am I sabotaging my former intern’s job prospects?

A reader writes:

A while back, I supervised an intern for the first time. She produced good results and was eager to learn, but she worked slowly, needed a lot of coaching, had little initiative, and there were complaints about finding her asleep or on personal calls. However, because we were close in age and she my first intern, we bonded, which led to me not being an effective manager and not addressing her performance issues. I know now that this was a great disservice to her, although at the time I thought I was being kind.

She stayed on as a volunteer after her internship ended (we’re a nonprofit, and volunteers are common in our field). I wanted to give her something she could list as an accomplishment on her resume, so I gave her some authority over a new project I was designing. (I had done something similar at an internship I had, and it really benefited me.) However, showed up three hours late to a four-hour shift, spent her time on personal calls, or just didn’t show up at all. I ended up having to end her volunteering with the organization.

Fast forward two years, and we were hiring for my replacement. She applied, but did not mention her experience as an intern with us. Based on my feedback, she was rejected without an interview. I felt some misgivings — it had been two years and she could have gotten her act together — but mostly I was glad that the organization would find a good person for my role.

Well, recently, her name came up again when a colleague at a different organization asked if I knew her. I briefly explained that she had been my intern and I wasn’t super impressed with her performance, though I stressed that she could have grown a lot since then. My colleague rejected her application without an interview.

Have I been sabotaging her chances at jobs? This is now two jobs that she has been rejected for, just based on my word. I have worked hard to become respected in my field, and I don’t want to vouch for her, but I also don’t want to keep her from jobs. Should I have not said anything?

I answer this question over at Inc. today, where I’m revisiting letters that have been buried in the archives here from years ago (and sometimes updating/expanding my answers to them). You can read it here.

{ 65 comments… read them below }

  1. Richard Hershberger*

    The application to the LW’s org suggests continued cluelessness. Or perhaps craftiness: not mentioning the internship from just a few years earlier might be a sign of self-awareness, but a better and more honest approach would have been a banger of a cover letter discussing her growth and how she was now in a position to be an asset. Instead she went the “hope no one remembers her” route.

    1. Peanut Hamper*

      This is exactly the thing a good cover letter could help someone like this overcome, provided they’ve actually overcome it and have some good experience on their resume that they can point to.

      This intern is just showing continued bad judgment.

  2. xylocopa*

    Not having a lot of initiative, needing coaching, and occasionally spending too much time on personal calls all sound like the kind of normal intern stuff someone would easily grow out of, and I might not feel like I needed to mention them under the circumstances, or would downplay them heavily.

    But showing up three hours late for a four hour shift, being asleep at work (?), not showing up at all, being let go from the internship – that’s beyond typical intern growing pains, and if I were hiring someone I’d sure as hell want to know that about their work within the last two years.

    1. xylocopa*

      *sorry, correction – that was all from the later volunteering, not the internship. I guess there’s a little more leeway for someone to slack off at a volunteer thing, but again that’s a level of slacking off that really stands out.

      1. Falling Diphthong*

        Also if you’re slacking off as a volunteer at the organization to which you later apply.

        There are times to conclude “I do not actually need any of these potential bridges and I am not going to put any effort into building them.” (Past thread on things like “If I am fired from my part-time retail job at 20 does that mean I am doomed for life and no one will ever hire me again?”) But you have to recognize them, and making a bad impression at the place you want to hire you–ever, but especially in less than 10 years–is not a good plan.

        1. ferrina*

          Exactly this.

          Just because it’s volunteer doesn’t mean it doesn’t count. Of course, most volunteer positions are easier to step away from because they don’t usually impact our careers- but when you work in non-profits and you’re volunteering somewhere you want to work, of course they are going to consider that in your application!

          1. Who Plays Backgammon?*

            Yes. organizations that depend on volunteers DEPEND on their volunteers.

        2. londonedit*

          Yes, exactly – it wasn’t ‘just’ a volunteer thing (though of course if you’re committing to any sort of volunteer thing, you should actually show up and do what you’ve committed to do), it was a volunteer thing that could have led to an actual job, or at least to some valuable work experience for her CV. Instead she’s left a poor impression and hasn’t really gained any skills that she could meaningfully reference.

      2. frenchblue*

        Came here to say this. I have managed volunteers, and it’s certainly a different dynamic, but no-showing is still pretty unacceptable in the vast majority of programs (unless it’s explicitly an optional shift/meeting). But as a volunteer, she was given authority on a whole project (something she could put on her resume) and that, for me, is why it’s utterly unreasonable that she was showing up 3 hours late, skipping shifts, and taking so many personal calls. All this to say, I totally agree. It’s beyond typical early-career missteps.

        1. Lenora Rose*

          I volunteer in a supervisory role over other volunteers for two different orgs, and no-shows are way more common than they are in the work world despite the fact that both events are very short time commitments. However, no-showing tends to mean that, while you may still benefit in the short term, (both events have perks for volunteers; in one locale, this includes meals, access, and transportation), it is a guaranteed way to get refused for all future years.

          (We are forgiving of honest mistakes, and late call-ins if there’s a reason, and I think an incident where someone got heatstroke the first day and left the event, and was only finally reached on the last day got it forgiven because heatstroke is a special case and they definitely weren’t abusing the benefits.)

          1. frenchblue*

            Yeah, I think it depends a lot on the program/organization. I designed my high school volunteer program to have mostly optional shifts and meetings, for example, but my adult volunteers had much more specific tasks and multiple no-shows would be an issue. It sounds like in the LW’s case, this specific volunteer had authority over a project that could be put on her resume, so the level of volunteering definitely required more commitment.

      3. Cmdrshprd*

        “I guess there’s a little more leeway for someone to slack off at a volunteer thing,”

        I actually think it is the opposite, unless it is some kind of court ordered volunteer work, no one if forcing you to volunteer so if you don’t want to do the work just don’t volunteer. If you just want to sit on your phone all day, just don’t volunteer and do that instead. If you volunteer you should be more interested in doing the work and doing the job, just because you care about the organization.

        1. xylocopa*

          Well, I coordinate both interns and volunteers, and I’ve been a volunteer myself. It’s something I take pretty seriously as a volunteer, but as a coordinator I’ve learned not to truly count on anyone until they already have a solid track record of showing up.

          If they’re student interns who are volunteering for class credit I try to let them know that it wouldn’t be okay in the working world–I haven’t had anyone yet who was so bad I felt like I needed to say anything to their academic supervisors, but especially if they’re undergrads I figure part of the education is managing time and commitments.

        2. Parakeet*

          Yeah, and “volunteer” doesn’t mean “unimportant.” I’ve volunteered at sexual assault and domestic violence crisis hotlines and as a case manager at an abortion fund (all of which are fields that heavily depend on volunteers and are frequently coverage-based). I’ve volunteered working with asylum seekers and ICE detainees. I have a friend who volunteers as a translator for asylum-seekers from their country of origin, translating their narratives into English so that they can be read by the authorities who will make a determination on their case. There’s tons of volunteer work that is higher-stakes than tons of paid jobs.

    1. MassMatt*

      I think the answer is that the LW and intern were close in age and so bonded on a personal level, so LW did not manage her due to this and being new to managing.

      Really it sounds as though the former intern sabotaged herself.

      Take the lesson learned not to get too chummy with people you are expected to manage and don’t worry about this person. Either they will learn from their mistakes and grow up or they won’t, your only obligation is to be honest when asked about her work performance.

  3. Cicely*

    It doesn’t seem to me you are sabotaging the intern/volunteer. You did what you needed to on behalf of your organization, and later, when asked about your experience with her, you were honest. What other people do with the info. they ask for about her, like choosing to not interview her, isn’t something you can control.

    1. Vi*

      Also, imagine a former intern who was wonderful, or at least solid, throughout their internships and early career losing out on a position now to this person. That’s what would be unfair. If your former intern has grown in professionalism since then, she will have other information sources/references to give to hiring managers.

    2. Heidi*

      Agreed. Another thing to consider: If OP had given a good recommendation and the intern got hired and then turned out to be terrible, that could definitely reflect badly on the OP.

      1. Pine Tree*

        Definitely. I’ve had a couple of times where someone recommended a candidate who turned out to be not great and I remember that almost every time I interact with the recommender.

    3. el l*

      Yes. And: Why should OP be so certain it’s all down to their word?

      If I’m on a hiring committee and I have a candidate who is strong on everything that matters EXCEPT for a caveated but negative reference from when they were an intern…I can rationalize that. “We all need to make some adjustments when we join the work force,” etc.

      But if I hear they were undependable as an intern, and people who work with them now describe them as undependable, that’s different. Because it’s a consistent thread/pattern.

  4. Kitters*

    From the sound of her collection of behaviors, I’m not sure she would have taken any feedback onboard. However, we will never know, and it sounds as if LW should have had a mentor to help her with this new position.

  5. Regular Human Accountant*

    Being hours late, falling asleep (!) while at work, and spending a lot of time on personal calls were not normal intern issues like, I don’t know . . . not knowing how to work the copy machine. Those were serious problems and she shouldn’t have needed coaching to understand that you can’t take naps during work hours. This is not on you.

    1. Mid*

      If the intern was a student, or was balancing multiple jobs, it’s very likely they weren’t maliciously trying to nap, they could have just been exhausted. Is it great? No. But they’re a human, things happen, and internships are a place to grow and learn.

      I definitely fell asleep on the job *at least* once while I was a student worker—I was balancing a full time class load, three jobs, and extracurriculars, and sleeping maybe 3-4 hours a night most nights. It was horrible. I was also late to things fairly often because I lost track of time, was double booked, a group project meeting ran over, fell asleep due to pure exhaustion, etc. I was fortunate enough to have understanding supervisors who were able to be flexible with me as long as I kept them in the loop about what was going on, but it was still tough, and I wasn’t the most stellar professional at that time.

      So, I’d suggest we give interns a little more grace here. A lot of people have a lot on their plate. Most people I know who have full time office jobs right out of college also have at least one side gig to help make ends meet. It’s rough out there when you’re being paid poorly.

    2. Bill and Heather's Excellent Adventure*

      Plus being hours late and taking personal calls happened AFTER the internship when she was a volunteer: She stayed on as a volunteer after her internship ended…I gave her some authority over a new project I was designing. However, showed up three hours late to a four-hour shift, spent her time on personal calls, or just didn’t show up at all.

      I would give her some grace for falling asleep while an intern because she might have been working multiple jobs but the above behaviour was ridiculous.

  6. BellyButton*

    2 years is right on the cusp of when I stop being a reference for people who have worked for me, especially if they are so early in their career. I would say something like “While they did report to me X years ago, I am not sure if anything I could say would be relevant to how they work now. She was an intern 2 yrs ago and it was my first time as a manager. While she needed coaching and sometimes worked slowly- I can’t say how much she has grown and learned since then. I would seek out a more current reference. ” I would be more apt to say something about their personality- if I had positive things to say “she was well liked. Fit into the culture well.”

    One thing in my years of people development has taught me, is that under the right management people who were “meh” in the past often (not always!) do grow and can become stellar employees.

    1. Erin*

      I was thinking the same thing! I think especially when it’s a young intern (and a young supervisor I would argue also emphasizes this) – recognizing that the person was young, newer to the working work, and perhaps unaware how to act and show up professionally.

      I think that this person should be given the grace to grow and learn. It seems like you stress this now which is great, but I would argue that after around 2-5 years just saying that you supervised them some years ago and no longer feel comfortable assessing them or their work would be appropriate.

    2. Yeah...*

      I think this offers grace without lying.

      I find many of the previous responses harsh.

    3. Java*

      Couldn’t agree more.
      The difference between say a 21 year old intern and a 23 year old employee can be HUGE in terms of professional growth.
      Conversely I worked at a company where we hired a designer and while he wasn’t particularly incredible, he was fine and I would have had no issue telling someone that he could do the job for them.
      Fast forward two years and it was a disaster, management avoided confrontation so all of his bad habits had been allowed to thrive – his ego had gotten out of control and you practically had to proposition him to get him to do the bare minimum version of his work without excessive delays and complaints – by the time I stopped working with him I would have actively advised people to stay as far away as possible from him as a candidate.

      2 years can make a big difference.

    4. The Graduate*

      I was somewhat daunted when I showed up to a temporary job and found one of my former bullies was going to be a coworker senior to me. But she clearly had matured and proved to be a cheerful and discerning colleague. (And her bullying had been part of a peer-pressured mean-girl group in middle school that didn’t single me out in any particular way, not a full-on campaign to ruin someone’s life). It was a relief and honestly refreshing to find out how much we can improve as we grow up.

    5. Retired Vulcan Raises 1 Grey Eyebrow*

      “While she needed coaching and sometimes worked slowly
      Imo, only mentioning the slow work as a specific issue glosses over too much. I’d be annoyed about the reference if I later found out about the other much more serious problems.

      I’d either leave out any specifics about her performance, so omit the whole of “While she needed coaching and sometimes worked slowly ” or I’d substitute a more specific “While she needed more coaching and her performance was not satisfactory

  7. frenchblue*

    I totally understand complex feelings around giving a negative reference, but I think it’s a good thing to reflect on fairness – knowing you’re likely killing someone’s chances of getting a job shouldn’t be taken lightly. In this case, though, I think the intern/volunteer had problems beyond normal early-career mistakes. I’ve managed volunteers, and showing 3 hours late or no-showing is just not okay (unless the shifts are explicitly optional, which it doesn’t sound like here). It’s especially a problem since she had authority on a project – one she could have put on her resume! That’s a huge issue. It’s certainly possible that she’s grown and learned, but 2 years is a relatively short time to have grown as much as needed.

  8. Cowmominhiding*

    Talk about the past biting you later: Young 20 something person worked for us. They called in sick. We found out later, they clocked into work, left, then came back later and clocked out. Don’t know how many times this happened, but after investigation, they were fired. Everything was documented.
    Years later, was called to give information on same person for a Gov. Clearance job. I had changed jobs so HR gave them my personal number. When investigator told me the name and situation, yep, they totally did steal from the company. After that phone call, I don’t think that person will be working on anything with a Gov. Clearance. Hope they still have a job.

    1. It's Marie - Not Maria*

      Agreed. I am NOT going to lie for anyone. I will give factual, accurate information. What the Reference Checker does with that information is up to them.

  9. Fluffy Fish*

    Not wrong but also I think it’s getting to the point I personally would just decline to give a review saying something like “It’s been long enough since I worked with Sally that I don’t think I’d have any relevant insight into her work now.”

    1. Retired Vulcan Raises 1 Grey Eyebrow*

      Only 2 years ago, people would tend to suspect she doesn’t want to speak badly of the intern

      1. Fluffy Fish*

        Yes 2 years ago but it was briefly as intern – so a double whammy of not a long period of time and interns often have no idea about work appropriate. And on top of that even OP admits they weren’t a great manager.

        I would feel different if it was an actual employee for some length of time.

        1. Synaptically Unique*

          I had an employee who was very personable and knowledgeable in the field, but the most disorganized worker I’ve ever seen and her paperwork was an ongoing disaster. She was good at shuffling things, though, so it took a while for me to realize the scope of the mess she was making.

          She moved to an adjacent office with my blessing (they didn’t ask me for a reference but I probably would have given her a decent one at that point). That job ended poorly, and for the next several years, every year or two I’d get a reference request from a potential employer.

          I finally quit responding to the requests, but one recruiter caught me off guard. When I tried to dodge answering, she bluntly said that she’d already talked to other references, that the employer was definitely going to hire my former employer, and she was hoping to give some guidance that would help it be a successful placement. Then she asked such specific questions that it was clear someone had talked. I did give an honest reference and some suggestions for imposing some external organization. She lasted a few years at that one.

      2. Thomas*

        2 years ago the ex intern applied to OP’s organisation. It’s even further along now, OP doesn’t say, it could be five or ten years for all we know.

        1. Thomas*

          Ack! Two years after the internship I mean! I’m getting confused on the timings myself!

    2. Retired Vulcan Raises 1 Grey Eyebrow*

      but yes, it’s probably the least bad option.
      Hopefully within the intervening 2 years she demonstrated better work habits at 1 or more employers who can supply better references

  10. Ann O'Nemity*

    A couple red flags here. The LW admits they didn’t provide much-needed performance coaching because of their own managerial inexperience and/or preference to “bond.” The LW didn’t warn the intern that they would give negative references, and the “bonding” may have given the intern the wrong impression about their performance as an intern. (Also, there’s some potential legal landmines in converting an intern to an unpaid volunteer and assigning work that would otherwise be done by a paid employee. Was the intern really unreliable, or was the nonprofit bending labor laws and taking advantage?) So yeah, I think the LW has done this intern a disservice and isn’t in the best position to provide a reference!

    1. Retired Vulcan Raises 1 Grey Eyebrow*

      The OP knows she didn’t do her job managing this intern; the intern might have shaped up under proper management or she might have been fired from the internship – which could have been the wakeup call she needed.

      Volunteering afterwards was something the intern chose, presumably to help her resume. She should have given notice if she found it wasn’t suiting her, rather than screwing over a nonprofit.

    2. Joielle*

      Yeah, but ultimately the LW had to fire the intern from the volunteer position (or at least that’s how I read it), so it’s not like the intern had no idea their performance was bad or that the reference would be negative. At a minimum, I’d say the intern definitely should not have applied for the LW’s job.

      1. Seashell*

        I’m guessing the intern thought she’d throw her hat in the ring and see what happens. If you need a job, the worst they can say is no, which they might do even if you never worked there.

    3. Cicely*

      Nah, way too speculative. The responsibility is on the intern to do the right thing by the internship, coached properly or not. All else is excuse-making for willfully bad behavior.

    4. MCMonkeyBean*

      Neither of the instances described sound like OP was given as a reference though, just that people knew she had worked with them and asked for her feedback.

      OP doesn’t need to go around actively putting the intern down, but if people directly ask her about the experience then she should be honest.

  11. Skoobles*

    I find the volunteering thing extremely odd. Like, I dunno, if you’re no longer paying somebody, expecting them to maintain or improve their degree of professionalism or manage specific shifts is kind of… weird. I get that they still made a commitment to do certain work as a volunteer, but also like… your interns are staying on after they stopped getting paid, *any* amount of that is more commitment than is really deserved or expected.

    1. xylocopa*

      I hear you, but especially if a nonprofit has a small staff and relies on volunteers, it can really screw them over if someone says they’ll be helping from 10-2 and doesn’t show up until 1.

    2. LAM*

      We don’t know if the intern got paid. It could be that most people are expected to volunteer to gain experience early in their career. Think library or museum. Ideally the internship was paid, though I wouldn’t be surprised if it was unpaid and the volunteer shift was for fewer hours per week than the internship.

    3. Thomas*

      Disagree. Even for volunteer work, show up on time is the absolute basics. I’d give more leniency when it comes to things like transport disruption or last-minute call-outs, but habitual lateness is not on. The volunteer made an agreement they need to stick to it.

    4. stinky film defender*

      The intern-turned-volunteer was simply valuing their job as much as the organization valued their labor: zero dollars and zero cents.

      1. Eff Walsingham*

        That’s as may be; but it’s not going to get them the reference or job they seem to want.

  12. Sneaky Squirrel*

    You aren’t sabotaging this intern. You were asked about your experience with this former intern and you shared a fair and truthful analysis of your experience while going beyond to fairly say that they could have grown since then. Your intern sabotaged herself by dismissing an opportunity that many others don’t get a chance to have.

  13. ijustworkhere*

    I sometimes tell people that it’s been too long for me to be a knowledgeable source for the person’s work and so I think they should contact someone who has worked with the person more recently.

  14. Carp is a fish I think*

    If you want to say something positive about them you could highlight their commitment to your organization by staying on as a volunteer even after the internship ended. I think it’s fine to want to give a younger person a break.

  15. Beth**

    The summer I was 18 I landed a coveted paid internship and I admit I was a bit like this intern. I was used to going to bed late and getting up late in college, so getting up and dressed and downtown for 9am was…challenging. So yes, I did occasionally fall asleep at work when things were slow.

    My job was answering a holiness which didn’t ring all that often. I was not given much other work and my work was separate enough from the rest of the organisation that I was probably seen by some people there as “not proactive” because if the phone didn’t ring and I was up to date on my paperwork, I had no idea what else to do.

    I did ask for and receive some project work, but this never took very long.

    I am happy to report that 30 years later I am considered a conscientious employee and haven’t fallen asleep on the job in decades.

      1. Lexi Vipond*

        I couldn’t figure out what it had been, but had a lovely mental image of a haloed statue occasionally ringing :D

      2. Beth**

        it was indeed. and let’s just say it was a hotline about a procedure that many religious people from a particular religious background would not find holy.

  16. Woah*

    I feel bad for both of you. I think you can say something like “ I supervised her so briefly several years ago, so I don’t think any of my experience with her is very relevant right now.”

  17. Journey of man*

    As long as the intern doesn’t use you for a reference with a job at a completely different organization, you are fine regarding sabotage, or lack thereof. She needs to stop applying to this particular place.

  18. Onomatopeia*

    Hiring is as much about not getting the wrong candidate as it is getting the right one. If there’s doubt about someone it’s simpler to just focus on candidates that don’t present that known risk.

  19. Thomas*

    When the ex-intern applied to your own company, your response was fair enough. But now? Well we don’t know the timescales, but I think a fair response would be something like “I don’t them very well, I was their manager in 20xx and that was a long time ago.” True, a listener can make a judgment by the absence of enthusiastic glowing praise, but you’re not actually being negative about someone based on what they were like years ago (and nor do you have to bring up any weaknesses in your own management).

  20. Yours sincerely, Raymond Holt*

    You have to be fair to the intern but you also have to be fair to the people asking you for information. And you have to be fair to yourself – your own reputation and relationships could be harmed if there’s an issue with her and it later emerges you had this information about her and didn’t share it.

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