The Care and Feeding of Your Interns

Have a new crop of spring semester interns starting work? Here are three tips for managing them effectively.

1. Recognize that your interns are working for no or little pay and find out what they’re hoping to get out of the experience – and then think about how you might be able to help them. If they’re hoping to get some experience writing and you wouldn’t normally have them doing any writing, see if there’s a way to allow them to write a few small things (which you’d then edit). Of course, sometimes this isn’t practical; it depends on what exactly they’re hoping to get experience doing. Most often though, interns are simply looking to get “experience” and that can mean anything from answering phones to proofing a policy brief.

2. Assume that your interns won’t know some basic things about how offices work and give more guidance than you might with a regular employee. Make sure you’re your expectations and goals for their time with you are really clear, and check in regularly to monitor how their work is being executed so you can make course corrections if needed and act as a resource.

You also might need to explain things that would go unsaid with someone more experienced. I’ve even had to explain to interns that they need to call if they’re unable to come in (not just not show up without notifying anyone). Keep in mind that a lot of the value of an internship is that it’s how students learn these basics about the work world — so that when they’re in a “real” position, they already know how things work. Ideally, you’ll be someone who enjoys teaching this kind of thing; if you’re not, at least see it as part of the “pay” you’re providing them in exchange for their work.

3. Don’t cut your interns too much slack just because they’re not being paid much. You probably won’t be holding them to precisely the same standards you’d hold your regular staff to, but you should hold them to something close to that — because otherwise the time that you put into hiring, training, and supervising them won’t be worth it to you, and they’ll lose a lot of the value of the experience themselves.

Sometimes managers feel like they can’t hold interns very accountable or give them direct feedback about problem areas because they’re not getting paid much, but because of the time investment on your side, it’s generally better to have no intern at all than to have one who you can’t rely on or whose work is so careless that it has to be redone.

Alison Green

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

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  • KayDay

    I would like to add a few additions to Alison’s great list: (1) if you can’t pay them, at least try to give them a travel stipend and access to any “office food”! When I took an unpaid internship, I had no idea how much money I would loose simply going to and from work! (2) Definitely tell them everything about how the office works such as: whether or not everyone is on a first name basis or they should call people Mr & Ms.; how to use the copier/fax/phone system; where they can eat lunch if they bring it (break room? at their desk?). I actually think many interns naturally do the opposite of what Alison implied here–if an interns only previous job was as an hourly cashier, they probably don’t know that people normally take lunches without asking for permission and that it is NOT necessary to call ahead if you will only be 5 to 10 minutes late (if that is indeed the case, obviously depends on the office). My biggest surprise was how much independence I had as an intern, compared to cashier-type jobs. That and calling “grown ups” by their first names–that felt really weird at first. 

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    Alison Green - Ask a Manager Reply:

    Yes, definitely tell them how lunch works!  And make sure they go on their first day — I’ve seen a lot of interns not take lunch on their first day because they feel awkward/unsure about how it works.

    I remember feeling really weird about calling adults by their first names at my first job too.

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  • http://greatintern.com Eric Woodard

    Definitely the right thing not to cut interns slack because they aren’t getting paid. If they’ve made a commitment to add value and do their best, they should be held accountable just like everybody else.

    To do otherwise, I would argue, breaks your promise to be a true mentor as their supervisor.

    Thanks for the post Alison!

    [Reply]

    Alison Green - Ask a Manager Reply:

    Exactly. They’re learning what the work world is all about, and part of that is accountability, standards, etc.

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  • Joe

    Make sure that they eat, I once had an intern who fainted because of that. It was a lot of paperwork that was less than fun. Now I pass on food from the break room to my interns, mostly because I never want to go through all that red tape again

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