Internships (that suck less)

It’s that time of year….that pivotal and gut-wrenching moment that inevitably hits many interns one week, one day, or maybe even one hour into their experience, that horrible moment of dread and consternation when thousands of young people across the nation suddenly comprehend the reality of the abyssmal “internships” they have accepted. They resign themselves to to their “office,” a rickety card table next to the noisy clanking HVAC in the damp, dark basement, where they are treated as second or third class citizens and given duties consisting of 1. Filing 2. Shredding 3. Picking up coffee and lunch for the boss, and 4. Trying to look busy, interested and upbeat when they are in fact bored, Bored and BORED!!!!!!!! And on top of that, they are making little. Or nothing. My heart goes out to them. I am not an internship guru, but I’ve had a long series of interns, most of whom I still  stay in touch with years later. They check in from time to time or update me on Facebook, ask for references, or seek advice on job or school opportunities. After all these years, I have several suggestions for making internships better.


1. Know why. Why is your organization or department looking for interns? If it’s for slave free/cheap labor, do not pass go, don’t do it, just say no! Don’t give in, just hire some entry level clerical staff.

2. Know yourself. Do you love developing and mentoring the next generation? Sharing your wisdom? Taking an hour to show someone how to complete a task that would take you 15 minutes? If yes/yes/yes, go for it. If no/no/no, think twice.

3. It’s not about you. In the US, most internships must be paid. There are limited exceptions for nonprofits and for programs that meet IRS guidelines. I work for a nonprofit, and so I have a little more latitude than most of you. Still, I pay my interns whenever I can find a way. And I only form internships with current, active students pursuing an HR-related field of study. Ideally, they are getting college credit for their experience. If not, even if the DOL gives me an out, I still try  to craft a meaningful learning experience.

4. Make them feel welcome. Secure a work station on par with their co-workers. Give them a title other than “intern.” Be prepared for their first day. Include them in departmental and team events. For example, at my organization, we love  to eat. We have lots of communal lunches, and because I don’t ever want interns (who are probably counting their pennies) to feel left out, I have a tradition of making sure that either the organization or I covers their tab.

5. Give them real work. We all have job duties that are less-favored but there is no reason to dump them on interns. My informal rule is no more than 30 minutes of outright drudgery (e.g. filing, shredding, collating, data entry) out of a typical 8 hour day.  I broke that rule this week when I organized a two hour filing party. But I jumped in to help with the rest of my department, and I bought lunch.

After a brief orientation, my summer intern started screening resumes and checking references on her very first day. This was real, substantive work that has helped  immensely.


6. Help them meet their goals. I haven’t always done this, but it’s a good idea to write learning objectives based on their interests/goals/course of study, meet with the intern weekly, and evaluate progress midway and at the end of the experience.


I love mentoring young HR professionals and seeing their careers blossom. I am passionate about human resources at its best, and I love introducing up-and-coming talent to the #NewHR. As such, I’ve shared a few ideas I have to make internships less excruciating and more valuable experiences  on  both sides.

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