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A reader writes:
We have a very small company and recently took on our first (paid) interns, and we're having some issues managing. There is regular last-minute calling in/not showing up, other types of behaviors that are not ideal (falling asleep in a "boring" meeting). They also regularly press for permanent jobs, which we directly addressed at their interviews and multiple times since. After discussing it several times early on, I believe they should be a bit more concerned with trying to make their work and work habits demonstrative of their long-term value as employees to us.
Do you have advice for how to avoid these problems from the beginning? We would rather not have to police entry-level employees, but basic expectations about calling in or changing hours in excess seem obvious. Is that an unreasonable expectation? Should we sit down with new interns and outline expectations about schedule, sick days, etc.?
This kind of thing is obvious to you, but it's clearly not obvious to them. So yes, you need to sit down and discuss expectations about schedules, sick days, and so forth right at the start. As in, the very first day. Do it as part of an overall orientation to the internship and as part of their initial introduction to what you'll be expecting from them.
Keep in mind, too, that part of the point of an internship is to gain experience in how an office works -- because by definition, when someone doesn't have a ton of experience in office life, they really don't know how things work. Things that seem obvious to you are often not going to be obvious to interns. You are doing them a favor by explicitly spelling out things in the beginning, so that they know from the start (rather than being told partway in that they're doing things wrong). This means, as silly as it might seem, explaining things like "you're expected to be here every day, on time, except if you're sick or you've cleared it with me ahead of time," and "if you're not able to come in, please call and let us know before 9 a.m.," and "you need to call with that message, not text it," and "please keep the use of social networking sites to a minimum during the day," and so forth.
Many interns really don't know these things. It's part of the price you pay for hiring really cheap labor; you get to teach it to them. And then, in the future, this internship is going to help them get a better job, because that employer is going to see they've had this office experience and figure that someone has already taught them the really basic stuff. And that someone is you.
While you shouldn't need to say "don't fall asleep in meetings" from the start, if it does happen, you need to address it immediately, firmly, and clearly: "Falling asleep in a meeting is rude to the other people in the meeting and makes you look unprofessional and like you don't care to be here. It will have a terrible impact on your reputation. You need to make sure that doesn't happen again." And then if it happens again? At that point, you should seriously consider replacing the intern, because that's pretty egregious behavior. That intern is displaying a disregard for your and her work, and it's almost certainly showing up in other ways too.
As for the continued pressing for permanent jobs, it concerns me that this has come up over and over. Either you're not being clear or firm enough, or you have some seriously pushy interns on your hands. If you haven't already done so, tell them very clearly what it would take for them to be considered for a permanent job -- whether it's five months solid of excellent work (describing what that means) or whatever it might be. Or, if it's unlikely to happen at all because you don't often have openings that they'd be a strong fit for, tell them that too. And once you've explained that, if they continue to press you, point out that you've already talked about it and ask why it continues to come up.
As for avoiding all this in the future? You can't, entirely. It's part of having interns. But you can make things go more smoothly by being extremely clear about basic expectations from the start, especially on issues like schedules and time off. Don't assume your interns come in with knowledge you'd expect from someone with even a few more years of experience. Internships are about learning after all.
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