like your personal secretary. And it’s certainly not fair to make them accountable for large business-critical tasks (like running a whole L&D initiative!). Even so, refusing to reformat a PDF is a bad look and doesn’t address the actual issue.

Are you involved in the intern hiring at all? Because the best thing you could do here is to make it really clear what they’ll be signing on for before they accept the job. If they’re clearly told in the interview process what the internship is like — and that they’ll be doing a lot of support tasks like formatting PDFs and so forth — then it will be a lot easier to respond to their complaints after they start.

If they’re not being told that up-front, that’s a huge problem. People generally assume “internships” will have a fairly significant learning component. That doesn’t preclude being assigned support tasks; in fact, a very common intern set-up is that in exchange for doing support tasks, they will get exposed to a bunch of aspects of their desired field that they wouldn’t otherwise get, such as getting to sit in on client meetings, seeing how decisions are made, etc. But you do need to be thoughtful about what’s included in the “in exchange you’ll get X” portion of the trade — if they’re just doing everyone’s support tasks and not getting anything out of it for themselves, then framing it as an “internship” might be the issue … and you might be better off hiring real admin support, not interns.

To be clear, this would be a much bigger problem if you weren’t paying them (because then you’d be required to meet federal rules for unpaid interns, which require that the internship be for the benefit of the intern, not the employer, with an exception for nonprofits). You’re paying them so you don’t have those same obligations, but it’s still worth considering if framing these jobs as internships is contributing to the problem.

Of course, you might not have control over any of that. You might not even be involved in their hiring (although if not, hopefully there’s at least room for you to give this input to whoever is).

If that’s the case, the best thing you can do is to lay out for your interns really early on what to expect — for example, that the office relies on interns for help with tasks like X and Y, but they’ll also be given opportunities for ___ (insert whatever is true here, even it’s just that they’re getting the opportunity to learn how to navigate an office; spelling that out can help).

You should also pay attention to how you’re talking about these issues with your interns. If you’re literally calling tasks “stupid,” that’s probably contributing to the problem. It might be honest, but interns who are brand new to the work world don’t have a nuanced frame of reference yet — and it would be very easy for an intern to hear their manager talking that way about work and leap to thinking they can talk that way about all work or otherwise miss the nuance that you’re experienced enough to understand but they aren’t. I’d also be concerned that their inexperience means they’re missing the politics of it all — for example, if you can overhear them complaining about their work, other people probably can too, and they could be messing up their reputations with people who could have influence over their next professional steps (and thus missing out on a big benefit of interning in the first place).

That said, I do think there’s a lot of value in sharing an honest assessment — it can be hugely educational for early-career people to hear, “Yes, this set-up isn’t ideal, the problems you’re seeing are real ones, but this is the system we have, and it’s unlikely to change this year because of A and B, and pushing back on this sort of thing takes capital that you develop by doing things like C and D.” (Explain what capital is too, because they probably don’t fully understand it yet.) But the key is to make it genuinely instructive, like with that framing, rather than just “yeah, this sucks.” It sounds like you might be doing more of the latter without enough of the former.

None of that answers your question about where the line of refusal is for a paid intern, and that’s because I think the issues above are bigger ones — and if you iron those out, that could fix the whole thing. But for the sake of answering what you actually asked, I wouldn’t normally expect a paid intern to be refusing tasks at all, unless something is unsafe or unethical. (An unpaid intern has a lot more room to raise concerns, both because of the legal requirements and because they’re volunteering their time.) Certainly if they’re assigned something that’s obviously beyond their abilities (running a whole L&D initiative — what?!), that’s different. But if they just don’t want to do menial work … well, that’s part of the job (just as it’s part of many internships) and ideally they should hear that’s part of the job before they accept it.

If you or they realize that the job isn’t what they thought they were signing up for, either of you can (and should) initiate a conversation about that to figure out what to do … but usually that would be about figuring out if it makes sense to stay in the job, not about reconfiguring the role into something your organization doesn’t actually offer.

{ 246 comments… read them below }

  1. Generic Username*

    Does your organisation have an overall vibe of just using interns has cheap labour? I had a two year internship that was meant to have a strong learning component, lead to a full time job and I needed specific experience, but I ended up doing little more than making coffee and tidying conference rooms (experience was a little better for the intern in the other team). When I quit they made it clear that they’re replacement would be doing the same as I did and they even advertised an “Intern – maternity cover” post a few years ago, which technically isn’t really legal where I live!

    1. Tuesday*

      Yes! This setup sounds really obnoxious and almost totally useless to the interns as far as actual job experience, aside from gaining general skills like adaptability. The “learning component” shouldn’t be to teach themselves a task way above their pay grade with no assistance. They could teach themselves those things in their off time! There’s no guarantee that the way they’re doing these tasks is even industry standard. The company should be teaching them how to do things, not just asking them to research on their own.

    2. CommanderBanana*

      At my last job we interviewed a (wildly unqualified) candidate for a director position who was coming from a much smaller org, and after some probing, found out that his “direct reports” were all interns, but he’d never hired one. He basically ran his office off of intern labor.

      We did not hire him, fortunately.

      1. I Wrote This in the Bathroom*

        Oh wow! I’ve seen this happen with contract-to-hire positions (where the person remains a contractor and there are always Very Important Reasons why they cannot be made an FTE right now, but in another six months, guaranteed! repeat every six months until they find another job and leave), but not interns.

        1. CommanderBanana*

          Yes, he was hedging about how many direct reports he had (relevant, since he was being hired into a position that would have had at minimum 3), and finally I asked him directly if he he’d ever HIRED any of the people who had interned at his org, and he said no. I’m not saying all internships need to end in being hired, but if you are basically running your office off the backs of interns and have never hired ANY of them, that is a bad look.

    3. Qwerty*

      I worked at a place that literally referred to intern positions as “cheap part time labor”.

      It sounds like it would make more sense to just hire an admin who can take on all the menial tasks and use their judgement on the big ones. If there’s no learning component, there is no reason for these jobs to be internships. Plus there’s a ton of adults who would be very happy with a part time job doing these menial tasks if the job description is up front about it.

      1. BurnOutCandidate*

        Pre-pandemic, someone in another department asked me what the deal was with the interns in my department. We had them, no other department did, and the interns didn’t seem to do anything you’d expect interns to do, like being in on meetings where they could experience the business.

        “The interns,” I said, “are not actually interns. They’re part-time help. VP won’t approve staffing up full- or part-time to meet the workload, but he’ll approve paid, part-time, college student ‘interns.'”

        I didn’t have any contact with the interns after the incident where one came to me looking for something to do, so I gave him an overview of a project I was working on, showed him how to complete it, let him go, and then had a follow-up meeting with him to review his work. My Department Director called me into his office and told me not to do that again, so after that I steered clear of the interns.

    4. Momma Bear*

      I think this is a good point – is this an internship or a temporary gig in the minds of the rest of the company?

      If there’s a particular school you are getting interns from, what are their expectations and criteria? Interns talk (either amongst themselves or on Glassdoor) and your company may find the quality of available applicants slipping if people see no value.

      Another way to reframe it is a trial run of who they might use in the future. If you assign (for example) a minor but useful coding project to an intern and they do well, they may become a valuable new hire after graduation. Your company would have the benefit of being able to onboard them more quickly and knowing their skills and personality before the interview. We very often pull from our intern pool for new hires, and if some managers see potential in a person, they’ll invite them back and assign them more tasks to set them up for that hire post-grad.

      I’d take the conversation to the powers that be and frame it as “how do we make this more useful for the company long-term?” See if that’s the buy-in you need to make some improvements.

      In the meantime, maybe also reach out to the folks that assign random work and ask it to be filtered through you if you manage said interns. That way you can push back upfront or explain the task to the intern. “I know this PDF isn’t what you prefer to do, but it’s within your skillset. If it helps the engineer finish the RFI it could help us land a new contract.” Help them see a bigger picture. We all do what needs to be done sometimes, even if we think it’s “beneath” us.

  2. Alton Brown's Evil Twin*

    I wonder about expectations, too – especially given what OP says about where they are in their educational cycle.

    I don’t consider reformatting a PDF to be a menial job – especially not if it’s something that’s going out to customers. Document production is a thing that professionals do, and sometimes even highly-paid professionals need to, eg, assemble binders.

    1. Angstrom*

      Every position includes some menial tasks. That’s an important lesson in the realities of work.
      Expectations should be clear, but it is perfectly reasonable to expect interns to do some of the same menial tasks that other employees do.

      1. Sloanicota*

        Also, interns, and employees generally, but especially entry level ones, are always going to be a bit peevish in their roles because they want to be doing higher level work. I wouldn’t always assume that hearing whiny feedback indicates a big problem. Being entry level sucks, we can all acknowledge that.

      2. GammaGirl1908*

        This. It is among the most valuable office lessons that:

        A) every job has annoying tasks you don’t like but have to do anyway. You don’t get to just opt out of everything that’s not your favorite; and

        B) the low person on the totem pole usually has to do the lower-level work, no matter how smart or capable (or bored) they may be. In related news, if the office hired you to, like, lick the stamps, and the stamps need licking, you need to lick the stamps. You may be able to do other things too, but your first responsibility is to lick the stamps.

        1. Bébé chat*

          Well, in this company you can absolutely get to opt out of annoying tasks, by giving them to an intern. The LW said that anything you don’t want to do can be given to an intern.

    2. Cat Tree*

      I also think that’s a perfectly fine task to delegate because it doesn’t require a lot of training and it’s an opportunity for the intern to learn about whatever is in the document. It isn’t about Big Kid pants or pride. For the company, it makes sense for the higher paid person to spend their time on things that can’t be delegated. One way or the other, the company is paying for the labor to have that task done. It often makes more sense for the lower paid person to do it.

      1. Miss Muffet*

        I think this is right on point. We often delegate things like this down to other folks because it’s cheaper to have an intern/admin/analyst/offshore person do it because it’s cheaper. That’s the realities of business. But also it’s often the kind of thing to give a new person who is onboarding and may just have a bit more time because the aren’t fully up and running yet, and who knows, maybe they could use the practice in that formatting skill. Or can learn from what’s in the document. I think it’s a fully appropriate thing to be giving interns.

      2. Malarkey01*

        Yeah I sort of question LW’s judgement on this when she says a director “can’t be bothered to do it”. They shouldn’t! I think this gets lost a lot on newer employees but it’s important interns understand that there really is a good reason why you don’t want the person paid 6 figures spending time scheduling meetings, formatting documents, setting up for meetings, etc.

        You’re doing a disservice to people just entering the workforce to set unreasonable expectations about what work is “stupid” versus the thing a less experienced employee would be doing anywhere.

        1. Riot Grrrl*

          Amen! My brother worked briefly for a company where one of the head honchos was very big on non-hierarchical arrangements and felt that there was something inherently immoral about delegating. Unfortunately his division was a bit chaotic because instead of leading and coming up with big-picture plans, he was too busy assembling his own office furniture and updating his own anti-virus software.

        2. Twix*

          This jumped out at me too. While Allison raised a lot of good points about the implied contract of an internship and LW is likely correct that a policy of “Any intern in any department is fair game for anyone who’s not an intern to dump work on” is horribly inefficient and problematic, having higher-skill, higher-paid staff be involved in projects as needed and delegating the also important but simpler and more tedious work like formatting and copying to lower-level staff is the opposite of stupid. If you have higher-up staff who delegate to cover for lacking basic job skills or who use delegation as a way to slack off rather than free up their time for more valuable work, that’s a problem, but the problem is with the employee or culture, not the concept of delegation.

          It sounds to me like what may be happening is, say, Teapot Engineering interns coming to LW to complain about, say, being asked to file the Teapot Polishing Statistics reports and the conversation goes something like:

          Intern says: “Joe, the Director of Teapot Marketing, told me I have to do this. This is stupid. It shouldn’t be my job.”

          Intern thinks: It should be Joe’s job.

          LW says: “I agree, this is stupid. It shouldn’t be your job.”

          LW thinks: Joe should have told one of the Teapot Marketing interns to do it.

          Intern hears: See, my supervisor agrees that expecting interns to do scut work is stupid and that’s not my job!

          1. Sleeve McQueen*

            Yeah, my I-am-not-a-crackpot theory is that it’s a false efficiency that we cut too many admin people in the shift to automation and thus we end up spending too much time on lower value work

        3. I have RBF*

          Yeah, even if something could reasonably be termed “stupid”, it’s not a good idea to call it that publicly. (I get chewed on for this occasionally, because I have a poor filter most days.)

          I try to call such things “a dubious use of time”, “non-optimal tasks”, “of questionable utility”, or some such. Yes, they’re stupid, but if a higher level person wants it done that way, that’s what you do – even if you are, like me, over 20 years in your field.

          Often you just need to suck it up and do the stupid stuff. It’s part of work and life.

        4. Assistants are there for a reason*

          You’re absolutely right, I’m the admin assistant for my office, and my job is to process invoices (convert them from pdf into the computer system) and tag incoming emails to each of the higher up operators in the office so they know which emails are important to them, and don’t need to waste time digging through the entire email inbox. I won’t say it’s a hugely stimulating job, but it is satisfying that I can help them be more productive at their work

          1. Reluctant Mezzo*

            Although I do a lot of that email tagging with Rules in Outlook using sender and subject, which saves me time, though it takes longer at the beginning to set them up.

      3. delazeur*

        “it’s an opportunity for the intern to learn about whatever is in the document”

        This is key. “Read this document for general understanding” is a normal type of educational benefit to give an intern. Formatting a PDF is just “read this document, and while you’re at it you might as well make it a bit prettier.”

        1. Lizzianna*

          Yup, one of my tasks as a legal intern (paid) was formatting footnotes for briefs that the lawyers at the firm had written. It.was.mind-numbing. But I read a lot, and am a better writer because of it. And by the end of my year at that firm, I was able to provide input that went beyond basic proof-reading, and was drafting some of the more basic briefs that our firm was filing. But I had to build my bosses’ confidence in my ability, because the last thing they wanted was a brief that was so poorly constructed that it took them more time to edit it than it would have taken them to write it themselves.

          1. Barry*

            Part of the job as a paid intern is to be helpful outside your resume-building work. It’s not unreasonable that a certain percent of time is freeing up other folks for more valuable work.

            If you’re not being paid, or it’s 100% of the job, that’s a different story.

            But you gotta start somewhere. We all did

        2. allathian*

          Yes, this. Although it depends on what formatting in this case means.

          I read any text that’s in front of me, I can’t even grab a milk carton out of the fridge without reading whatever text my eyes land on. So if I get a document to format, I’ll definitely read the contents.

          But not everyone’s brains work the way mine does. I have a friend who’s a graphic designer and severely dyslexic. She can format a document and make it look really pretty by picking exactly the right fonts, fix the kerning, etc. But if the original text is full of typos, so will the finished product be, because she can look at a page of text without reading it, and reading takes a lot of effort in general. Her dyslexia also means that she makes a lot of spelling errors when she writes, so it makes sense that she doesn’t catch typos in other people’s writing, either. She uses text to voice software to read whenever she can.

          I think that it would probably help to explicitly tell the interns that by formatting the PDF they get the opportunity to learn as much as they can about its contents. It might also help to tell the interns that they can take their time with the document (if it’s true) to read it in full.

          1. Timothy (TRiG)*

            There’s a reason why many document designers use lorem ipsum text: precisely to avoid being distracted by the actual contents of the document!

      4. Lizzianna*

        I also like to start interns or other new hires off with fairly low-stakes work to judge where they’re at. Yeah, formatting a PDF isn’t loads of fun, but it’s usually something that I can quickly tell by glancing at it if it’s done correctly. Doing that kind of work on time and correctly, and without a ton of whining, can build my confidence to pass off more complex tasks to you.

      5. Littorally*

        Right, yeah.

        Plus, I think there’s a distinction between “important” and “prestigious” that can easily get lost with that kind of attitude. There are a lot of tasks that aren’t very prestigious and are very routine, but it’s still important to have them done and to do them well.

        I deal with reports of regulatory non-compliance, and so that means a lot of really little routine things (were the disclosures given, was client consent documented, is this specific data point covered on a fact sheet, did this status update use language that was readily understood by the new employee explaining it to a client) become incredibly important when I’m in the middle of an investigation. Just because they’re routine and low-brain doesn’t mean that their absence doesn’t spark off an avalanche of poop.

      6. Momma Bear*

        Good point about learning. If said intern reads the PDF, they may gain knowledge about a facet of llama grooming that would be valuable to know for the future.

    3. bamcheeks*

      You also get to see what the PDF said! I did a lot of temping work as a student, both secretarial and transcribing, and there have been several points in my later career where I’ve used the knowledge gained from that experience to move into a new role.

      My experience of working with students and interns is that there’s a group who just get there and click: it all makes sense to them, and they pick up on all the immersive and observational learning as well as the actively-being-taught-stuff or things-that-are-directly-related-to-their-degree stuff, they ask good questions, and they happily do lower level tasks as well as more substantial ones because they realise it’s being part of a good team member and that’s where they know where they are actively contributing to the organisational goals. There’s another group who just won’t get it no matter what. There’s a group in the middle who get is when it’s explicitly explained to them. So do make sure you are doing that.

      The other thing is around gratitude and recognition. As I said, there some people who actively want to feel like they are part of the team, and they actively like getting to format the PDF or take notes in the meeting or print the handouts because they recognise that those are the places where they are actively contributing, unlike when they are observing a meeting or compiling a report that may or may not get used. You can definitely screen for that in the application and interview process: you can actively look for people who are looking for an internship where they will be seen as part of the team and active contributors as well as “there to learn”. But you need to make sure this is genuinely the company culture too: is this, “a stupid little job that we can get an intern to do because nobody else wants to”, or is it, “these are jobs that really need doing but our core staff don’t have time to do it, we really appreciate having you here because it adds to our capability”. I think the messaging around these jobs is a big deal for junior colleagues.

      1. Spearmint*

        I agree that messaging and attitude from staff matters a lot. At the best internship I had, I always happily did even the most of menial tasks (literal mailroom stuff) because I felt staff valued my work and was considerate about what they delegated to me. The one time I felt bitter about being assigned menial work in that position was an instance where I felt disrespected by the person assigning the work. She was from a different department and swooped in one day to smugly ask to “borrow” the interns for an envelope stuffing task. She never talked to me before or after that task and only expressed the most mild appreciation for it when I was done. She never offered to meet with me or answer any questions I had about her work. It left a bad taste in my mouth.

      2. Theon, Theon, it rhymes with neon*

        “My experience of working with students and interns is that there’s a group who just get there and click: it all makes sense to them, and they pick up on all the immersive and observational learning as well as the actively-being-taught-stuff or things-that-are-directly-related-to-their-degree stuff…There’s another group who just won’t get it no matter what. There’s a group in the middle who get is when it’s explicitly explained to them. So do make sure you are doing that.”

        I have found this to be an important observation not just for this sort of thing, but for professional expectations in general. One of the things I’m trying to change about my company culture (and it’s not just my company, by far) as I move into leadership is raising awareness of that middle group: that you the boss, or you the senior employee, may have intuited everything on your own, but by resenting, giving up on, and firing everyone who doesn’t figure expectations out on their own, you are losing out on some employees with the potential to be very productive. There are people that if you *tell* them what the expectations are, will actually live up to them!

        “these are jobs that really need doing but our core staff don’t have time to do it, we really appreciate having you here because it adds to our capability”

        Agreed, one of the other things I’m trying to raise awareness of is that one of the best ways to motivate people (after the paycheck) is to help them see the actual effects of their contributions. I’ve been trying to avoid saying just plain “good job” as much as possible, and spend more time calling attention to why it was good the job got done. I try to save “good job” for when I know the value is obvious to the person doing the work (but even then, it can feel really good to know that the concrete benefits of your work are seen by other people).

        1. Zelda*

          I may have told this story before, but it seems appropriate here: Several jobs ago, I made significant changes to How We Do Things during my first year. The next year, I got a voicemail from the chief user of my work, taking 30 seconds to tell me how much easier his job was because of the way I did my job. I saved that voicemail for the rest of the years I was there, and I would have walked across fire for that man.

        2. I am Emily's failing memory*

          One of the things I’m really huge on as a manager is connecting work to outcome.

          Up front, when I give assignments – or make requests of peers on my team – I always put the request in its larger context of why I’m asking this to be done and what I hope/expect the outcome to be, because occasionally I’ll get a response back that, “Actually, if XYZ outcome is what you’re after, I could do this other thing you haven’t considered, that would be faster/more accurate/more functional/etc – would that work for you?”

          And then on the back end, when work is completed, I always try to follow up to let them know the outcome if their job wouldn’t otherwise expose them to the results. For instance, if I ask one of our web developers to code a new widget to boost conversions, my team will take the finished product and run an A/B test to see if it beats the control, and if it does it becomes the new control. At which point I like to loop back around to the developer and say something like, “Thanks again for all your work on the Conversion Widget a couple of weeks ago. We just wrapped up the test and it clocked a statistically significant improvement over the previous control. This is really going to help us make a lot more money!”

          Or, although it’s less exciting to share when the test variant loses, I’ll still loop back to say something like, “Thanks again for all your work on the Conversion Widget a couple of weeks ago. Sadly it didn’t manage to dethrone our current control in testing, but at least we learned something from it that can inform the next test.”

          Both are something I specifically started doing about a decade ago when our department did one of those “working styles” assessments and in one of the conversations it came out that our developers and data analysts often felt like their expertise wasn’t being fully taken advantage of when they were given assignments without context that they could otherwise use to do a better job, and that sometimes it felt like they were just screaming their work into the void when they would never back from us marketers about whether their work made any measurable difference or not. I had never considered before that even though these folks were coders and analysts by trade, not marketers, they were more highly motivated to do their coding and analysis when we included them more in the marketing context.

          1. Turquoisecow*

            As a data analyst, this makes perfect sense. I definitely can do a better job getting and analyzing data and putting it into a useful format if I know what you’re doing with it, and I also appreciate it when people come back to me with something like “thanks, that was really helpful. Now we can do these other tasks or create a process that moved us forward

    4. Mark the Herald*

      I had the same reaction. PDF formatting is something everyone has to do. In fact, a lot of work at most jobs is menial or tedious. It’s actually useful to learn that stuff, the same as it is useful to learn workplace norms… I frankly just don’t have much patience for people who act as though honest work is beneath them.

      1. Sloanicota*

        I would assume (but I’m open to being wrong!) that recent grads in college are already doing this stuff as part of their coursework. It’s okay to say the lowest-paid members of your org need to pick up admin tasks, but I do recall being irked as an intern that staff kept acting like they were giving me the chance to explore MS office for the first time; I had been using technology for many years, they were the ones that couldn’t “edit an email attachment” (dating myself here). It wasn’t a learning opportunity for me, it was them avoiding learning.

    5. Cheryl Blossom*

      Sometimes tasks are just boring! I’m a full time employee who has been in the work world for almost a decade, and a big part of my current job involves renaming documents. Literally opening up, renaming, and saving hundreds of pdfs a day. Its tedious, but our automation process for this didn’t work out, and we really need all of our invoices to have consistent file names so we can find them when needed.

      There’s always boring work to be done and *someone* has to do it.

      1. Luca*

        Is there a reason not to use Acrobat’s preview function, to see the content and rename the PDF without opening it?

        One time Adobe temporarily disabled preview while they chased down a problem in that version of Acrobat. I was not a happy camper for the duration.

      2. Littorally*


        Part of my job is sending form letters for every investigation I work. It’s literally just, open the template, plug in the client name, address, and the date of the complaint, then generate a mailing label and print it all. Absolutely mindless and boring as crap. I hate doing it, but TPTB would rather we do it ourselves than add headcount for a support person to do nothing but that.

        1. Journey of man*

          And sometimes they should hire someone to do just that. They’re called clerks or admins. Some people aren’t great at typing and it’s like paying someone a lot of hourly money to type.

    6. Help Desk Peon*

      One day 4 of us IT professionals sat around wrapping up 20ft ethernet cables (took us an hour, it was a LOT of cables, and most of them were taped to the floor), and talking about all the things like that we do as part of our jobs that you never talk about in school.

    7. Tiger Snake*

      On reflection, I’ve probably done this once or twice with new starters too. I try not to just because its easier to do yourself , but I have done ‘here’s the content and the template, I want you to try completing the PowerPoint and them come back to me’ before.

      My logic is that it’s a very low-pressure way to get them exposed to the work (look, here’s the outcome. Look, you can see the analysis report that I pulled the data I want you to format came from). With certain kinds of work it can be hard to expose interns without throwing them so far into the deep end they think they’re drowning and will never, ever get it.

    8. The Other Dawn*

      I agree. Learning how to format a PDF is important in my department, mainly because the main application we use doesn’t have certain export options so our only choice is to format a PDF, which can be tedious. And the reports we create with those formatted PDFs are presented to the Board and executive management within my company. This would be considered a necessary task to learn for an intern.

    9. rebelwithmouseyhair*

      Yes this. I was asked to photocopy a heap of documents at one point in my first job as a girl Friday in a chaotic office. While doing so, I read the document to see if I could learn anything interesting. I noticed a spelling mistake in one of the documents. It was the client’s name that was spelled wrong, so obviously it was important to have it corrected. When I pointed it out, the boss asked me how I knew the rather unusual spelling, and I said I’d had to write her name down when taking a message.
      He was impressed, so he put me in charge of proofreading and typing up the documents as well as photocopying them, and shortly after that I was put in charge of writing them. That job ended up being one of the most interesting and well-paid jobs I’ve ever had.

      So, I don’t think it’s a bad thing to ask interns to do menial work. Someone has to do it, and mostly tasks get delegated as low as possible. The intern is right at the bottom of the organisation chart and should expect to be asked to do whatever their boss doesn’t want to do. It makes sense to ask the intern to fix the layout on a document, while their boss deals with other stuff that they can’t delegate. It’s the whole point of hierarchy.
      Interns are still learning, and they need very much to learn about hierarchy and making sure highly-paid staff are doing what they are being paid to do and not faffing around with a pdf. Interns need to have exposure to how a normal workplace works, and it would not be normal for them to only focus on stretch projects where they’ll be learning heaps of stuff.
      Some interns might argue that they haven’t been studying X for years in order to do photocopies, but if photocopies need to be done, it’s not the big boss who should be doing them.

  3. Jane Air Jordans*

    There ARE some people who don’t know how to format a doc, make coffee, reserve a conference room, pull a report, etc, or think they are above doing so, but there are also plenty people who have a lot on their plates and it makes sense to delegate those tasks to an intern.

    1. old curmudgeon*

      Yeah, if I’ve got a senior-level person earning the equivalent of $70.00/hour, I’d definitely make an argument for having the $20.00/hour intern do their formatting and report-running for them.

      1. Yvette*

        That’s how it works at law firms (from what I remember from my 6 month stint as a receptionist). Attorneys, especially associates, have to show billable hours. They can’t, in good conscience bill a client for time spent making copies or setting up a conference room. That’s what support staff is for.

        1. delazeur*

          My understanding is that attorneys would risk being disbarred if they charged their regular hourly rate for clerical work like making copies or setting up a conference room. They can do it themselves at a reduced rate or they can hire a clerical worker to do it at that same reduced rate while they bill for actual legal work.

      2. Chairman of the Bored*

        This is the right way of looking at it.

        Presumably Lebron James is capable of laundering his own gameday uniform. However, it doesn’t make any sense for him to actually spend his time doing this.

    2. Bob*

      Yes Those people who have a lot on their plates are usually among the highest paid people in the organization. I’m not exactly sure what OP means by “format a PDF” but if its something that takes more than a few minutes, its more cost effective for the company to delegate it to someone who gets paid less so the more expensive person can focus are more specialized/technical work.

      1. Frank Doyle*

        Yes, I know it’s besides the point, but I really want to know what “formatting a PDF” means to the OP! Printing a Word doc to PDF? Adding fillable fields? Combining several PDFs into one?

        1. OP*

          It means all of the above! In the same vein: making PowerPoints “prettier,” fixing documents with mismatched fonts, etc.

          To those who have mentioned this is just a part of being a junior employee, I agree! I suppose by using the word “stupid” so much I may have misled you all. Delegating administrative tasks to a junior employee is not a bad idea–giving them tasks beyond their abilities is, sending them mixed messages and confusing them is, and failing to explain workplace norms and expectations definitely is!

          1. Hlao-roo*

            As far as explaining workplace norms and expectations: do you have a rough percentage in mind for how much time an intern should spend on tasks related to their specific role (like sales or marketing)? I think it would be helpful to tell the sales intern “I expect about 80% of your time to be working on sales-related tasks/documents/etc. Occasionally, someone may ask you to reformat a document (etc.) for something not related to sales and I expect you to accept those tasks unless you start to spend more than 8 hours a week on non-sales tasks. If you are, come talk to me.” (Adjust for whatever split is reasonable in your organization, could be 100% sales-related work, could be 50% sales-related work.)

            It could also be good to spell out for the interns who complain that formatting a sales pdf gives them the chance to read the pdf and learn a bit more about how the sales department works, and formatting a non-sales pdf gives them a chance to get a little insight into the non-sales areas of the company.

          2. Mark the Herald*

            We have people earning six figures who spend a lot of their day making PowerPoints prettier. We hire, fire, evaluate, and promote in part around the professionalism and quality of slides, down to things like how well text boxes are aligned. If we gave an intern slides to work on and were told they only wanted to do high-level strategy content and that text formatting was beneath them? It would go over not well.

            1. Frank Doyle*

              We hire, fire, evaluate, and promote in part around the professionalism and quality of slides, down to things like how well text boxes are aligned.

              That . . . does not sound like a good thing, to me.

              1. skadhu*

                That sounds to me like paying for communication design work, which when done well, makes visual materials MUCH more professional and effective at getting messages across; good design can make the difference in whether someone ends up reading content and getting a message, but also on whether they are persuaded into taking a particular action. Designing for visual communication is a complex technical skill with a lot of subtleties. Many people don’t value it highly, but when done well, good visual design has been clearly shown by research to increase a business’s profitability. Paying for design services very much is a good thing.

                1. I am Emily's failing memory*

                  Paying for design services is, but it wasn’t clear from the original comment if it’s designers who are being hired, fired, evaluated and promoted on the basis of their design skills, or if it’s something that everyone is judged on. Design skills aren’t inherently correlated with a lot of other skills, so if what you really need someone to be is a good lawyer, it’d be more ideal, assuming budget allows, to hire a good designer to work with them than to expect the good lawyers to also be good designers and to let perfectly good lawyers go because they have poor aesthetic instincts.

              2. Laika*

                Especially if polish/professionalism is the goal, PowerPoint probably isn’t the best tool

              3. Mark the Herald*

                I appreciate skadhu’s reply, but Frank Doyle actually called it. I am in fact a Nazi in charge of a failing business full of depressed, angry people, and we insist on quality slides as a power trip. I’ve realized that Frank knows my business better than I do, and that we should tell the interns to screw the man, refuse to format slides, and represent data through interpretive dance. Thanks, internet dude! Drop me your resume and we’ll sign over all the shares and let you rescue what’s left of the firm.

          3. ecnaseener*

            Yeah, then your “don’t I know it!”-type comments aren’t serving you well. You’re agreeing with them that PDF formatting shouldn’t be delegated, of course they’re taking you at your word and proceeding with that understanding.

            You can sympathize, but tell the truth – you know it’s not the most glamorous work but it needs doing, and it really does make the most business sense for senior people to delegate as much as they can.

    3. Les*

      Agreed. I was starting to wonder if I was out of touch.

      When I started out in my industry, I was happy to help out with admin/support tasks. I was just happy to get my foot in the door. It did give me experience delivering polished results.

      I also didn’t mind getting some tasks that were a stretch for my skill level as long as people understood my limitations.

      I’m pretty confused by this letter overall!

      1. Mark the Herald*

        Similarly confused. As an intern, you are bringing next to nothing to the table as far as skills and capabilities, but you’re getting paid and getting experience in your chosen field, not to mention connections and something real on your early-career resume. On top of that, you want an EA you can delegate the grunt work to? It seems… I don’t know. I’m missing something here.

      2. Malarkey01*

        I feel a little out of step a lot too in that very very early in my career I took on a lot of the support tasks on our team as a way of making me invaluable and then I got pulled along to all the really important meetings and travel and kept my ears open and then suddenly I was the one doing the higher level work too and I rose pretty quickly.

        There’s a fine line between taking the gendered “woman’s work” and taken advantage of and the Malarkey always sets up the meetings flawlessly and has the handouts for all the customers and I don’t have to worry or double check her work she’s fantastic.

      3. rebelwithmouseyhair*

        Yeah, I mean, as I commented somewhere else, I didn’t just photocopy the documents, I read them, found mistakes in them that needed correction, and was then entrusted not only with photocopying but also proofreading the documents. I had to make coffee for the higher-ups, so I made sure they all knew who I was and that I could be depended on to remember how many lumps of sugar. I listened in carefully on conversations among the higher-ups while I stapled the photocopies together. The boss had invented software to teach touch-typing, and I took the initiative of learning to type using the software. He promptly put me in charge of the other students taking the course, and I also became the go-to person for typing documents up. I then took it upon myself to improve the texts I was typing up, smoothing out inelegant phrasing and checking the spelling. Within months I was put in charge of writing the documents.
        Basically, I used each and every mundane task as an opportunity to learn as much as possible and showed that I was capable of much more. My boss was wonderful in that he was very good at spotting talent and helping people to grow but that should be the case for anyone managing interns and indeed any reports.

    4. NotAnotherManager!*

      Yes, and frankly, it’s a real advantage for entry-level hires to have some of these skills when they graduate and get a full-time job. We have added basic training on meeting scheduling protocols, document formatting, and other skills that are required to function successfully in an office environment, and I’m always delighted when people come with practical experience.

      I hire recent college graduates, and we are very clear with them that their duties will include things that are fun and interesting as well as things that are dull and drudgerous. And, if they do a shitty job on the less exciting tasks, they will get fewer opportunities to do the fun stuff.

      1. RWM*

        Totally agree — I don’t actually know that things like scheduling protocols and how to use email (both literally and from an etiquette POV) are really taught explicitly to everyone while they are in school. Learning how to do a bunch of admin things is a good skill to have that will serve you well, and an internship is a great time to get in the weeds and figure those things out.

    5. Evelyn*

      Exactly – certainly there are people who delegate tasks because they don’t know how to do them (or they know how but they don’t want to), but sometimes delegating those tasks is a question of efficiency. It may not be a great use of the senior person’s time to do those tasks when they have other tasks that cannot be delegated to do as well. Also, if we never ask junior people to do things like format PDFs, they become senior staff who don’t know how. Part of what you’re learning to do is hopefully some of these various office tasks like how to edit/format documents using various tools.
      Also, quite frankly, one of the things that you learn as an intern or entry-level employee is that sometimes offices are dysfunctional or do things in ways that don’t make sense!

    6. AnotherLibrarian*

      I 100%a agree. I’ve also found this is a hard thing to train new people on. The idea that literally “someone else’s time is worth more than mine” is a really alien concept to a lot of interns. It’s something I’ve had to talk with interns about, which can be hard to do without sounding insulting. Most get it, but never thought about it.

      1. I went to school with only 1 Jennifer*

        It’s the wording. My time isn’t worth more or less than anyone else’s, and we all have a limited amount of it (24 hours in a day, 1 lifetime in a life). But in a business setting, some people’s time is *more expensive* than other people’s time.

        1. Le Sigh*

          To expand on that — there are only so many hours in a day. No one person can do everything. So if you have a sr level person with specific skills, you need to prioritize their to-do list to focus on the things that use those skills. I’m sure my big boss can PDF something, but all of the little admin items can quickly become a time suck, and I need them to focus on things I can’t do, like painting their vision as a leader and closing a deal with a client. Similarly, I need to focus on finding those clients and and developing a strategy — so I ask our intern to do the baseline research first so that I can assess the info and develop a strategy. It might be a bit boring for them, but it’s something we all have to learn, so it’s a good use of their time and mine.

    7. Miss Chanandler Bong*

      So when I was an intern, I was never the intern who made coffee.

      Oh, mind you, I did all kinds of other menial tasks.

      But one day, my boss asked me to make coffee…and I had to confess that I did not know how to make coffee. I’m not a coffee drinker, neither is my mom or brother, so my dad always made it for himself. I never learned how to make coffee.

      I have now made it to age 28 without this skill. If I were to work in an office and people were to need coffee, I’d absolutely have to ask someone else to do it. Two degrees… can’t make coffee.

      1. KayDeeAye*

        Me neither! I was perfectly fine doing menial tasks as an intern (so long as I also got some meaningful tasks, which I did), but I don’t drink coffee and don’t live with anybody who does, so…let’s just say that if they have a choice, nobody wants me making their coffee for them.

      2. She Loved Coffee, and I Loved Tea, and That Was the Reason We Couldn't Agree*

        I was the student worker who had to make coffee for the keynote day of a conference we hosted. I’m not a coffee drinker, so I was really proud of myself for learning to use the giant old-school percolator and making what I assumed was really good coffee.

        We actually received complaints. Multiple. I was banned from making coffee again.

        (In my defense, my boss’s response to “How much coffee do I put in?” was “However much you think looks right.”)

        1. AngryOctopus*

          That is a terrible response even for an avid coffee drinker, if said coffee drinker has never used a percolator before!

      3. Ace in the Hole*

        Speaking as someone who does drink coffee… I don’t see why making coffee would be lumped in with professional skills like reserving conference rooms, scheduling meetings, or formatting documents. Should interns also learn to make sandwiches?

        Of course I realize I’m mostly bristling because I feel like there’s a hefty gender disparity in which interns are expected to make coffee.

        1. Reality Biting*

          Should interns also learn to make sandwiches?

          Yes, if that’s the expectation of a particular office culture. Depending on the place, interns should also learn to pick up dry cleaning, repot plants, or pick up Amazon packages off someone’s porch. Professional skills are not just technical skills; professional skills can also include knowing the full range of things it takes to support a higher level team in their work.

          1. Yorkie*

            Please tell me what industry expects junior staff to pick up someone else’s dry cleaning or mail so I can avoid the hell out of it.

            1. Reality Biting*

              Sure. Film and television. Publishing. I’ve never worked in sports, but I wouldn’t be surprised to find it there either. And if a (paid) intern doesn’t do this sort of thing of course among other things, then who is the right sort of person to hire for this task?

              Here is a quote from’s advice to future interns:

              As an intern, you’ll be the one who has to make copies, fetch snacks, pick up the boss’s dry cleaning or give the company vice president a ride to the airport. Sure, it’s demoralizing, but it’s an acceptable (if unpleasant) part of the gig.

              The implication that picking up dry cleaning is somehow demeaning is a notion dripping with class privilege.

              1. Cthulhu's Librarian*

                The implication that your time is too valuable to be spent picking up your dry cleaning is what is dripping with literal class privilege – What’s next, should your intern dress you so you don’t need to remember how to tie your shoes, and can focus thinking on big picture stuff?

                That’s what a manservant, personal assistant, or butler is for. Go hire one (you’ll be SHOCKED at how much you’ll spend on a good one). Abusing interns for the nebulous ‘benefit’ of your expertise… well, wasn’t that the core conceit of a reality television show with a host who eventually got elected to high office?

                1. New Jack Karyn*

                  I think this is the difference mentioned above, that everyone’s time may have the same value, but some folks’ time is more *expensive* than others’. Equating running errands with tying one’s own shoes isn’t a great analogy.

                  You have a point about whether the particular errands are within the scope of the business, or if they are too far afield. Picking up someone’s kids from daycare? Too far afield. Booking a business trip? Within the scope of the company’s business. Getting the dry cleaning? I could see a case being made for it.

                2. Reality Biting*

                  What’s next, should your intern dress you so you don’t need to remember how to tie your shoes, and can focus thinking on big picture stuff?

                  By all means, draw a straight line from something that happens all the time in the real world directly to something that there is almost no case for in the real world, and then morally equate the two. Awesome!

              2. ClaireW*

                This is very culture dependent though. Like I work in the UK, in tech, and if you asked a grad/placement/intern employee to do anything like that they’d be fully right to go to their manager/HR about it. Making copies OK that’s work related, but if you think the company is employing people and spending money training them in the skills for this job, only for their time to be spent buying snacks and picking up someone’s dry cleaning (aka personal chores for that person’s personal life) that’s going to be well outside expectations/norms here and would be see as particularly unreasonable. I would tell anyone I knew who’s boss asked them to pick up dry cleaning that they should start looking immediately.

                1. Reality Biting*

                  Yes, people should do things that are the norm for their own national culture. I didn’t think we had to say that aloud.

          2. Ace in the Hole*

            If that’s the expectation of the entire industry, perhaps. But if it’s not the norm in most offices in the industry, interns shouldn’t be asked to do it.

      4. Aggretsuko*

        Screw making coffee. I don’t drink it, I don’t WANT to make it and have to smell coffee reek all over the place. Get your own damn coffee.

      5. ButtonUp*

        Anyone could be shown how to use your basic Mr. Coffee in like 2-3 mins. It’s not really a skill per se, just a thing someone needs to show you once and write down the water to coffee ratio. Of course there are fancier/more skilled methods, but that doesn’t apply to most offices.
        NOT arguing for anyone to be forced to make coffee, just trying to clear up the aura of mystery for all you non-coffee-drinkers.

        1. KayDeeAye*

          Yes, but…how much coffee? If someone wrote it down somewhere (e.g., a little label on the coffee can or whatever), I’m sure I could manage it, but I have NO IDEA how much coffee is enough/too much/too little/far far far too much, etc. So sure, ask me to make coffee, if you dare, but by all means, tell me how.

          1. RWM*

            Most coffee pots have cups labeled on the carafe, so you can easily add the right amount of water to get the number of cups you want. Making coffee for four people? Use 4 cups of water, min. Also if you make too much, it’s rarely going to be a big deal.

      6. Blueberry Girl*

        One of my first jobs was working for the state legislature and making coffee was a listed job duty. I don’t drink coffee. Fortunately, there were three huge coffee makers (each slightly different) and photo instructions with notes on how each worked and how much coffee to put in each with specific measuring cups. I was told that my coffee was “very good” thanks to the instructions. I sat in on some very high level meetings (because I was delivering and refreshing coffee), got some nice overtime (because the person thought my coffee was better than someone else’s coffee and started specifically requesting me), and made some great connections. It was, and remains, one of the best learning experiences of my life. Sometimes, being good at making coffee (or at least at following detailed instructions) works out in the long term.

    8. Cthulhu's Librarian*

      See… it’s interesting that making coffee is one of the things that came up in this conversation, because for me, in my professional roles, that has been a hard line I’ve always drawn. I did sling coffee for a living, and when I moved into more professional roles (and even in personal relationships), I decided that I. no. longer. make. coffee. Ever, without exception. I do not care if you are experiencing withdrawal symptoms from a lack of caffeine, just proposed to me, are on your literal deathbed, or happen to be Fred Rogers.

      If I had wanted to continue to make coffee for other people, I would have taken the shift lead position and continued working in a coffee shop, not dumped all those wages into my schooling. I was in my late teens and heard plenty of variations on “you’ll never be good enough/are to dumb for anything but slinging coffee,” so when you ask me to make you coffee in a professional setting, I feel that you are denigrating every decision and action I undertook to build myself into a working professional.

      So, I get why an intern might balk at that, because I’ve balked at it a time or two in my career. Sure, ask me to collate a document, or save and attach it to an email for you for the umpteenth time. I’ll do that without complaint (and did, when I interned as part of my various degrees). But ask me to make coffee, and you’ll be lucky if the least you hear in response is “No, you actually don’t want me to do that.”

  4. Bagpuss*

    I agree with Alison’s comments. I also think that as OP manages some of the interns, it would be appropriate for her to ensure that they are aware of what they will be dong – e.g. to explain specifically that as interns, part of their role will include doing basic tasks (and perhaps explain that this might include things like helping someone to correctly format a document or doing a coffee run) but that they will also likely be given the opportunity to do some higher level work including being asked to do initial research for a project.

    I think if that is made very clear to them on day 1, then it’s less of a surprise and also gives OP something to refer back to if they complain, to remind them that this was something she explained would happen.

    She can also give them advice about what to do if they don’t feel they can manage a tsk – I’d guess more for the research / higher level stuff – to help set expectations (e.g. if the expectation would be to do some basic research via google / the company library and then feed back to see if it needs to be taken further, for instance.

    1. Abogado Avocado*

      Agree x 100!

      Also, as someone who has hired and managed interns, I found that ensuring they’d have one significant project that they could use for job application purposes helped, even if all the rest of their tasks were mundane. It also helped to remind interns that everyone starts somewhere, with tasks that might have been considered “menial”, and that the quickest way to make a great impression with higher ups would be to take that task and perform it as if it were the most important task in the world — meaning, taking care to ensure it was done efficiently, correctly and that the result pleased the person requesting the work.

    2. Artemesia*

      It is an enormous fail to ‘agree with the intern that the job they are being asked to do is stupid.’ Menial work is part of any organization and those at the bottom of the stack get more of it. There have been a number of articles written on what an intern can learn from ‘grunt work’ — and the intern manager should be frank that some grunt work is involved in any internship and help the intern frame what they can learn through observation of how an organization functions from the bottom or from the particular menial jobs they m;ight be assigned.

      Of course it should be a well designed learning opportunity over all and care should be given that the intern observe widely and do work that stretches their knowledge and skills BUT part of everyone’s career is drudge work — and it is absolutely part of an internship role.

      Stop suggesting to interns that they are above such things.

  5. Viki*

    Such a timely question as I’m losing my beloved paid Co-op, and stealing my colleague’s amazing one for the summer semester. To sum it up, unless it was actively unsafe (trying to think how it would be unsafe in my department), I would not expect a co-op to turn tasks down, and if they were, we’d have a conversation about What the Job Actually is and how Seniority and delegation works

    I think there’s three prongs to the issue: What type of Co-op they are; What the Job Actually Is; Lowest in seniority.

    I have am amazing Co-op right now, I can give her (Co-op 1) a brief and she builds me a dashboard. Amazing, love her. I’m sad to leave her. I had a co-op (Co-op 2) in the early days of Covid that signed on, said good morning and then didn’t respond to any messages after a month of being mildly good at their job.

    Co-op 1 gets to work on cool things, and raise their profile and skill set because she’s dependable, interested in the work and I have visibility on what she’s doing.

    Co-op 2, with the admitted hickup of learning how to manage virtually, gave me subpar work, did not improve without extremely detailed instructions, missed deadlines and I needed to hand hold him to know he was getting work done. He did not get any cool projects, and did not get a hire back/extension when his co-op ended, because he wasn’t reliable.

    What the Job Actually Is–how is that being sold? Are they being told that it’s a grab bag of experiences? Or they will get to work on this one very cool thing and they don’t? I’m honest, this is going to be a learning period from my analysts, but it’s also involving the admin stuff that quite honestly no one likes and guess what it’s now part of your job.

    Lowest Seniority. I could hire an analyst a month into my co-op’s tenure, and that analyst would still be higher, because of the position of co-op. That means that my analyst’s time is much better spent doing something else than reformatting PDFs and I would expect the analyst to delegate accordingly to the co-op.

  6. Bridget*

    There is also a certain viewpoint from some people in the workplace that “professionalism” from someone lower on the ladder means saying “yes” to everything, whether it is an appropriate use of resources or not. They’re also the ones who decide that you need to clean out and organize the resource closet that no one has touched in years because “why not since we have you”.

    That said, this person needs to be able to communicate the difference between a task that is not appropriate for an intern, and one that is menial but they have to do it. Part of effectively managing interns is to help them understand professional expectations and that sometimes you will be asked to do things you deem “dumb”. And maybe not to say that.

  7. Radioactive Cyborg Llama*

    Our intern assignments go through the intern supervisors. Reformatting a pdf as part of an assignment that exposes them to substance is fine IMO, while just shunting your grunt work onto the nearest intern would not fly in my organization. If these interns are not getting good quality work, maybe similarly rearrange how assignments are done, with some guidelines, rather than allow anyone to grab any intern for any assignment. If someone wants an intern to reformat a pdf, then there needs to be some learning involved in that–let them sit in on the related meeting, e.g. If they’re getting a reasonable amount of good quality work, then you need to talk to your interns about their expectations.

    1. Earlk*

      Yes. The lw makes it sound like anyone can assign any intern a task they don’t want to do which would be incredibly annoying for the interns.

      Maybe the policy of assigning menial tasks to interns isn’t the problem but the way in which tasks are assigned.

      1. Ccbac*

        Agreed! I have also found that if one intern is quick/good/detail oriented and doesn’t complain about the so-called menial tasks, they are often assigned the bulk of these tasks and aren’t able to do do as much of the bigger/subject specific projects that would be valuable for future career options. At one job, I was specifically told to pretend to be less good at admin tasks because then I would always been assigned these and would become too “valuable” to move up or into a role that didn’t have a large admin component (job was supposed to be about 80% work that requires specific skills and 20% helping out as needed). I didn’t do this and it turns out that the person who told me this was 100% right– the amount of admin work i had to do only increased since i was viewed as the dependable one.

        1. Unkempt Flatware*

          I was this intern and was this employee for too many years. Yes, shovel your shit over here, UF will sort it all out!

          When I have an intern and I’m up against the ropes and need a menial task done, I show the intern how I would handle it as a professional. I would reprioritize and make it happen. Better to show them how to ask for help from a peer colleague than how to find the lowest on the totem pole and flex to get it done. Sometimes we as professionals have to ask a peer to do some dumb menial shit to help us out. If I absolutely had to toss it to an intern, it wouldn’t happen very often if I could help it.

        2. Jenny Next*

          This is a great comment, and it also brings up a larger issue: If there isn’t a point of control for assigning tasks equitably, the company exposes itself to the risk that women and/or persons of more disadvantaged ethnic groups will get all the so-called “menial” work, and the young white men will get the resume-building stuff. And then guess who gets labeled “high potential” right out of the gate?

    2. Cthulhu's Librarian*

      Right. When we have someone doing internships in the library field, they’re brought on with an explicit plan on how we’ll use them, and goals for what they’re going to be learning during the internship. We don’t just point them at the book carts and say to ourselves “Woot, Free shelving labor for a semester!”

      But that probably is because we’re obligated to be that way, because most internships are unpaid learning opportunities.

      1. hallucinating hack*

        This was almost exactly what we did with our latest intern. I got on the phone with them the day before they started and worked out what their learning objectives for the internship needed to be. And then did my best to get them exposure on those aspects of the work (give or take some things that just weren’t possible because e.g. the person in charge of that project couldn’t bring in any more hands, or an inexperienced person getting involved in a particular workflow would be disastrous for the timeline).

        We pay our interns next to nothing too, so it’s only fair that they get compensated with experience and guidance.

  8. Chairman of the Bored*

    In general, if a given task is reasonable for an intern’s skill level and not unsafe/immoral/illegal I expect them to do it.

    The way work is assigned or the specific job seems stupid? Well you’re getting paid real money to spend time on that stupid thing; so do the job, get the money, keep your eyes and ears open, and someday when you’re the decision-maker do things a better way.

    1. Jujyfruits*

      What I find confusing about the set up is that it seems like anyone asks any intern to do tasks. If I’m hired for marketing and being asked to do work for accounting, menial or not, I’d be confused.

      1. Cat Tree*

        Yeah, it should be funneled through the intern’s manager who has a sense of their workload. If they have the capacity I would probably still want an intern reporting to me to do the task. But if they’re getting stuff from a bunch of different people they could easily end up with too much and not know how to prioritize.

        1. Le Sigh*

          Yes, definitely to all of this. My office has a handful of people who serve as intern managers, who are responsible for hiring, coaching and training them on specific tasks, and dolling out assignments. If we have something we want an intern to do, we have to go through them with the assignment info and priority/deadline. And I think that’s only fair — most interns would understandably just agree to a task bc they don’t really have the ability to say no, which can quickly spiral into them having too much on their plate and not knowing how to prioritize.

      2. rayray*

        I was thinking this too. I could see a marketing intern reasonably expecting they might get to help on some campaigns directly, but then being asked to format a document for accounting or organize a dusty supply cupboard would probably be confusing and disappointing.

    2. lunchtime caller*

      This has always been my approach to work as a “no job too small” kind of person. Whenever coworkers complain about dumb tasks, I say there’s a reason they have to pay me to show up to work–basically “that’s what the money’s for.” I’m also aggressive about looking for opportunities for growth, soak up everything I can like a sponge, and will ask for more money without hesitation. And since I strike people as a dependable, always happy to help person who makes their lives easier and can manage anything thrown at me, I usually get what I ask for.

  9. Isben Takes Tea*

    A phrase you can get a million miles out of when someone lower than you in a hierarchy is complaining about a policy created and enforced by people higher than you is, “You’re not wrong.” Somehow I’ve found it goes over much better than “You’re right!” when you have to add “. . . but these are the rules, and you still have to do it.”

    1. OP*

      Thank you! Alison’s suggestion that I may be being too candid rings true to me. My own frustrations with the way the organization is managed may come out during these conversations unconsciously. Having the “You’re not wrong, but this is the way things are because of professional norms/factors outside of our control–how can I help you manage it?” conversation will benefit them much more and provide some clarity on expectations. They’re getting such mixed messages, and I didn’t realize I might be part of the problem!

      1. boo bot*

        I think that your willingness to be honest about the more frustrating dynamics can probably help you be a really good resource for interns—people who are new to the workplace *need* someone to communicate things like “You’re not wrong, but this is the way things are because of professional norms/factors outside of our control.” (And I think that is a good way to put it.)

        A lot of the time, people above them in a hierarchy are going to default to stuff like “You’re wrong, the stupid way we do things is good, actually,” or “Do as you’re told and don’t ask questions.” Both might get the intern to be quiet and do the task, but neither is the healthiest perspective on the workplace.

        “Sometimes, the necessary things are stupid and the stupid things are necessary” is among the valuable life lessons.

        1. I have RBF*

          “Sometimes, the necessary things are stupid and the stupid things are necessary” is among the valuable life lessons.

          Very much this. I cringe when I think of some of the attitude about my own work that I had in my 20s. I’ve since learned that even “senior” level jobs always have some grunt work involved. Not everything is fun, new, and/or interesting.

          1. Nina*

            Cosigning. I have been the chemist (not the senior chemist, admittedly, just the only chemist) in a big aerospace company and I still did all my own lab dishes and cleaning.

            1. I have RBF*

              My first job was a chem lab assistant. I got to do some testing, but 90% of what I did was glassware cleaning, for the whole lab. I actually got pretty good a odd things like fire polishing chipped glassware. I got really peevish when someone dumped stuff in the tubs and broke it or something else and it cut my gloves.

      2. Llama herder-herder struggling to be accurate but upbeat*

        OP – I see you and feel you! I am also too-candid and working hard to rethink and address how I share negative aspects of work including funding constraints/terrible organizations/harsh personalities, etc with new employees and people on my team.

        I want everyone to feel supported, seen, heard, and not feel like they’re the only one seeing that the emperor isn’t wearing any clothes, but also to go into meetings with him (or other less-ideal situations) and do what they need to do _despite_ the naked guy in charge. So I need to find a way to share what I think is accurate information (‘this dude is really naked, it’s not you, just ignore it and don’t take it personally, we’ll debrief after’) but in a more neutral way. That is where I’m struggling – it’s hard to say ‘hey, that dude that should be wearing clothes – yea, he isn’t – and you can’t react to it, and it’s total BS that we have to put up with it, I know he should just put on some clothes, I totally agree, etc, I’m so sorry but that’s just the way it is, you’ll be fine, it gets easier, etc’)

        No contribution to this reply other than to say yep, I see you. It’s hard!

  10. Morgan Proctor*

    I’ll add that if these interns are all students, then they’re getting credits for doing this internship and part of that is that their advisor/professors might be asking them what they’re learning about their chosen major/career path in their internship. If the answer is “nothing” because they’re reformatting PDFs and making coffee, then yeah, that’s pretty frustrating and honestly not acceptable.

    Sure, young people should learn that sometimes they’ll be asked to do menial tasks in a job. But they should also learn to value themselves and to seek out opportunities where their knowledge and experience will be put to use. The best internship I ever had was the one where I was given a huge amount of autonomy and responsibility. They told me what I was going to be doing when I was “hired,” and then I did exactly that. I learned a lot and I felt that that internship was truly valuable for me. Giving interns nonstop menial tasks (yes, reformatting a PDF for someone else is a menial task, no matter if you’re an intern or several decades into your career) is not going to teach them anything about the job or themselves.

    1. Lavender*

      I was thinking that too. If they’re doing this as part of their degree, then they’ll presumably be asked to report back on what they learned about the industry—and it’s not clear whether this current setup allows for much of that. If they are getting lots of industry-specific knowledge, great! But if not, it might be worth changing the job title to “admin support” or similar.

    2. L*

      Not only would they be doing it for academic credit, they would probably be paying tuition to do so. In my opinion, internships should be educational. Menial tasks are ok sometimes, but they should be related to the field the student is supposed to be working in. If an organization need a student to do menial tasks, the should hire a student worker and not frame it as an internship.

      1. pope suburban*

        Yes, this is where I land. Of course junior employees are going to have to to scut work, but interns aren’t quite the same thing. They’re primarily students, they’re there to learn things that you don’t necessarily learn in school (or, in the case of formatting PDFs, can’t learn with a quick Google and maybe a couple minutes on YouTube). So they shouldn’t just be making copies any more than they should be stuck with mid- to high-level projects that the actual, fairly senior employees just don’t feel like doing (Seriously I have so many questions about the workflow at this organization). My impression here is that the interns are correct in identifying the problems that are going on, and frankly I’m impressed that they are both able to do so and willing to speak up about it.

    3. Sharkie*

      I had an intern like this in college and I ended up failing the class! The intern manager realized week 2 that we were not grad students and made us clean and do paper work for the whole year. Since we were supposed to shadow them to see a clinic like environment, we couldn’t do the class projects and ended up with 0’s for everything and it delayed everyone who was placed at that site graduating by a semester. Luckily the Dean stepped in and that site is banned from having interns for undergrad and grad schools, and we didnt have to pay to retake the class and the F was removed from the records.

      Menial tasks are fine ( My intern is currently sitting next to me doing a large mailing project) but when it is the entire internship, that is not ok!

    4. Elsie*

      I’m in a paid internship right now, and you are absolutely correct. It is for academic credit, and we are expected to demonstrate how what we learned in our internship is related to our academic preparation. The answer “nothing” would be appalling to our professors. Fortunately, the professors that supervise the internship work closely with the agency we are working at to make sure we are being put to work correctly.

      My girlfriend did a required internship for clinical psychology, and the requirements for centers that accept interns are very strict, since the students must do a mix of (mostly) clinical and administrative hours in order to graduate and apply for a state license to practice. The college she is at has removed centers from their list for not supplying interns with the required clinical hours.

  11. Bagpuss*

    Thinking further – the line of refusal – I’d say things that are actively unsafe or illegal/unethical, and that where someone is being asked to do something ‘menial’ when they already have a full list of things to do which are more focuses on their actual role it may be appropriate to push back, but that they need to have some understanding of the way the specific workplace functions and who is who first (pushing back on formatting a PDF for the CEO because you have a full list of tasks to do for the most junior llama groomer is probably not going to work, for instance)

    1. Ace in the Hole*

      From my perspective, there are quite a few things it’s reasonable for interns (or anyone) to refuse:

      1. Unsafe (to themselves or others) – not only okay to refuse, there is a DUTY to refuse
      2. Illegal/unethical – not only okay to refuse, there is a DUTY to refuse
      3. Technically legal, but humiliating or demeaning. Not demeaning in the sense of “stuffing envelopes is below me.” I mean things like being told to clean the floor with a toothbrush, polish the boss’s shoes, dance on a street corner in a silly costume, etc.
      4. Things WAY outside the scope of the job. Interns at an office may be asked to water the plants, but they should not be asked to clean up human feces smeared on the bathroom walls. On the other hand, interns at a zoo should expect to clean up poop.
      5. Tasks you are literally unable to do, whether for lack of training, resources, or time. Refuse only after explaining the limitation, and be open to solutions (if I refuse X because I don’t have a hammer and they give me a hammer, now I need to do X).

      My basic litmus test is to imagine you’re fired for refusing the task, and you have to explain the firing to a (good/reasonable) prospective employer. Will you come out seeming like a good, reasonable employee? If so, it’s appropriate to refuse. “I was fired because I refused to reformat other people’s PDFs” makes you sound pretty unreasonable – so that’s not a task to refuse. “I was fired because I refused to feed live rabbits to the boss’s personal pet snake” makes you sound like a fine employee with a terrible boss, so go ahead and refuse!

  12. Tobias Funke*

    It has got to be mind blowing for these interns to be asked to do both general office admin tasks and way high level tasks at the same time. I would be baffled.

    1. Charlotte Lucas*

      This! What would this workplace do without interns? It seems like they’re just using them to fill in *any* gaps in the organization.

      “OK, Intern, set up this conference room for the presentation you’re doing tomorrow to show the CEO the onboarding process that you are designing this afternoon.”

      I guess the interns are learning something, even if it’s an object lesson in organizational management.”

      1. OP*

        This made me chuckle. It captures the ridiculousness of the problem perfectly.

        To add some context, I have influence over intern hiring and the way the intern program is marketed to candidates. So, the solution Alison proposed of explaining the work to them beforehand is something I can execute. As for organizational management, I have much less influence. I can’t always stop my superiors from thinking it’s a great idea to have an intern write role cards for the whole organization (yes, real example and yes, we have an HR department) instead of hiring a full-time professional to do this work.

        But, I can mitigate the issue a great deal through my direct relationship with the interns. That’s a place to start!

        1. GreenShoes*

          You might have more influence than you think. Can you work with HR or whoever is the champion of your intern program to come up with some guidelines and best practices? I think you have to assume that people have an odd expectation vs. reality view of interns and setting the stage would help them understand what is a good idea vs. a not so good one.

          It really could be as simple as a 1 page “So you’re getting an intern” type document. If you are managing (some of) the interns, I’d also think you’d have standing to say “maybe we shouldn’t give Intern Ida the task of negotiating rates with our biggest vendor, she can certainly learn from observing and help to prepare any background information needed, but let’s put VP Veronica as lead”

          When I had a revolving door of interns I would prepare in a few ways. First, I’d often use them to achieve something specific that worked in with other goals and initiatives. Like if I was on a documentation kick I’d look for an intern with writing skills if I was looking to revamp some dashboards – I’d look for one with Power BI or whatever. That way I generally already had a ‘project’ in mind for them before they were even hired.

          Once hired they were always given the following:
          1) a large ‘resume builder’ project that I’d expect them to complete before their time was up. This was usually the project that I hired their skills for
          2) A ‘time filler’ project of data entry, data scrubbing, or something like that. It would be used for their down time or when nobody was available to work with them.
          3) They would also get a ‘daily task’ so this would be a slice of somebody else’s role. They would be responsible for the daily work.
          4) All the other stuff that came up randomly (like formatting PDFs).

          It must have been ok for them because one of our early interns was a TA, so she passed our information on to her TA group and for years we were recommended within that group as a good place to intern at. (It was a win/win because they were generally a good bunch who were pretty used to responsibility and workplace basics)

    2. Lavender*

      Yeah, it seems like the company’s reasoning is a combination of “interns are at the bottom of the food chain, so they should do all the lowest-level tasks” and “interns are here to learn, so we should challenge them with tasks above their experience level.” I’m not sure if you can really have it both ways!

      1. Riot Grrrl*

        Yep. This balance is very difficult to get right.

        Before the pandemic, we had a relatively well-paying internship at my office. I was always hoping for a range of activities so that interns could gain wide exposure to all the workings of the company. This worked fine for midlevel tasks such as reformatting a PDF (which is so not “menial”). But my staff was very skittish around assigning truly menial tasks to the interns, such as picking up coffee. So they would often take on these tasks themselves. Meanwhile, the complexity of intern tasks would creep up over time. They might not be truly redesigning the database, but they’d be asked for proposed changes to its structure, etc.

        By the end of the season it was not uncommon to see staff almost working for the intern, taking their lunch order, etc. while the intern was busily redesigning the editorial workflow.

    3. Ashley*

      I definitely had this at my best internship. I got to work on some really cool stuff that many junior people weren’t part of, but I also did a lot of grunt work. Sometimes excelling in the grunt work got me brought into the fold more on the really cool stuff.
      The internship should also be setting expectations at jobs, and most senior people are going to sometimes assign menial tasks to others. If you ever want to expand your role you should generally be willing to help.

    4. Kaiko*

      Yeah, I think it would be smart for the company to develop an “intern job description” template to share with interns ahead of time, and that spells out that they might be working on administrative tasks, out-of-scope projects, or whatever else needs to be made explicit. If I was an intern, I would want to know what I’d be learning over the course of the placement, how it’s structured, and how much of my day is smaller tasks versus these bigger assignments.

      It might also be a reality check that the company needs someone at a non-intern level to do things like policy or program development, even if on a short-term or part-time basis.

      1. Gracely*

        I wouldn’t put it past this company to make an intern develop that job description template…

        1. OP*

          Gracely, this comment is sending me. That is exactly what would be suggested to me. The accuracy hurts.

          Thanks, all, for the advice in this thread. I can’t respond to it all but I’m enjoying reading it and finding it so useful!

    5. hypoglycemic rage (hopeful ex librarian)*

      I wonder if that’s part of the interns’ issue, like if they got more of the “office support” tasks, would that be a problem? or is it the wide range of tasks they’re being asked to do more of an issue?

      tbh, if I were being asked to do stuff that was way outside the parameters of an intern-type role (the new hire stuff??), I’d probably push back on that too. professionally and politely, but I’d at least try and find some way of asking if I were the best person to handle something like new hire stuff, not being HR and knowing the context for organizational things.

      1. AngryOctopus*

        The wide range could be confusing too–if your intern is hired in the sales department, but accounting is constantly asking them to reformat documents and file things, that’s going to be confusing (and feel ‘stupid’) because they’re not there for accounting! In this case, the intern being able to go to their manager and say “Hey, I had like 12 hours of tasks for accounting last week and you said I shouldn’t have more than 3” should be a thing. Yes, they are the lowest people in the hierarchy, but they still need to be given tasks mostly related to what they were hired for!

    6. MEH Squared*

      By anyone in any department to boot. If I was an intern in this situation, I would be completely befuddled and frustrated.

  13. Anon100*

    Do interns think they’re too good to do menial tasks these days? Okay, a bit of the “get off my lawn” vibe, but honestly, if an intern was complaining about reformatting PDFs, I’d give them a realtalk about workplace norms and that this sort of thing happens when you’re at the bottom the totem pole. We hear it every year that the interns are bored and don’t have enough to do, and sometimes the management just doesn’t care and still hires interns every summer because the boss’s friend’s kid needs a reference.

    1. rayray*

      I am curious how frequently they are getting these menial tasks. I can definitely understand their frustration if they took the internship for hands on experience in their desired field, but ended up having to help on unrelated tasks because other people lack the skills to do so. I’m sure most interns would be fine with it here and there, but if it was something happening frequently, I don’t blame them for not liking it.

      Also, these are interns who likely don’t have a whole lot of experience, probably just typical jobs that high school and college students have like retail, fast food, call centers etc. They may have gotten their hopes up about helping on projects to further their skills and then all the sudden, somebody twice their age can’t format a simple PDF? They can’t even google it or ask someone else for help?

      1. Spencer Hastings*

        Yeah, this is what I was wondering too. When we have interns, the work they’re given is similar to that of the entry-level staff (except it’s a little simpler, since they’re not here full-time, they’re still in school and don’t have as much background knowledge, etc). It could be that that sort of thing takes up most of LW’s interns’ day as well — I can’t tell from the letter — but it’s also possible that it’s either menial tasks or super-complex/set-up-to-fail tasks like drafting department plans, no in between. If that’s the case, I wouldn’t blame them for thinking “OK, but what am I going to be doing if I take a job in this field when I graduate? I want to know more about what THAT’s like.”

        Reformatting PDFs for people, though, I can kind of see — the department director can send someone else her PDF to reformat while she works on some other task that only she can do, and it’s not necessarily that people don’t know how or can’t Google it. I think whether or not this is egregious is a question of how much time the interns are spending on what tasks.

    2. NotAnotherManager!*

      I hire entry-level folks fresh out of college, and I just flat-out tell them in interviews and new-hire orientation that they are going to be doing things that are not fun. Does anyone love Word formatting? No, but producing professional-looking, functional documents is a core part of our services, so you have to be able to do this and, especially in the beginning, clean up the documents of people higher up the food chain.

      I feel like part of what OP is missing is that these “menial” tasks ARE a critical part of getting the work done. Fostering a mindset that basic skills are menial and beneath them is going to end up with an intern-petition-level attitude problem that will not serve them very well in their professional career.

      1. bamcheeks*

        This is exactly what I was thinking. Formatting a PDF is both a useful skill and, depending on where the PDF is going, potentially business critical! Framing it as “a random menial task for a manager who can’t be bothered” is totally different from, “this is essential work which is delegated by higher-level staff who are focussed on other tasks. You’re getting an insight into what a quote prepared for one of our key clients looks like and how much work goes into it”.

        1. londonedit*

          Exactly – everything about this sort of task is a learning opportunity. It might be ‘just doing the photocopying’ but most of the time if you actually pay attention to *what* you’re photocopying, you just might learn something. Similarly formatting PDFs might be incredibly dull, but as you say, you might learn how a particular document is laid out, or the steps that need to be followed before signature. There are always questions you can ask around things, too – you want to be the person who says ‘Oh, this is interesting – last week I was working on a few PDFs that looked a bit like this one, but they didn’t have these X, Y and Z fields. What are those used for?’

          I started my career on a reception desk at a small publishing house, and I learnt a ton about the industry while I was there. I learnt about the PR team sending out advance proofs, the sort of submissions editors wanted me to reject myself and the ones they wanted me to pass to them, how to deal with difficult and persistent people on the phone, what purchase orders and invoices looked like – all of which was incredibly useful as I started moving up through the ranks.

    3. Cat Tree*

      It’s not a “these days” thing. Young people have always existed. I had internships almost 20 years ago and while I would always be willing to help, I absolutely had some classmates who would complain about such things. This isn’t new.

    4. londonedit*

      I’m not sure it’s a ‘these days’ thing – in publishing we have a lot of people looking for work experience placements (not quite the same as an internship; usually it’s just a few weeks and you’re paid travel expenses) and throughout my career (nearly 20 years) I’ve heard and seen a few of these people on work experience complaining about having to make cups of tea or do the photocopying or open the post. One left at lunchtime on her first day and didn’t come back because she was so disillusioned by the fact that she wasn’t immediately reading manuscripts and editing things. I think it’s just a young people with little experience of the actual working world thing. They don’t know what they don’t know – they think here I am with my degree and my enthusiasm and my love of books, and they don’t understand why they still have to sit there opening letters every morning. It’s a kindness to tell them that all work involves things we find boring, and that you can’t show up on your first day in your first job and expect to be given all the fun jobs to do. You have to prove yourself and earn your stripes before people can trust you with higher-level stuff. The people who get stuck into the more menial stuff and show a willingness to learn are the ones who are given a few manuscripts to read and some cover copy to write. The ones who complain about making tea and act like they’re above helping out definitely aren’t given those opportunities.

      1. AnotherLibrarian*

        Yeah, I remember when I was an intern also some 20 years ago having a few colleagues who complained about the menial work. I never did too, but a kind person sat me down and explained that was the cost of the experience. I listened to her. She was right and I’ll always be grateful. Folks who are new to the work world often have distorted expectations of what the job entails. That’s normal. I try to pay it forward and be the person who speaks with them about it. Not all listen, but many do. Workplace norms are alien to a lot of interns and I think it is easy to forget that.

      2. TomatoSoup*

        Yes, however internships are supposed to offer some sort of educational/training aspect. Photocopying, opening letters, and making tea are necessary but if an internship had nothing else then it would fail that requirement. Entry level jobs? Not fun, but fine. The idea is that companies are not using interns as cheap labor instead of just hiring someone. This comes from a history in the US of interns being unpaid, even when they were supposed to be paid.

        1. Ccbac*

          I agree so much with this– so many internships and entry level jobs pitch themselves as being a great entry to the field or a place where one can learn and then are just simply not as advertised.

      3. CommanderBanana*

        I just had a flashback to when I worked for the Department of State and was reviewing internship applications, and one applicant wrote about how he would solve the Middle East crisis as soon as State sent him there.

  14. Jennifer Strange*

    I think there are two different situations at play here: Interns being assigned “menial” tasks and interns being assigned tasks that are either too advanced for them and/or don’t fit in with their internship.

    For the first, it really isn’t something I would expect an intern to push back on unless that’s ALL they were doing, as ideally you’d want an intern to also have the chance to gain experiences more focused on their career goals (and even then I’d be surprised if an intern framed it as “I don’t like doing these tasks” rather than “Could I have the opportunity to work on this project/sit in on this meeting/attend this training”).

    The second one though just seems like a bizarre choice to me, not only because it doesn’t help the intern (especially if it’s not within the scope of their area) but it’s likely not going to help the company! That’s not the imply that interns aren’t smart and capable, but if they’re doing an internship they likely aren’t going to have the insight to the field of work (or the company itself for that matter!) required for some of these tasks.

    I would definitely push back on the latter, and ask employees to re-think that strategy, but for the former that’s really just how most internships work. I agree that I would be upfront about that when interviewing candidates.

    1. AnotherLibrarian*

      Yes, I think the split of these tasks is what’s odd here. That needs to be addressed, but to some degree- making coffee, reformatting, mailing things, etc. are all super common intern tasks.

  15. Essess*

    Part of an internship is also to learn professional norms. Part of those norms is attitude and teamwork. If they are loudly complaining in the office about their job duties, that’s something that should be addressed as part of their internship. They need to understand about job roles related to pay levels and that high-level job roles are supposed to delegate the menial tasks to more cost effective employees for that task.

    They should be treating these tasks as tests for their accuracy, attitude, reliability, promptness for deadlines, etc… to show that they can be trusted to take on larger tasks and by getting these smaller tasks from more and more people that also builds their networking in the company. Pushing back and complaining about smaller tasks is going to block anyone from wanting to rely on them for higher visibility tasks.

  16. Anonymous 75*

    Every single job I’ve ever had has had a detailed job description and all have included “other duties as assigned”. Sometimes you have to do tasks outside your area, typically “menial”, but they still got to get done. I’ve had CEO’s and elected officials help clean up after events because there wasn’t enough people and it had to get done. I would definitely let the interns know that yes, this is part of the job.

  17. LinesInTheSand*

    I’m trying to figure out who is in charge of tasking the interns. It’s one thing to be assigned entry level tasks. It’s another to be told to do an entry level task by someone not in your reporting chain. Is that the tension the interns are experiencing? Based on what’s described here, if I were an intern, I’d be concerned about making sure I was working on the right tasks and it sounds like this company doesn’t make that easy.

    1. Critical Rolls*

      That’s actually what jumped out at me, too. I can’t imagine how you’d get a reasonable mix of menial stuff and stretch tasks — or even a reasonable amount of work day-to-day — if anyone can just throw a task at any intern!

    2. The Person from the Resume*

      That was my impression too. Does everyone in the office just grab the nearest intern when they have some task (menial or in depth) that they don’t want to do? Someone should be gatekeeping intern tasks and parceling them out to the appropriate one based on assignment area and what they are already assigned.

      I don’t have issue with paid interns (or even an unpaid one) formatting documents because they are learning office norms, gaining skills and experience on office tools, and exposed to the content of the document they are working so gaining industry knowledge.

    3. Parakeet*

      Yeah, I’m a bit surprised by how much pushback the OP is getting, mostly along the lines of “of course interns should be expected to do menial tasks,” precisely because the OP is describing something that goes well beyond the interns not liking to do menial tasks. The mental image that I got from the OP’s description of their workplace, is a place where any staffer can throw whatever work they want at any intern, where interns are basically used to fill all the gaps and are getting orders from all kinds of people who aren’t their manager. That’s really disorganized and seems very chaotic for the interns.

  18. Dr. Rebecca*

    To turn this on its head a bit, it sounds like there’s no clear guidance for people doing their own tasks and/or what the interns are *meant* to be doing while they’re there. Can you work to change that? Because yes, everyone should bloody well know how to reformat their own pdfs, and if I was an intern at your org, I’d be rolling my eyes about that too.

      1. Dr. Rebecca*

        If your job calls for it, you should learn; there are great internet tutorials out there. The pdf isn’t the point, the point is putting things off onto the interns because the salaried workers are to ignorant or lazy to do them themselves.

  19. NotAnotherManager!*

    It sounds like there could be some improvements all around.

    The interns need to understand that that the scope of work expected from them will range from Exciting Professional Opportunities! to The Things We Need to Get Done But Are Not exciting. (I hire entry-level people in an industry that can sound more glamourous than it is – we cover this in interviews. And orientation.)

    The people tasking the interns need to understand what they can and cannot hand out. Asking them to design new-hire training? Nope. Asking for their feedback on their own onboarding experience or to collaborate with others to design it and the required presentations/handouts/deliverables? Sure.

    I also think OP needs to adjust their attitude a bit. Unless people are giving the interns all but the worst work (does not sound like that is the case), having a job sometimes involves doing boring, tedious, crappy work. Like reformatting PDFs. I don’t get being offended on the intern’s behalf that an manager asked them to reformat a PDF – in my world, that would be a better use of the intern’s time than a manager’s. And, sometimes, with that sort of work, you also get to pursue the subject matter of the document – we do a lot of proofreading, and the junior folks enjoy reading the SME’s work while they’re proofing. They also need to be mindful of fostering this attitude in the interns. It’s a disservice to them.

    1. Colette*

      Yeah, I think there are some things the OP can do/advocate for.

      1) Make sure that the interns get to do relevant work in addition to the admin work
      2) Ask that tasks to the intern go through her (so she can weed out the tasks that are too high-level and distribute the other work fairly
      3) Be clear with the interns that some tasks will be irrelevant/low-level, and that’s normal in an intern role.

      1. Lavender*

        Yes, I think it’s a good idea for OP (or someone else at the organization) to review the assigned tasks before they get passed along to the interns. That way when an intern objects to being assigned a task, they can be ready with an explanation as to why the task was deemed appropriate for an intern.

        1. allathian*

          Yes, this. The culture also sounds a bit dysfunctional in that any tasks that other employees don’t want to do get dumped on the interns. Sometimes this is appropriate, as in formatting PDFs, but not if the task is beyond the intern’s pay grade and skills.

  20. NoMoreFirstTimeCommenter*

    Sorry if this is irrelevant in whatever country OP is in. Where I live, some internships are also school courses and in order to get the school credits for the internship, the work duties during the internship need to be mainly school-approved study-relevant stuff. In these cases, a contract is signed between 3 parties – employer, school and employee/student – and everyone involved should know what the internship is supposed to include. But it’s possible that not everyone in the company is aware of this.

    1. Dust Bunny*

      I’m in the US: This is how ours are. I don’t think there’s an actual contract but the internships are coursework and my institution treats them as such, not as stopgap labor.

  21. Another JD*

    If I gave a paid intern a task and they pushed back because it was beneath them, I would not be impressed. Interns are the lowest rung on the ladder. Sure, I can do things like assemble and mail out all my own pleadings, but I charge $350/hour. Interns are charged to overhead. My time is better spent elsewhere. The benefit to the intern would be the ability to read said pleadings, then I’d be happy to field a few minutes of questions about them.

    1. AnotherLibrarian*

      Right. I think the odder thing here is that interns are being asked to reformat PDFs and do work that is far outside their skill set. Interns who mail things, make coffee, sit in one meetings, etc. all feel like normal things. Interns writing business critical documentation without high levels of supervision… not so much.

      1. Another JD*

        Right? I wouldn’t ever ask an intern to draft anything other than the most very basic copy/paste/change names types of pleadings. They don’t have (nor are they expected to have!) the skills needed to produce high level work and it would be a waste of my time and theirs to ask them to try.

    2. Nom*

      I imagine the interns aren’t pushing back because it’s beneath them, but because it’s not the role they signed up for, as Alison mentions.

    3. TomatoSoup*

      It looks like part of the issue is that interns are being hired for specific role and then doing work for something different. If you were a general counsel and regularly just grabbed interns from sales or engineering R&D etc, that would alter things. While it isn’t below them to do those tasks, but they wouldn’t get the same indirect training if these cross-departmental assignments were a regular occurence.

  22. whatchamacallit*

    Having them do something way above their pay grade is wildly taking advantage of them, like the L&D initiative. Regardless of how bigger issues are addressed, I think things like that should be addressed immediately, because whoever is pawning off that work is just looking to get out of doing their job and giving it to someone underpaid. Even if the interns appreciate it at the time it’s going to breed resentment down the road when they enter the professional workforce and realize they were taken advantage of. (Speaking a bit from experience there!)

    1. 2 Cents*

      Yeah and should’ve been paid $x+50x what they were making at the internship instead of just $x.

  23. insert pun here*

    Just want to point out that “interns are students” doesn’t necessarily mean that the internship itself is for credit or comes with requirements for specific learning outcomes from the intern’s school or degree program.

    1. Hlao-roo*

      Yes, I’m in the US and work in engineering. I did internships while I was in school that counted for a class credit, but I think the extent of the manager – school communication was the school emailing a survey to my manager and they had to rate me on a few different criteria. I had to write a short report about what I learned during my internship when I was back in classes.

      I also knew many people in my engineering program who did internships without going through the class credit program. They wanted work experience and wanted to get paid but didn’t want to apply for the program, so their internships were completely separate from school.

  24. Dust Bunny*

    We get MLIS interns and they do have to do some menial tasks, but only because those tasks will be part of their jobs once they graduate. Otherwise, they’re generally assigned a manageable (that is, mostly complete-able within the timeframe available to them) processing assignment, which they do from start to finish. Yes, we do need the work done, but we don’t just stick them with the boring stuff. I don’t think the person who supervises them would be very happy if they pushed back, but I think that’s fair since we’re also not just using them for cheap labor. (Cleaning up random stuff, making piles of photocopies, and making coffee, if anyone does it, is my job as the full-time office assistant.)

  25. 2 Cents*

    When I worked at an ad agency and the intern took a turn with my group, I made sure to be super clear that I wasn’t asking them to do something I wouldn’t do myself. Lots of office jobs have a tedious component. The technical part of my job was what they were interested in and what gets you a job in my field — I made sure they got a full education in that, BUT part of that education meant doing some tedious tasks (which, to this day, 10 years in, I still have to do).

  26. Over It*

    Sounds like your org is just super disorganized around its use of interns, and you alone may not have the power to fix this. Interns should not equal “work that no paid staff is doing, regardless of the complexity.” That said, if anything the interns should be pushing back on the more complex work. “Menial” work is not only a part of internships, it’s also a part of most entry and even non-entry level jobs. Delegating tasks downwards is very normal so people who add more value to the org are freed up to do other things. Of course, you should make sure their internship has a decent percentage of appropriate projects and not just 100% of admin-type stuff. But coaching them around accepting these tasks without attitude would definitely be a kindness in helping them in their first full-time jobs as well. Acting as if reformatting a document is beneath you is not a good look, but not everyone has been exposed to an office environment before and sometimes those unspoken cultural norms need to be made explicit!

    1. Iris Eyes*

      I think the disorganization is the biggest issue. LW is the manager of some of the interns and needs to get a little bit more territorial with their interns at least. Anyone in X or Y departments can assign this type of work as needed but multi day projects or other departments need to get a sign off from LW. A little more structure and busyness around the internships might go a long way as well. I wonder if some of the issue is people seeing interns looking idle (or as typically being about to run out of things to do) and think they are helping by giving them something/anything to do.

  27. Single Parent Barbie*

    Being able to reformat a PDF can be a golden ticket.

    A few things –
    Set the expectations from the beginning. I didn’t have interns, but when I taught, I supervised a team of MBA graduate students who were teaching assistants but also had to make copies, classified books, and all sorts of mundane tasks.
    One great thing about this is they problem solved and created more efficient and effective ways to do some of the more mundane. So when they interviewed for jobs, they could talk about improving processes, etc. For example, one TA had to enter grades into the system and he did some research and figured out how to be able to mass upload them instead of entering them one at a time. Which saved everyone time!

    Second, those mundane tasks can make you a superstar in an office. My coworker swears he owes me lunch every day till one of us retires. I can do those mundane tasks in a flash while he is still figuring out what software to use. Using the right font, making an editable pdf, can often mean the difference between a good result and a WOW.

    Finally, internships should be about growth and development. And sometimes, that means learning that there are menial tasks in a job. And they have to be done.

  28. Thistle Pie*

    “Still, I’ll hear them talk amongst themselves sometimes (or even to me, on occasion) and they’ll be up-at-arms about something that was a Stupid Idea”

    I would not expect any worker, intern or otherwise, to not complain amongst themselves about things that are bad ideas. The thing you should be teaching (and it sounds like you are trying to) is that there is a difference between pushing back on an idea with management or just complaining about it among peers. I like Allison’s suggestions of thoroughly explaining how professional capital works, because that will serve them well in their future careers but also hopefully save you from some griping. You can also let them know that if they’re complaining among peers, that should be invisible to people outside of that group.

    1. Just Another Zebra*

      What I want to know is if this is a problem indicative to just this group of interns, or if this has been an ongoing issue.

      One indicates bad interns, the other indicates a bad internship program.

  29. Fluffy Fish*

    In general a good lesson to learn as an employee, intern or not, is that just about every job will have you doing work you just do not like. Or don’t agree with. Or isn’t explicitly in your job description.

    And you have to decide what to do about it. Be mad about stuff you can’t change and in the grand scheme of things isn’t a big deal? Or embrace that you get paid the same whether you’re assigned a task that bores you to death or one that you love.

    It’s a version of learning what is worth capital and what is not. It’s also a version of learning that you can’t control everything but you can control your attitude and being negative will 1) eventually wear on you and 2) wear on everyone else.

    Most of us have to figure it out ourselves the hard way and some people never do. You are in a great position to help these young employees set expectations about what work is really like, professional behavior, and determining when something is regular job annoyances vs a BIG deal absolutely an issue.

    (not talking about wildly out of scope or ethical issues, just run of the mill reality of jobs stuff)

  30. BellyButton*

    You’re head of L&D???? You should be designing an intern program and managers of these interns should have specific projects, timelines, feedback/coaching schedules, and you should have learning events to build their skills and knowledge.

    An unstructured intern hiring “program” is a waste for everyone. Sure, they may be asked to do some PPT stuff or help organize the swag closet, but they need a specific project that is going to give them real life experience in what they will hopefully eventually be doing in the workforce.

    At my company, if a department/team/manger wants an intern they have to present to me (head of POPS) the project the intern will be working on, and fill out the intern timeline/goals/deliverables/out comes form I created. At the end of the internship the intern fills out a survey and a 360 review of their manager. If the manager isn’t performing, they don’t get an intern the next semester without serious coaching and oversight from me or the HRBP.

    1. Nebula*

      Oh God, I hadn’t even clocked that. Yeah, surely OP can do more than shrug their shoulders at this.

    1. Tuesday*

      I think that we all have to do menial tasks from time to time, but an internship is supposed to be teaching the interns about the industry in meaningful ways. It’s a waste of their time to either assign them menial tasks or super high-level tasks with little to no guidance. They’re supposed to be learning.

  31. Nebula*

    “if the necessary knowledge or inclination to perform a task doesn’t already exist within the business, everyone figures an intern can research the area and come up with something” – what the hell is this? The experienced and knowledgeable people further up the ladder can’t do something, so you give it to an intern? I know OP agrees this is bad, but I can’t get over how terrible this is as a way to run an organisation. Something’s too difficult for your staff? Give to one of the people who, by definition, are the least experienced. Surely there’s no way that will backfire! Writing a new-hire training programme for every department?? I honestly can’t imagine what the thought process is behind this.

    1. hypoglycemic rage (hopeful ex librarian)*

      seconded. if i were an intern here and frequently got this kind of assignment, i’d be unhappy too.

  32. HA2*

    I think the core issue here is that the organization doesn’t seem to know what it wants from interns. If an intern might randomly get “Format this PDF” or “Lead a new initiative!” that means there’s no reasonable way to set expectations at the interview to make sure they’re onboard! Interns just don’t have enough experience to have a good understanding of what they might be asked to do if they’re just told “well, you’ll do whatever it is that happens to be needed”. And it also seems like it would lead to huge disparities in intern experience and productivity, and interns being given inappropriate tasks.

    So it seems like what the organization needs to do is actually put together somewhat reasonable job descriptions for these intern positions. Then you’d be able to judge whether specific tasks are within that range – and either adjust the JD to match (an intentional decision) or figure out who should be given that task instead.

  33. Nom*

    I can’t tell from the letter but I wonder why people are assigning work directly to interns LW manages? Why not have all work go through you, that way you can monitor the volume of menial tasks as well as help frame why you’ve approved specific tasks?

  34. Marketing Unicorn Ninja*

    I am the intern manager at my org, and some of this is legit how internships work (my interns are paid, and they’re hired through my department and paid out of my budget, so I oversee them).

    Can other people ask for the interns to work on things? Sure! But it comes through me or my direct report, we evaluate it to make sure the interns will get something* out of it, and then we oversee it.

    *Sometimes, the something they get out of it is that people are very difficult to work with and you have to learn diplomacy.

    1. Just Another Zebra*

      It’s still a learning experience, and there is some kind of filter. It isn’t Bob from accounting dropping the yearly budget on an sales intern’s desk to “fix”, while Tina from marketing needs this PDF edited and tweaked. Interns are supposed to be the ultimate beneficiaries in these relationships, not just grunt workers.

  35. WellRed*

    OP, a lot of comments are getting hung up on the PDF thing but I don’t think the problem is assigning PDF formatting or other menial tasks. The problem sounds like your intern “program” is a free for all. Who’s managing the interns, who gives them tasks, how is that tracked, are there interns assigned to certain managers and departments, do they need to meet certain guidelines if the internship is fir credit? Otherwise, yeah, maybe the company needs to just hire a few admins or such.

  36. Megan*

    I see way too many comments indicating that interns should function as support staff. No. If your organization needs support staff then hire support staff. Internships are for learning, not doing basic tasks others don’t want to learn. This is not to devalue support staff and admins, and this is not to say interns should never do support tasks.

    My first task at my first internship was to proof read the org’s website. My objectives were spelled out: learn to use the editor, and learn as much as possible from the website. I had to submit a summary of changes, and they did a follow up to see what I had learned.

    It was in fact a support task, but it also provided the learning element that should be present in an internship.

    I worked closely with support staff throughout my internship, but there was always an element of learning.

    Reformatting PDFs COULD provide the learning element, but probably not without follow up, and definitely not for unrelated divisions or departments.

    1. Just Another Zebra*

      I agree with this. I think having them do support tasks within their assigned internship is fine. There is a learning element there, and you have to learn the small stuff before jumping to the big stuff. But an intern for transportation should not be doing things for the sales manager, unless there is a tie-in to transportation. Otherwise the learning element dissipates.

    2. Marketing Unicorn Ninja*

      This is something my interns are doing as well. In part because our website is a hot mess, but more broadly because it was a free-for-all for a long time with people updating it and changing it so there’s no coherency in voices or tenses or anything. We needed fresh eyes on it, and we hired communications interns, and they’re also learning about AP style and web editing and all sorts of other things.

      Also, one of them has brought me a whole list of things that she thinks could be combined, another list of things that could be improved, and yet another list of things that no one has touched since the first Obama Administration with the suggestion that maaaaybe things that are 12 years out of date should be removed.

      She is amazing.

    3. Total*

      100%. Internships are supposed to be educational — even paid ones.* Unless you’re paying the interns what you would support staff (including benefits), then you’re taking advantage of them.

      *This is not to say that it can be educational to have *some* of the work be grunt work, but this isn’t even aimed that way. It’s just “I don’t want to do this, so here it is for the intern.”

    4. Aspiring Chicken Lady*

      I like this take on this. Because depending on the intern, this could have been a very boring rote task that involved fixing typos. But because as the Marketing Unicorn Ninja points out, a web site proofread can be very important and useful in the right, motivated hands.

      People in a learning situation, if supported throughout their process, may end up providing more value that we expect. Why not give them the project of tackling a big project like developing a framework for all of the training/onboarding? Maybe they can’t complete it, but they have the time to dig up all the stuff and do a first draft, which can then be tackled by someone at a different level. Or they just put things in the right piles. Or they rebuild something in a new way that isn’t quite right but will help the person doing their own day-to-day regular tasks at least consider how to take on the project at some point.

      Or the example earlier that talked about cleaning out the mystery storage area — that’s a great project for an intern who is willing to get a little dirty, be a little curious, and WITH GUIDANCE, make some sense out of something that has gotten out of control. That’s when they can discover the longer term mysteries of how the business is run, not just the surface level. And it’s a place for them to learn the listening and asking and observing skills that will serve them well in their future projects and tasks.

    5. J*

      This is exactly my stance. I did an internship that did involve stuffing envelopes, but it also involved sitting in court so I could draft the update letter (that my supervisor reviewed) and then I stuffed it in the envelope. My internship required me to open mail, but it was to review the court-ordered restitution payments with the restitution team so I could see how it got from that envelope to my victim. My supervisor was fantastic at helping me see the entire process, which did often include smaller tasks, but those tasks were basically a “here’s a day in my life” experience, not her pushing off the work she didn’t want to do. Every single week of my job involved learning goals and if I’d shadowed someone who didn’t help me achieve the goals, she’d make sure I got the lesson she intended. Even grant management was taught.

      3 years later I came back to that office in another role and I knew immediately how to do 90% of it, despite being outside the internship but it was one of those adjacent departments, because of how much I learned about the office processes. That’s the benefit of a fantastic internship. Not just being a grunt so a billable employee can do more. You hire underlings full time for that (which is literally my current job, so I’m not being insulting, I’m being accurate)

  37. Construction intern*

    Re: giving an intern advanced tasks.

    I remember when I was a construction manager intern for a nonprofit organization. After shadowing for two weeks we interns were told something to the effect of “we have this other bridge to start building a few towns over, so how about you interns go there and run that site?” We were given a mason (with no familiarity with the design), but otherwise we were in charge of hiring, payroll, assigning tasks, and interpreting the bridge manual, all in a country where we didn’t know the predominant language. We even once represented the organization at a meeting with government officials because we were the only members of the organization in the country at the time.

    I’ve struggled with how to believably put my acomplishments from that internship on my resume.

    1. Tuesday*

      This is another thing. Their experience doing high-level tasks might not be very valuable when it comes time to find a job. No one is going to hire an entry-level worker to do director-level tasks even if they have some experience, and if all they’ve done is either high-level work or menial work, they’re not learning the things that will make them a desirable new hire in their industry!

  38. Just Another Zebra*

    I think there’s a serious issue of mixed messages / poor communication here, OP. To me, an intern is someone who does entry-level tasks that will give them so real experience in their desired field. This absolutely DOES mean things like PDF editing and photocopying and reserving conference rooms, but within their “scope”. If I was hired as an intern for media management, I’d be somewhere between confused and panicking if accounting asked me to format a spreadsheet. And to then have the IT manager ask me to work up a training manual on the new phone system… It sounds horribly disorganized. And I think that might be where some of the “this is stupid” comments might be coming from. I, too, think it is stupid to ask someone with no real experience to do high-level tasks they are woefully unprepared for, then turn around and ask them to proofread a memo.

    It sounds like your intern program really needs some structure. I’d ask the interns to complete a survey or questionnaire at the end of their program on their experience – what they enjoyed, what they confused them, what they wished they got more of, etc. See if you can streamline this a bit.

  39. AA Baby Boomer*

    When I first saw the title I thought they were being asked to clean the kitchen, etc. I do not agree with the “stupid” statements the OP is giving the interns. As a intern they should be learning basis office conduct & procedures. I call it basis business housekeeping. We all do it; and if they are refusing to do it; they are losing out. The requests can be tests. They are being asked to do these things and how they accept the task, perform it, and if the intern can prioritized. I have been an admin for nearly 40 years. I have always had faculty that do not know how to convert documents, that instead of sending a document that you took a picture of; that it needs to be saved, file named that makes sense; or use the naming system that empoyer uses; set up and take down for conferences, meetings, make calls on the behalf of another, file paper documents, use office equipment, put paper in the copier ,etc. It’s not a good look for a new hire to say they do not know how to use a copier, fax machine, etc. Especially if they had an internship on their resume. They need to do these items to be able to say they know how to do so. If they refuse to do basic administrative housekeeping at a future job; by pushing back & refusing to do things beacause you taught them that small tasks are stupid. You are training them to fail at their next job. If they refuse or call an basic skill “stupid” and refuse it they’ll be leaving a bad impression with their future employer of themselves and your company will get a bad rep of not teaching your interns about office norms, behaviours. It could come at the expense of current and cuture interns. Your company will get the rep of not training your interns appropriately and in enforcing bad behaviors. They will say “do not hire any interns that worked at Company Name.” It could common policy. They are expecting to hire individuals that trained in office behavior, ability to do what’s requsted of them; that they are coming across as entitled.

  40. The Other Virginia*

    The reality is, every (or at least MOST) jobs from the CEO down to the internships, involve some “menial” tasks. Many of companies/organizations, especially smaller ones or non-profits, have almost completely removed the administrative support layer of their structures in recent years. Gone are the days when everyone who wasn’t a secretary had a secretary. That leaves a lot of little tasks that would otherwise have been handed off to admins, for others to do. And the lower you are on the structure, the heavier your burden of these tasks might be. Since the interns will be spending at least a few years near the bottom of the structure, even after they graduate and find full time employment, they had might as well realize now how things work. And generally refusing to do something that is assigned to you unless it’s illegal or unethical or just inappropriate in general, probably isn’t wise if you don’t want to stay at the bottom.

  41. mango chiffon*

    Oof as someone who works as an administrative professional, seeing some of these tasks described as “menial” makes me feel some type of way. Sure it’s “easy” for someone to set up a meeting, but there are certain things that make a meeting invite exceptional and informative that people may not necessarily figure out. Letting people think these are “stupid” tasks does no one any good.

    Regardless, the issue here is that your organization doesn’t have any idea of what their intern process is supposed to be or what they want to get out of it from both directions. You/your organization need to actually sit down and think about how to structure work to include interns, and structure the program in general.

  42. JustMe*

    I also think there’s a big difference between an intern pushing back on a project that is Too Big and above their pay-grade versus one that they perceive as being Too Small. Regularly assigning tasks that are Too Big to an intern can have a lot of consequences for an organization and should be addressed with the higher ups if it’s happening consistently.

    With the tasks that are Too Small–Alison is right that it may be worthwhile to reevaluate what the value of the internship is to the students, but assuming they’re getting what they signed up for and sometimes are assigned little dumb tasks, it’s worth having the conversation about doing “other tasks as assigned” and understanding that in a real workplace you sometimes are just doing what you can to make everything work, which sometimes means doing things that are dumb or not in your job description. Good luck!

  43. Hiring Mgr*

    I think also “intern” is somewhat broad. I hired someone recently as what we all called an intern, but it’s basically a part time job to do whatever is needed in any given day/week. That could run data entry to research to helping make a PPT look nice.

    This guy is in college but I just found him independently, not through a formal internship, and him working with my company has nothing to do with his schooling or any course.

    1. windsofwinter*

      Genuinely curious, why do you call this position an intern if that’s not what they are? Why not just “part-time whatever the job is/part time admin”?

      1. Hiring Mgr*

        Mainly because we didn’t have much money to put toward this, so I was gearing it toward a student or someone who was ok with part time work for not a ton of $$. Also, it is for a four month period which coincides with the school year.

        And because of the nature of the work, there will be plenty of learning involved, just not in a particularly structured way.

  44. AA Baby Boomer*

    sorry future interns — not cuture

    This inquiry makes me have such fond memories of XXX that interned off campus; but he had paperwork that was sent to me for the professor. The form would let us know if the students is able to learn new tasks, follow up, prioritize, and use office machine, admin task, etc. If they were using the skills for their field of study appropriatley, etc. XXX kept sending me blank pages through the fax machine. Not 1 -or 2 pages; but 8-10 pages multiple times. I called him, and he got quite ugly with me, stating he was faxing it correctly. It was bad enough that his faculty advisor had a talk with him. He was able to use the fax machine properly after that; rather the faxes coming to me were fine. He ended up failing his internship because didn’t go in the last couple of weeks. He had an ingrown toenail and wasn’t able to work.

  45. Susan*

    After two years of engineering college, my summer job included a desk in a very small, old building that did have air conditioning. My desk was next to the air conditioner, which drained water into a 5 gallon bucket. There were actual engineering parts to the job, but the two most important were to make sure that the office never ran out of cream for coffee, and emptying the bucket. I believe that if I had refused to empty the bucket, the alternate task would have involved a mop.

  46. Pierrot*

    Yeah, I think there needs to be some more substantive projects for the interns to work on. Not substantive in the sense of writing an entire training manual.

    Interns should have the opportunity to work on a longer term project that involves different steps. I have had my fair share of internships and some were better than others. I had an internship for a woman’s private business and it would probably not be legal at this point in time because it was unpaid and not for credit. But in any case, I did a lot of administrative stuff and tasks that had more to do with her personal life than business. I did have one project where I got to take some initiative and do research and writing and I worked on it for a few weeks. That project and a couple of other things helped it feel more like an internship than a personal assistant gig. I was glad to have the admin experience as well because that can go on a resume.

    A lot of entry level jobs involve tasks that the interns are doing, and they should be aware of that. It sounds like this particular internship program should have some more structure built in, but the admin tasks are pretty normal.

  47. TomatoSoup*

    I realize I’m late to the party, but for everyone getting up in arms about interns refusing to do certain things please remember that this was a hypothetical presented by LW. The interns seem to be doing the work, they’re just unhappy about some of it and LW was asking how they should counsel the interns.

  48. Pip*

    Of course there should be a fair amount of learning about the business in an internship, but these students need to understand that the lowest person on the totem pole in ANY job, internship or not, will have to do some menial work and will be expected to do it well and without complaining that it’s “stupid” or not exactly what they signed up for. Frequent complaining about your assigned tasks is a pretty quick way to find yourself unemployed. But yes, interns are there to learn, and it’s the company’s responsibility to make sure there are plenty of opportunities for that.

  49. Pam*

    I had an internship where the learning component was such a significant part of the process that on my first day the director of the organization personally walked me around and introduced me to people and made it crystal clear that he never wanted to see me answering phones, making copies or doing anything remotely along those lines. I was to spend my time there doing the things that would teach me how to become better at the field I was studying. He kept to his word, everyone on staff worked incredibly hard to keep me challenged and learing and I got to stretch myself in all sorts of wonderful ways. It was hands down one of the best internships I’ve ever had.

  50. A Pound of Obscure*

    Not so fun fact: The original dietary guidelines for Americans, which have disastrously shaped nutrition policy in the U.S. and around the world for four decades, were drafted by an intern with no relevant education or experience. Your organization sounds really f’ed up, but not as badly as the federal government…

  51. TomatoSoup*

    I realize I’m late to the party, but for everyone getting up in arms about interns refusing to do certain things please remember that this was a hypothetical presented by LW. The interns seem to be doing the work, they’re just unhappy about some of it and LW was asking how they should counsel the interns.

    LW’s actual problem is the company’s lack of structure or guidelines. The current set up sounds like something I’d also find frustrating.

    Finally, is there a general culture of expressing that someone is giving the intern an assignment because they don’t want to do it? It seemed like this was a possibility and that is demoralizing. In law school, I did an internship that included tons of photocopying on a machine that overheated and jammed after 10-15 pages (out of very large files being copied for discovery) requiring someone to unjam it while not touching any of the scorching hot metal pieces. I knew that no one wanted to do the task but it was necessary. I think I would have had different feelings about it if I was regularly being reminded that it was scut work.

  52. Bookworm*

    Agree with Alison’s answer. PLEASE make sure the interns know what they’re signing up for. I was hired for an internship and I found out on the job (it was not in the job post, interview, or offer letter) that I’d be doing lots of making coffee, staffing the front desk to answer calls and really menial work that wasn’t at all useful for the level of experience I had then (I was in grad school by that point and did have actual work experience under my belt). I hated it. If it had been in the job post I might not have applied OR I would have at least felt a little better in at least knowing.

    Someone has to do the menial work and work is work, etc. But if this is really about getting someone to do tasks like photocopying, cleaning, getting the mail, etc. and isn’t really a significant learning experience, it’s really not a good setup.

  53. cardigarden*

    Re lines of refusal: it sounds like interns are assigned to department. Can requests for work coming from outside departments be filtered through the intern’s manager (who may or may not be you)? That way the manager can say, “yeah I’ll pass that to my intern” or “no that’s out of scope, do it yourself”. That would limit the “intern is in the teapot painting department, but teapot marketing wants her to reformat their pdf” instances.

  54. TotesMaGoats*

    IF students are receiving course credit for this experience, I would strongly suggest you get some order to your company. If one of my students came and told me what you’ve shared and could document that it wasn’t meeting the learning objectives for the course or generally they were being lackeys instead of learning, I’d blacklist your company really quickly.

  55. fgcommenter*

    The problem is, by taking their side on the larger issues I think I’ve been giving these folks the idea that because something is a stupid idea, they shouldn’t have to do it.

    Still, I’ll hear them talk amongst themselves sometimes (or even to me, on occasion) and they’ll be up-at-arms about something that was a Stupid Idea.

    Such things are important steps to changing stupid norms. With enough of this kind of pushback, maybe the interns will cause a shift away from your company’s entrenched flaws.

  56. Let's not name names*

    So much of this can come down to just how these menial tasks are being delegated. Are those requesting these assignments explaining the project/process they’re working on, who the doc is for and how it’s used, or is it just, “make this for me.” Letting people in on the reasoning and ways that their work (even the so-called “menial”) connects to the bigger picture facilitates both the on-the-job learning that interns are there for, and makes the heretical relationships (where those in leadership dictate work to those under them) of most work environments one of collaboration (we’re working on this thing together and I’m guiding the process based on my experience and position) rather than pure coercion (do this for me because you have to.)

    In my experience, making sure interns have a range of tasks—part routine, reoccurring work or projects that they can self-start, manage, and gain experience in perfecting/doing better over time, and then part, servicing the on-the-fly requests of people in org—can really help. Interns, like everyone else, appreciate being able to come into work and have modicum of control of their day, not just jumping to respond to requests and whims.

  57. Ashi*

    1. The full time staff should be made aware what are intern priorities. “If they have time after this project is due, they will help with the PDF formatting or fixing the Excel sheet columns.” They can’t throw a lot of things over the wall because then it’ll be confusing and this is one way they may do their own work.
    2. For the interns, all experience is good. The admin skills I learned early in my career helped me in the future with project management, client engagement (yes, even answering the phones helped), being detail oriented and accurate (I had to a lot handed back to me for typos and errors). I didn’t think much of it at the time, but 20 yrs later I see how it set a good foundation to be a professional. I realized what I thought was basic seemed to be lacking in other people.

  58. OfOtherWorlds*

    When I read the headline I assumed that OP’s interns were being asked to do things like clean the toilets, run supplies to and from the supply closet, empty trask cans, shred piles of documents, wipe down tables and desks at the end of the day, etc… essentially physical labor that is really out of scope for interns learning how to do a white collar job. Formatting a PDF may not be fun or interesting, but it is a good skill to have and it’s well within the scope of stuff I’d accept that a paid office intern should do. And lots of places aren’t siloed so there’s really no reason to not do the same type of work you already do for another department.

  59. Anonosaurus*

    I think it would be less annoying to be asked to format a PDF etc if the intern had overall confidence that they were going to gain something from the internship and that their learning goals actually meant something to the organization. Most of us have had to do low level tasks when required but there’s a difference between helping out in a pinch and having a role that’s completely disorganised and not thought out so that this is constantly required. I am very senior in my company and I will run to the photocopier if it needs to be done – in fact I did it last week because I mistakenly Ok’d two team members to have the same day of PTO, and that’s on me, but I’m not going to miss a court filing date because I’m too important to copy something. If that was happening all the time I would want to look at our resource planning, role descriptions and general expectations – tl;Dr Alison is right.

  60. Adminasaurus*

    As an administrative professional, I’m getting really sick of hearing and seeing administrative tasks assigned to interns because they’re “stupid”. Yeah, sometimes it is menial or repetitive but it does need to get done and it needs to be done properly – organizations cannot operate without someone making sure bills get processed and paid on time, offices are stocked and running smoothly, calendars synced and meetings scheduled, etc. I work for a university and I spend a ton of time correcting interns’ “work”. They’re not learning anything except that administrative work isn’t worth paying for which is pretty stupid.
    Why isn’t the OP explaining the value of these tasks? Yeah, formatting something might feel ‘stupid’ but freeing up this time for someone else allows them to focus on other things that are bringing value to the company/organization and maybe if they slowed down and read the damn pdf they could learn something.

  61. Ms. Coffee*

    This setup seems inefficient and possibly confusing for the interns. If anyone from any department can assign work to any intern, I can see why the interns feel like “stupid” works being dumped on them for no reason. It makes sense for the sales department to assign menial tasks to “their” sales intern, or for whomever is managing the interns (OP) to assign work.

    I managed interns once upon a time (in addition to my main job) and our setup was that higher level staff would come to me with tasks they needed interns to complete and I’d assign them accordingly. The interns also understood from the hiring process that they would be responsible for certain administrative tasks in addition to the meatier part of the roles.

    Seems like OP, as the interns’ manager, might be better off acting as a middleman and assigning these tasks to the interns so they have a better sense of their responsibilities.

  62. AustenFan*

    I see this situation from the perspective of the academic institution who gives college or university credit for an internship. While I tell the students I supervise on the academic side that they should expect to do crappy tasks (everyone has crappy tasks to do), a substantial portion of their internship should include professional type responsibilities or if doesn’t count. This is a pretty typical requirements, even if the intern is being paid. That’s why the student and organization have to submit what the professional type responsibilities will be before the internship starts. Again, interns will probably make coffee and photocopies, but they should also get some professional experience or the internship is a waste of the students’ time and money.

  63. MaryPopTart*

    I’m a graduate advisor who oversees student interns as part of an academic program. The point that I wanted to drive home is that there are strict rules about internships for international students who are in the US on an F1 Visa. They are meant to be “on the job training” for their academic studies. So, while it is expected (and fine) that they may be doing “grunt work” to help out their department, this is still expected to be a LEARNING experience under the oversight of an academic advisor.

    This is to say that interns should not be deployed as a dumping ground for work that no one else wants to do. Which is what it sounds like is happening in this situation. There needs to be a balance between admin work and actual learning/purpose. Otherwise, a company is exploiting students for cheap (or free ) labor. Which is exactly what the F1 student rules are designed to protect against, by the way.

  64. Jay*

    Can you define “Paid” and “Intern”?
    Because, back in the day, I worked a couple of “Paid Internships” that paid a stipend that was a fraction of minimum wage (think like $50.00/week) to do work that turned out to be all admin/janitorial/landscaping work with no relation to the field I was interning for.
    It happens, it’s awful, and it counts for nothing for them.
    On the other hand, if they are being paid reasonably and given the opportunity to actually learn in their field while getting real job experience, then the fact that most of “work” is boring, low-level grunt work and that being good at it is a key to getting to getting to do the fun stuff, is one of the best lessons you could possibly teach them.

  65. blood orange*

    In addition to Alison’s advice, I’d also use this as an opportunity to talk about the less glamorous but still necessary aspects of work life. If you’re managing a student intern who is pursuing a career in marketing, for instance – marketing seems like a really interesting and fun job from the outside (and it is!), but there’s also a lot of menial tasks that come with marketing (stuffing envelopes for an event, data entry, picking up collateral from the local printer, etc.).

    When I was in an entry-level project management role at a marketing firm, I had to stuff and mail 500 envelopes soon after I was hired. One of the senior PMs commented, “that’s intern stuff!”, to which I thought, “Well, if I don’t do this probably no one else is going to. I’m new and we have no interns, so I guess it’s me!”.

  66. RaginMiner*

    Oh man. I’m in an internship right now that is mainly just using me for cheap labor without really learning anything. I think it’s reasonable for these interns to get frustrated if they’re not really….*learning*. I know I am.

  67. Anon mouse*

    I think I read the OP’s description and overheard convos differently given my experience working as a minority in a primarily white cis male industry. Let’s just say the first time I met someone who looks like me in a leadership role I was _shocked_ that they did their own work (writing documents, PPTs, etc)! In my experience, their role’s time was seen as too valuable to ‘waste’ developing first drafts.

    Taking that perspective, I’d be pretty ticked if I was a minority in some aspect of my identity, saw some people in the office (leaders or not) doing their own PDF formatting and other less-glamorous tasks that are part of every job, but was asked primarily or solely by white cis men to do menial tasks, or was given those tasks by some individuals with a particular attitude/tone/manner that I’d say aren’t a good fit for modern expectations of employee-employer relationships. I say that as someone in leadership, so I came up through the ranks with what I’d call outdated expectations.

    The culture the OP describes seems to be that interns are minions and if you ask them to jump, their reply, as my father used to say, needs to be “how high?”. Being treated respectfully no matter how menial your role is a reasonable expectation and I can’t tell from what the OP wrote if these interns are annoyed with the task or the culture, but expressing it about the task because they can’t come out and say ‘wow, this place is really misogynistic/racist/homophobic/etc’.

    In the end, interns format PDFs, no disagreement that that’s what I would expect of them and what I would set their expectations to align with, but there may be more to the intern’s complaints than not wanting to format PDFs.

    It may be that they’re seeing a real difference in something about some/most requests, or they’re seeing office and social structures that this task is representative of. And boy _are_ those ‘isms’ extremely stupid! In the end, I’d still expect them to format the PDFs, but I wouldn’t be upset to hear complaining if they were otherwise engaged and interested in other aspects of the work.

    Those overheard conversations are also a good reason to have a conversation with them about judging decisions from a position of not having all of the information. Like I imagine all of us, I’ve been frustrated with what I saw as poor decision-making by leaders I expected better from, but now that I’m in those meetings, I can see what they’re responding to, and in that light, their decisions that seemed terrible now look pragmatic and like the heavily negotiated least-bad decision that they are. It’d have saved me a lot of early-career frustration if I’d heard that (with an example, so it sticks) from someone I trusted.

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