should I give a former intern feedback about her bad attitude?

A reader writes:

I’m meeting a former intern for coffee and need some advice. She is finishing up law school asked me to meet with her to discuss her post-grad job search. While she was working for me, she was a solid worker but has a really crappy personality/attitude. It seemed like she felt she was either too good for the assignments (which were all substantive) and she was a complainer. Making it worse, she has a “frowner face” that makes her seem standoffish.

However, she still completed all assignments well and her work was good. I do think her personality is holding her back. I was a reference for her and the hiring manager at another organization — who I have a relationship with — called and immediately asked about her personality. Apparently it came across during her 20-minute intern interview. I told the person that her attitude is problematic but that her work was solid. Had she not asked, I wouldn’t have brought it up in the reference check.

That said, I’m struggling on if I should discuss this with her when we meet for coffee. On the one hand, if there was something holding me back, I’d want to know. On the other hand, I’m not sure if she could make changes. There isn’t anything she can do about her “frowner face” and her problem seems to be less of an attitude issue which I think could be corrected, but more of a personality issue which can’t really change. Do you have any advice?

Well, you’re right that she can’t change her face and it’s not really the sort of thing that’s fair to judge her on, but you can certainly let her know that she came across as unhappy while she was working for you — not because of her face but because of the complaining and the acting like she too good for her assignments.

And the complaining and acting above the work are big things that will hold her back if she doesn’t change them. No one should really be acting like that, but it takes a special amount of chutzpah for an intern to do it.

These things also aren’t really personality things, like being outgoing or funny or standoffish. They’re specific behaviors that people can change if they know they need to. “You need to complain less” is very different from personality-focused feedback like “you need to be more bubbly” — and far more helpful.

Now, ideally you would have given her feedback on this stuff while she was working for you (and maybe you did). But since she’s asking for help with her job search now, it’s fair to say, “There’s something I wanted to mention that I observed while you were working with me, because it has the potential to hold you back if you don’t know about it. While we were working together, I got the sense that you were unhappy with your assignments and felt you should have been given more challenging work, and I was surprised by how often you complained about things like X, Y, and Z. You did good work, but these soft skills really matter, and at a lot of employers, they can even trump your work quality. I want to see you do well, and I think this might be an area for you to approach differently.”

She may or may not appreciate this in the moment — not everyone has the grace to take feedback like this well– but you’d be doing her a service, and probably a more valuable one than just providing regular old job search advice.

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