When Internships Go Bad: Stories of the World's Worst Interns

Businesswoman with head in hands


Alison Green

When summer internships wrap up in the next few weeks, most offices will end up missing their interns – but a few will be relieved to see them go.

I recently had Ask a Manager readers share their worst experiences with interns, and they delivered. Here are eight of the most outrageous real-life stories they shared of internships gone very bad. Of course, as you read these, keep in mind that horror stories like these are more the exception than the norm; most interns are eager to learn and want to do a good job. (And if you manage interns, your part of the bargain is to provide them with guidance and mentorship, so that they can avoid these sorts of disasters!)

1. Don't forget the pillow shams

"Our office was one of those super modern open floor plan models, where everyone sits at a table, regardless of title. Our office had a lot of those lux amenities, like a gym, hair salon and convenience store, so a lot of interns viewed it as their own take on Google. I came in one day and found a very neat cot made up next to the large common table, complete with sheets, pillows and even shams. Our company did frequently have health observance displays, so I thought maybe it was a sleep hygiene demonstration – but no. An intern had decided he needed a midday nap and had purchased and set up a cot. His manager worked in a different area and rarely came to this building. When she did and saw the cot, and found out it was the intern's sleeping place, her rage was epic and horrifying."

2. All in the family

"I had a student intern who, unbeknownst to me, brought her brother in to do her work while she studied. She had been assigned to shelve items in our library stacks. When I went out to check on her, I found [her] sitting at a table reading while her brother was off shelving. Aside from the legalities of having a random stranger doing the work that had been assigned to a paid intern, this guy had no official training whatsoever; apparently she just told him what to do. I didn't even want to know what their family dynamics were. All I know is my brothers would never, ever do my job (if they were even capable of doing it) without getting paid. A few days after I thought I had laid down the law on this mess, she and her brother pulled the same thing again! I ran the brother off for good this time, and – needless to say – his sister did not last long with us."

3. Obscure music fan

"A brand new co-op student came into our lunch room for the first time, listened to about 10 minutes of our usual conversation (sports, major world events, "Game of Thrones" and other TV), and announced that those topics didn't interest her and that we should be talking about classical music instead. One of my colleagues asked how that would go, and in a very condescending tone she said: "Well, if I was to say the name Beethoven, would you know who I meant?"

4. A different understanding of punctuality

"Our summer intern would come in 45 to 50 minutes late daily, even after we had several conversations with him about why he needed to come in on time. Eventually, he started coming in only 20 minutes late and asked for praise because he had made 'vast improvement' in his punctuality."

5. "We don't use that language around the congressman."

"I am a very level-headed person but had an alcohol-fueled adventure in front of some very important people one night. I was a political intern, and there is an annual convention that (in all honesty) is just a big, drunken booze-fest – and I did partake. My biggest embarrassments of the night were falling over drunk on the governor (his security detail had to step in because I was so tipsy) and being kicked out of a hospitality suite for reasons I don't remember, but all I recall are the words 'we don't use that language around the congressman.'"

6. Photocopier trauma

"I had an intern who photocopied some handouts onto very dark red paper. I said, 'Oh, I think that might be hard to read because of the contrast. Would you please print them again on a lighter color?' (We're talking about 10 one-sided copies). She burst into tears, sprinted out of the building and called her internship supervisor to tell her that she was being abused and threatened. I would have been happy to dismiss her, but she was too scared of me to come back anyway."

7. Maybe the goodbye party theme wasn't clear enough

"I had an intern who didn't know he had to leave. He was given a contract that he signed with the number of days and hours he was authorized to work. They closed up all his projects with him before his last day. They had a goodbye party for him. He showed up the next day and was irate when informed he no longer worked there. The words, 'well, what am I supposed to do?' were yelled at one point."

8. Inspired by the patio

"At an old gig, generally when assigning IT equipment, managers and up got laptops, and everyone else got PCs. I was responsible for walking new users through their setup. When I started talking about how to log into your PC, one intern began [to] grimace and appear to begin having a panic attack. When I asked what was wrong, she said, 'why can't I have a laptop?' Slightly freaked out but cool on the surface, I explained the general IT assignments. She began to weep. Totally freaked out, I just looked at her for a minute as she lamented: 'What if I want to go outside, or I see something that inspires me on the patio? How could you do this? Why?!' She didn't last long that summer."

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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