Summertime is upon us and that means, for many businesses, time to hire interns—whether for pay or college credit. Hope Katz Gibbs, founder of InkandescentPR.com, which offers the program InkandescentInternships.com, has developed a 6-Step Curriculum. “They are spending their time working for you — so it’s important that they learn something valuable in return, including the inner-workings of your business, the scope of your industry, and the importance of hard work, showing up on time, completing tasks, and dressing appropriately,” says Gibbs. “My rule of thumb is that we don’t make an intern do anything we wouldn’t want our own children to do.”
While it is great to have extra help around the office, there are some dos and don’ts when it comes to making the best use of your summer interns.
Do Some Prep
Make sure you are actually ready for the interns. Don’t just plop some work in front of them. Have a plan. “We spend time before they arrive making sure that we have work lined up for them and things to do when it’s quiet – we typically have a list of projects that they can be working on independently when there isn’t any pressing client issues that they need to deal with,” says Lisa J. Crafford, Business Manager of Fox, Joss & Yankee, LLC, who manages her company’s intern program.
Give Clear Guidance
Recently a group of unpaid interns from Hearst Publishing filed a class action lawsuit against the company seeking payment and claiming they were basically unpaid workers. The case for thrown out because it did not meet the requirements of class action status, but the judge did leave open the possibility that individually the unpaid interns could sue. So it put in writing what is expected of your interns especially if unpaid. “There are legal stipulations for unpaid interns that limit the kind of work they can do, but paid interns should be given tasks that are appropriate for their level, or that can be accomplished with sufficient oversight. For our interns, we give them a mix of client projects (carefully overseen by seasoned employees) and internal projects that help them learn and grow within a more structured environment,” notes Todd McMurtrey, digital marketing manager of Amadeus Consulting. “When we have interns, we clearly define tasks and expectations, but also allow some flexibility and options to allow the intern to pursue different projects that better fit their interests. Our goal is to treat them like real employees and have clear expectations for their internship, but also to help them grow and prepare for true full time work.”
Explain Workplace Rules
Make sure your intern knows the expected working house, office dress codes, and any basic information when it comes to working, since having a job may be new to them. “Interns often have no previous formal job experience and sometimes are not aware of business expectations that would be clear to seasoned employees. This includes time off and vacation processes, sick leave, dress code, email protocol, and other etiquette,” says McMurtrey. “Generally, we treat interns with the same expectations of any other employee, which reflects our intent to give them a ‘real corporate experience.’ Since many internships are used as a recruiting opportunity, this makes the transition from intern-to-full time much easier.”
Many interns fear getting just grunt work to do, but actually giving them so-called grunt work at first could be a good idea and a way to measure their abilities. “Giving interns grunt work at first is a necessary test of their ability to follow instructions. I give all my interns a 30-day test period where I give them six measurable, concrete, ‘grunt’ tasks. If they succeed at those tasks, they are kept on for the full internship and given much more difficult and important tasks; sometimes interacting with the clients whose campaigns they are working on,” says Adam Torkildson, Senior Associate, Snapp Conner PR. But don’t keep them doing tasks that no one else wants to do. Give them substantive work as their break-in period. ”An internship should give them a clear picture of what it’s like to work at the company, the business goals, and corporate culture. Interns talk to each other about their experiences and actively seek out challenges and access to the best projects and people,” Shashi Jain of DongleKong. “Giving them grunt work simply tells them that they are not valued and results in a poor image being propagated to their peers.”
You have hired interns to help out around the office and perhaps find potential employees, but interns are there to learn the ropes of the industry—and possibly land a future job. So educate about the business. “We believe in giving the interns substantive work (not just making coffee) because they will take ownership and feel more part of the team. We want them to add value to our firm. Our goal is for the interns to leave with a real idea as to what it means to be an advisor at a firm like ours. They are better prepared for the real world and it is a better test of their ability to survive if we look to hire them when they graduate,” says Crafford.
If you have more than one intern, have them team up on projects. If not, team the intern with different employees for different projects. “The most successful internship program I’ve seen has interns working in small groups on significant projects with full time employees as mentors, not managers. Give them responsibility to set some project parameters and get things done using lightweight processes. Give them the tools they need right away,” says Jain.
Connect them with someone on staff who can act as their mentor, answer questions, offer advice and basically take the intern under their wing. Joshua Adams, owner of Rock Paper Simple, a web design and development company, says he does so with every intern the company takes on. “I always, always provide mentoring for our interns. They do a better job and in the long run it’s a huge benefit for them. It also provides a great employee at the end of the internship if one is needed” he notes. Jain agrees. “Interns should be highly mentored by experienced employees. This is not only good practice for the employee, but also reflects well on the company culture. I find that providing actively engaged mentors results in the best of interns wanting to return for full time positions,” he points out.
Avoid Intern Mistakes
All interns are not alike—and they each have different talents. Get to know your interns. “The biggest mistake companies make when hiring interns is that they expect an intern to be the clone of the next intern, or the previous intern,” explains Torkildson. “They are all unique in their skills and personalities, and require unique tasks and instruction based on their personal abilities.”
Getting to know them also means making them part of the team. “[Companies make a mistake when] they think they have hired indentured servants. I have a couple of friends who make their interns sit at their desks and call in twice a day with a status report. And then they get upset when their expectations aren’t met. These are kids we are working with,” notes Gibbs.
Also get feedback from your interns. Find out how things are working for them as well as ideas they might have. “We have made several improvements over the years to our program – mostly based on feedback from our interns. We want to make sure that it is a valuable experience for them and for the rest of our staff. Also, since they are currently the ones studying and learning new tools, they are a great source of information. We have our interns make a presentation to the firm at the end of their time with us where they teach us something. It’s always a great experience,” offers Crafford.
Bottom line: Groom your interns as you would new employees. Don’t expect them to understand everything off the bat. Give them time, room and projects to grow. “Interns take a little time to get accustomed, but if you give them weekly goals to achieve, they will work hard to complete them. No one likes to feel they are remedial. Invest the time to help break the project into achievable goals. Expect a lot, but be reasonable,” concludes Jain, who recalls the internship program at his former employer, Intel. “We found that interns operating this way finished their stretch goals halfway into their internships and we were able to give them more. They were highly creative and motivated and it showed…And the best ones chose us for full time jobs, rather than the competition.”