An internship program can be great for your company, but don’t do it simply because everyone else is. Just like Mom used to ask, “If everyone jumped off a cliff, would you?” Make sure you can provide a mutually beneficial opportunity, and make sure you’re thinking from both perspectives – the employer and the intern – when you’re developing your program.
One of my favorite references of real-life internship nightmares (and how to prevent them) is Krista Reaves’ “Do Interns Take Lunch Breaks, Too?” It’s a pretty candid look at shocking internship debacles, including some of these common mistakes:
Mistake #1: Do you really need an intern?
I’ve worked with companies who act quickly before asking this question. Don’t hire – or even thinking about hiring – an intern if you don’t have realistic, meaningful opportunities to offer. Needing a body to fetch coffee and organize filing cabinets doesn’t count.
Among Reaves’ stories is that of Anne, who interned for a market research firm but ended up doing everything from picking up her boss’ dry cleaning to walking his kids home from school. She was even asked to appear on his behalf in court to ask for an extension for a non-work-related lawsuit. Um, no.
Solution: Don’t substitute an intern for a personal assistant, and don’t only think about it as a chance to help college students. It’s a chance to elevate your business as well. Say you’re a small, consumer products company that wants to target a new demographic but your full-time staff haven’t had time to do the research. This is the type of project where an eager, ambitious intern could help. Additionally, there are definite long-term economic benefits involved with hiring interns. They’re more likely to stick around after graduating from college, meaning your organization may have a work-ready employee who can step right in without much training.
Mistake #2: Lookin’ for interns in all the wrong places
Many companies run into the obligation of hiring a friend or colleague’s child instead of the most deserving candidate. I’ve seen this situation many times. It rarely turns out well for either party. As an employer you’re potentially stuck with unqualified help, and the intern either feels a sense of entitlement or is well aware that they’re not deserving of the position. It’s a negative, bitter situation you want to avoid.
Solution: Start with local colleges and universities. They have career services departments and will be more than happy to spread the word to their students for free. Also check out local chambers of commerce or other organizations that assist with workforce development. Resources like ColumbusInternships.com, a site including both internship opportunities and student resumes, is a good example of what’s happening in central Ohio. The Columbus Chamber of Commerce created this site to make the internship process more effective. In 2009, 5,000 students and 400 employers registered, and 800 internship opportunities were posted.
Mistake #3: Unclear or inconsistent workplace “rules”
Are office guidelines like appropriate workplace attire and acceptable work hours unclear to your full-time employees? Probably not. Then there’s no reason these expectations should be unclear to your interns. Although they’re temporary employees, interns should be a seamless extension of your full-time staff. I’ve heard of companies with summer interns calling in multiple “sick days” after a wild weekend, and expecting payment for time missed. If it wouldn’t fly with your full-time staff, it shouldn’t fly with your intern.
Things can go badly when guidelines aren’t established up front. In “Do Interns Take Lunch Breaks, Too?,” ambitious Lauren bought hundreds of dollars worth of business attire for her summer publishing internship only to show up on day one to a sea of jeans- and flip-flop-wearing co-workers. She was then banished to the basement without knowing when she could take lunch, where the restroom was located, or even what time she could leave the office.
Solution: Avoid these problems by clearly defining start and end dates, office policies, etc. up front. Although interns are not a full-time employees, it’s still important to give them a clear picture of office culture. If there’s a strict dress code – or if it’s a casual environment – make sure that it’s communicated in advance. Discuss attendance policies around academic duties like mid-terms and finals, as the intern will likely be doubling as a student. And, for the love of humanity, point your intern to the nearest restroom and communicate details on lunch breaks and quitting time.
Mistake #4: Closing the line of communication
Don’t think your work is done once the hiring process is over. Interns need day-to-day guidance regarding job tasks and regular follow up to see how things are going. Unfortunately you can’t simply unleash an intern in a new environment and expect them to thrive automatically. Companies I’ve seen take this approach end up with one of two things: an intern who lacks overall productivity and motivation, or an intern who quits and moves on to bigger and better things.
Intern Whitney, who Reaves describes in a case study, is a perfect example. She experiences a roller coaster ride of miscommunication with her interior design boss, ranging from being accused of stealing an expensive fabric sample to being “invited” to a pricey, two-glasses-of-wine lunch (and being asked to foot the $50 bill), and then being asked as a personal guest at the supervisor’s family outing. Not only were her actions confusing for the intern, they were just plain wrong. Standard rules of human contact still apply with interns.
Solution: Assign an employee-mentor to the intern, involve them in external meetings and lunches and evaluate the intern’s experience before parting ways. Be friendly (and consistent) in your communication, and use constructive criticism. These tactics will make your intern feel more engaged and place more value on the tasks at hand. At the end of an internship, it’s important to ask what worked well and what didn’t so you can reevaluate for the next internship position.
For more information about implementing an effective internship in your organization, check out ColumbusInternships.com.
Dave Cofer is an internship consultant with the Columbus Chamber of Commerce, and also the founder of Cofer Consulting Solutions, a full-service provider of entry talent management solutions. You can contact him at David.Cofer@CoferConsulting.com.