Are Your Interns Driving Everyone Crazy?

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By Alison Green

With summer internship season in full swing, you might be thrilled with your office's crop of interns – or you might be counting down the days until summer ends and they return to school.

If you're aggravated by interns who are unprofessional or don't know work norms yet, remember that you once didn't know these things either. After all, part of the point of an internship is to start getting experience in how an office works. It's normal for things that seem obvious to you to not be obvious to interns. That's part of the price you pay for hiring really cheap labor – you get to teach them!

Here are three of the most common difficulties you might encounter with your office's interns and what you can do in response:1. Interns who chafe at doing low-level work. Most interns understand that they won't be coming in at a senior level and that they'll be doing relatively low-level work, at least until they prove themselves. But occasionally you'll encounter an intern who seems to expect to be doing glamorous, high-profile work and who seems put out when asked to file or do basic computer work.

What to do: Address it head-on. Say something like this to the intern: "I've noticed that you seem disappointed in some of the work we're giving you. The reality is that when you start as an intern, you haven't proven yourself in the work world yet, so you're given pretty low-risk assignments. But if you do a great job on this stuff – pay attention to detail, follow instructions and care about quality – that's how you start to build your reputation and eventually get trusted with more interesting work. Let's plan to check in a few weeks from now and see how things are going, and we can talk then about additional projects you might be able to work on."

2. Interns who don't know professional norms. Interns who don't know how to operate in an office can be disruptive. Stories abound of summer interns singing loudly as they walk through the hallways, texting during meetings, interrupting colleagues and generally not quite understanding how office life works.

What to do: Remember that one of the biggest goals of interning is to learn this kind of thing! After all, we all had to learn it at some point, and it's better to learn it during an internship than during a full-time job after graduation. As the intern's manager, it falls on you to give direct feedback when you spot things like this.

In some cases, you can be very straightforward: "Please don't text in meetings; we're all expected to pay attention and be engaged in the conversation." Or: "Please don't sing in the hallways, since it's distracting."

In other cases, it might take more nuanced coaching: "I want to talk with you about some things I've noticed about your approach with me and other co-workers. I'm sure you don't intend this, but you sometimes come across as very abrupt in your questions and requests. Saying 'please' and 'thank you' and acknowledging when you're asking someone to do you a favor or to do something that might be inconvenient will make people more receptive to helping you. For example, when you asked Jane to find a file for you, you sent her a message that simply said, 'find me the Jones file.' Most people don't like that level of abruptness from their manager or a peer, let alone someone they're senior to."

3. Interns who dress unprofessionally. Whether it's flip-flops, overly short skirts or sweatpants, interns who haven't quite grasped the office dress code yet are a pretty routine element of most internship programs.

What to do: Again, remember that if you're the intern's manager, this is part of your job to address. The best thing to do is to talk with the person privately and say something like: "I want to mention something that has nothing to do with your work, but is important. In our environment, we can't wear skirts quite that short. Generally, you need to stick with knee-length." Try to have this conversation toward the end of the day, so the person isn't stuck there the whole day feeling embarrassed but unable to do anything about it.

If you're willing and sense that the person would be receptive to advice, you could say something like: "I know it can be tricky to figure out what is and isn't appropriate for the office when you're just starting out in your career, especially on an intern's salary. When I was in your shoes, here's what I found worked ..."

With this and any other tough feedback conversation, if your tone is "I think you're great, and I want to see you succeed," your message will probably be easier for your intern to hear.

Alison Green writes the popular Ask a Manager blog, where she dispenses advice on career, job search and management issues. She's the author of "How to Get a Job: Secrets of a Hiring Manager," co-author of "Managing to Change the World: The Nonprofit Manager's Guide to Getting Results" and the former chief of staff of a successful nonprofit organization, where she oversaw day-to-day staff management.
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