Your Interns Don't Have To Be Like Dell's

The reputation that interns in the workplace enjoy today ranges from invaluable, at one end, all the way down to whatever you would term those interns in the current Dell Computer commercials
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The reputation that interns in the workplace enjoy today ranges from invaluable, at one end, all the way down to whatever you would term those interns in the current Dell Computer commercials.

Certainly the individual intern has a lot to do with that perception, along with who's doing the judging. But I think the thought that goes into setting up the internship itself is one of the real determining factors of whether an internship will work for the intern and for the company.

If the primary reason for the internship is slave labor, then there's not much more I can tell you. Either make it clear to the intern what the deal is upfront, or try to fool them as long as you can.

On the other hand, there are ways to structure an internship so that it's valuable to the intern and the company. Not the least of that value is that you can get a good look at how interns perform in the workplace, how fast they learn new skills, how much initiative they take, and what they might grow into. You can discover a great future employee this way.

NO GUARANTEES

That said, one of the first things interns need to understand is that they are not guaranteed (or promised) a job when the internship is up. That and some other items should probably be put in letters sent to the interns before their internships start. And in their orientation, it's good to point out that despite what anyone else in the company tells them, there is no job guarantee.

In this day and age, I would be surprised if your company doesn't have an internship policy. If there is one, both you and the intern should read it, and that policy should be referred to in the letter you're sending.

Whether there is or is not an internship policy, the internship needs to be set up with the knowledge and support of the person who handles human resources at the company. Working with that person now can keep you from having to work with lawyers later.

Another thing that I've found critically important is that somebody, and I mean one individual, needs to be in charge of the intern. While you as a manager might have overall supervisory control over the internship, the person they report to should probably be the person they work with.

Some of the biggest internship messes I've seen occurred when several people were supposed to be in charge of an intern. One of my laws is "if everybody's in charge, nobody's in charge." Put a single individual in charge of the intern.

Believe it or not, there can be a hidden benefit to the company in this. Say you have a field cameraman who's going to have an intern during the fall college term. While the intern is getting job experience working with the cameraman, the cameraman will be getting supervisory experience. This won't come free, of course; it's going to involve some of your time.

Since the cameraman is going to be supervising, he should be involved in establishing what the intern is going to do. And along with that, the two of you should make a list of what the intern is going to learn.

Remember that letter you're sending off before the intern arrives? This letter should make clear what the intern is going to do and learn during the internship. And during the intern's orientation, the three of you should sit down and go over those two items.

Other expectations need to be gone over as well. When is the intern supposed to be at work? Does he/she get a key to the building? Are there limits to what the intern can do on the basis of a union contract? All of this needs to be followed up in writing.

This can get down to the seemingly mundane level of what kind of clothing is appropriate when in the workplace.

Then there's the question of what the college expects. Some of the most successful internships I've been associated with were in connection with a college that was very involved in the process. The faculty wanted to know what the intern was going to learn. They asked for a progress report in the middle and an evaluation at the end.

Whether you need to do that for the college, you should schedule several sessions during the term of the internship to meet with both the supervisor and the intern. This is especially important if the person in charge of the intern is new to supervising, as he or she may not be very good at giving the intern feedback. You can facilitate that in the meeting.

DON'T GO THERE

There could be books written about setting up internships. One of the most important things is that there are probably jobs or parts of jobs that should never be given to an intern.

I remember an evening when I was working in TV news when one of our crews covered a civil rights speech. Long story short, peaceful as it started, the event ramped up into a full-stage riot. The reporter and photographer had an intern along with them, and as the situation was fulminating, the intern got separated from our crew.

He showed up the next day, a little shaken but no worse for the wear. But I remember how anxious we were about him through the night.

Having him there was dangerous to him and dangerous to our crew as they tried to find him. It probably also took away from their ability to cover the story.

And boy, would the lawyers today get rich over something like that.