By Porter Truax, SmallGood Intern
So, you’ve recently hired an intern and you’re excited. Interns bring new, fun energy to the office and can even help you get some work done. But maybe you’re also a little stressed out. Dealing with interns might feel like one more item on your to-do list of 1,001. And, right now, you feel this close to a Nicholas Cage freak out.
That’s why my bosses at SmallGood, asked me, their intern, to put together a list of things employers can do to make the intern experience the best it can be for all involved.
1. Pay them.
Most internships are unpaid. You know that. And you probably know better than anyone why. Not everyone can afford to pay an intern. Small companies, startups, massive corporations on the verge of apocalyptic bankruptcy: for a lot of organizations, paying an intern is just one cost too many.
Interns get that.
However, phone bills, rent, train fare — not to mention student debt — are real, blood sucking pests trailing our every move. And, alas, “valuable experience” doesn’t pay rent. Neither do cool outings or the sleek photo on your website. Shoot.
So, if you can pay your interns, do it.
And if you can’t, your interns will understand…mostly. Especially if you acknowledge the discrepancy every once in awhile. Let us know that you know where we’re coming from.
Empathy goes a long way.
2. Take a photo for your website and bring them on cool outings!
I just said these things don’t mean much, but I’m an intern. What do I know? Not a lot!
That’s why I’m an intern… to learn!
Interns are young people going through the process of becoming not-so-young, hopefully, employed people. We want to be treated like people. It’s hard to feel this way if, along with being unpaid or even, if you’re lucky, minimally paid, nobody seems to remember your name.
So, you might want to consider some ways to acknowledge us. Maybe, take a photo and feature us on your website. Or, tell us we’re doing good work when we’re doing it. Bring us onto cool, hands-on projects. We want to be a part of the team.
Put us in, coach!
Give us clear, honest feedback that, while corrective, makes us feel like you still want us around. But how to give honest feedback in a kind way? What if you want to tell your intern they did a lousy job?
Aren’t we that group of people that esteemed political philosopher and sage Kellyanne Conway dubbed a bunch of “snowflakes”?
Your interns aren’t snowflakes. We want you to correct our work the same way you’d correct anybody else’s. As long as you’re not a jerk about it.
4. You’re the boss or you’re the friend.
You’re not the boss/friend.Interns didn’t come to make friends. That doesn’t mean you can’t create a convivial, fun workspace or laugh. Be be clear with them.
How much horsing around is okay at the office? Can they use this nifty ping pong table some of the time? All the time? During a meeting? Right now?
If you follow them on social media, how wary should they be of you? Business casual tweets only? Is this too many rhetorical questions?
Mostly, be clear about the boundaries you want with your interns.
Once, at SmallGood, I sent an email to my supervisor which I thought it was funny and twenty minutes after I hit “send”, I reviewed it. Then, I looked again. And again. And again. I freaked; I Nicholas Cage’d. On a call, I apologized profusely to my supervisor.
Afterwards, she explained to me that it was all good and gave me some tips about corporate email. She explained the boundaries and it has been peaches and cream since.
5. Set fair hours, please.
Make no mistake, interns smell b.s. like anybody else. "Don’t try and fool us into thinking that labor = leisure or that work is just an extension of our “passion.”
We’re not looking for work and home to flow into one another…we’re looking to compartmentalize and find balance and get home in time to watch Game of Thrones occasionally…just like you.
That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t push us or demand excellent work. But fifty to sixty hours a week in exchange for… “experience”?
6. Remind us why our work matters.
After spending the day slaving away organizing a cavern of cardboard boxes, one starts to wonder, “Is this it? Was I born to be an unpaid cardboard box organizer slaving away in a cavern of cardboard boxes?”No!
But that’s what we might start to think if we don’t hear why our work matters.
Instilling a sense of purpose in interns will make us happier and, probably, work harder.
Take the cardboard boxes, for example. You could say, “Look, if those cardboard boxes don’t get organized we might be the next corporation on the verge of apocalyptic bankruptcy.”
And when we finish, you could say, “Hey intern, thanks for saving us from apocalyptic bankruptcy. You’re a hero. Here’s a sandwich. Your work matters!”
7. Take us to lunch.
It’s hard to overstate how much a good meal can mean. Food is expensive! Taking us to lunch or offering free food at the office is a gesture that won’t be forgotten.
Did you know nearly a third of community college students go hungry and that 14 percent are homeless?
That’s not to say that your interns are hungry or homeless. In fact, if someone is working unpaid they likely have a social safety net robust enough to support them. But still…on your way in today, could you could stop and grab some ice cream sandwiches? Or those overpriced fancy donuts with bacon that we’d never be able to afford? Sure, we’ll settle for Kale. ;)
8. Let us do some real work.
Okay, this is the scariest of them all. Deep breath. You ready? Let your interns in on some real work. Work with deadlines. Work with dollar signs. Work with consequences.
Don’t worry. This terrifies your interns too.
But this is the reality: Internships work when interns work.
This has been my favorite part of interning for SmallGood. I manage the firm’s Google Analytics and AdWords accounts. This is work with dollar signs — I’m suggesting ways the company spends its money. It scares me. My bosses too, I think.
But it’s in this big lacuna of fear where I feel like I’m learning the most, pushing myself to ask more questions, think more carefully, and have fun. I’m also learning valuable skills for today’s marketplace.
Plus, because it’s real work, it’s a real help for my bosses. Really. That’s what they tell me, anyway.
When my bosses first asked me to write this blog post, I suspected it was part of a not-so-subtle plan to find out what I really needed and wanted as an intern.
But as I’ve been writing it, and getting their feedback along the way via Google docs, I’ve realized something else: internships are like google docs. They’re works in progress. And, for interns and employers alike, it gets better if you keep working at it.
Seriously, you should have seen my first draft.
Porter Truax is an intern with SmallGood –– but not for long!
(Update: Soon after writing this blog post Porter got a wonderful full time job doing lots of real work. He still deeply appreciates it when his office provides free donuts however.)
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