Essential tips for tact, diplomacy when chatting up the boss

Last week, I devoted this column to the reasons it is important to avoid slacking off during what appear to be slow times at an internship. It's a time to impress your supervisors.

But it's also true that in many cases, supervisors would like to impress you, too, at least to some extent. They want interns to have a worthwhile experience – both in terms of professional talents gained and workplace finesse. They want you to develop the skills you'll need to succeed in your particular career. And if they're impressed with you, they might want to hire you. The internship sometimes can be akin to a period of courtship between employer to employee.

A few days ago, a colleague phoned me to talk about a recent intern, concerned that the intern had had a less-than-positive overall experience in the workplace. This reminded me to stress to my students – and readers – that interns shouldn't feel the need to stay silent when their experiences turn out to be disappointing. While every situation has to be assessed on an individual basis, I often tell students who feel unfulfilled in their internship to speak up – in a respectful, productive, professional way – and to seek additional duties if they feel they aren't being challenged.

How to do this? With a lot of tact for starters. Don't rush in like a bull in a china shop. One of the main components of tact is thinking about what you are going to say before you say it, and this goes for email as well.

I suggest that as an intern, you concern yourself chiefly with your own duties and expectations. What I'm addressing in this column is improving your individual situation – not "fixing'' all the problems you perceive within the organization itself.
Washington Post education reporter Jenna Johnson, who blogs about interns on the newspaper's web site, recently wrote about what she calls the "change-the-world'' intern: the person who thinks they have all the answers on how to improve a workplace after just a few days on the job. That's an example of who not to emulate.

I'm talking here about making your own experience as worthwhile as possible, and taking steps to avoid feeling trapped in a boring situation.

First, make sure you're completely aware of your internship description and expectations. If you're thinking about or searching now for an internship in the future, try to make sure you secure such a description before starting. Your current internship might not have such parameters, but if it does, read them over completely, as you likely did before starting the position, and make sure you understand them as they apply to your daily duties. Among the things to cover, of course, is to make sure the thing that's driving you most nuts is not the very thing you were hired to do.

Next, sketch out what you want to say and get feedback from someone else. Ideally from someone you know and trust who has been in a supervisory position. You'll want to develop a strategy – and stick to it – designed to convey your concerns calmly while also letting your supervisor know how much you appreciate the opportunities you've been given.

Write out a script. Not that you'll actually read it, but as a way to provide structure to what you're going to say. Away from an internship, you might feel confident approaching your "boss'' for a chat when that boss is portrayed by your roommate or your mom. In real life, you'll be glad for the framework for how the conversation should go so that you don't spiral into a verbal (or mental) free-fall.

Don't let emotion overwhelm you if you don't like everything you hear. Sticking to your mental script will help you keep to the original message, and will help you avoid saying something you might later regret. Improvisation is not suggested; at a time like this, you don't want to ad lib.

Instead of gossiping and sulking – which solve nothing and make you look bad -- take a more mature approach. Your supervisors might not give you what you want, but they will respect the fact that you presented it to them in a professional, proactive manner.

If you follow the protocol and use tact and respect, and still end up being mistreated by your supervisor, you'll have gained at least one valuable experience: You'll know that this might not be the place to pursue a full-time job. More likely, you'll end up being more challenged and leaving your employers knowing you're ready – and hopefully able – to tackle more.

Jennifer Halperin is the internship coordinator at Columbia College Chicago, and Money College's Internship Insider. Her column runs every Wednesday; send suggestions for story ideas to Jennifer at
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