how much guidance should interns need?

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 ask regularly press for permanent jobs, which we directly addressed at their interviews and a few times since. After discussing it a time (or two, or five) very 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. 

I know these issues need to be addressed by us as the managers. For the future, we’re wondering if you have any advice for how to avoid these problems from the beginning. We are a small and casual office, employee handbooks and the like seem unnecessary. 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 employees and outline expectations about schedule, sick days, etc.? 
Thank you for any guidance you can offer us!

It’s 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. Like, the first day. Do it as part of an overall orientation to the internship, and include the stuff I’ve outlined here too.

Part of the point of an internship is to start getting 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 spelling things out explicitly in the beginning, so that they know from the start (rather than being told partway in that they’re doing it 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, many interns really don’t know this stuff. 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.

And 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? You need to seriously consider replacing that intern, because that’s really not okay. That intern is displaying a disregard for your and her work, and it’s almost certainly showing up in other ways too.

By the way, regarding the pressing for permanent jobs, it concerns me that this has come up five times at this point. Either you’re not being clear or firm enough, or you have some seriously pushy interns on your hands. If you haven’t already, tell them very clearly what it would take for them to be considered for a permanent job —  whether it’s five solid months of excellent work (describing what that means) or whatever. 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 find out if you’re being unclear, or they’re not taking you at your word, or what.

Anyway, back to your question about avoiding this in the future:  Be really clear about basic expectations from the start, especially about things like schedules and time off. Pretend that you’re dealing with strangers to our planet who don’t know the culture or our norms, because in some ways, you are!

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