Don’t Treat Your Interns Like Interns

For the past year I have been a Fellow (read: intern) at GiANT Impact. My job has been to be the internal graphic designer for both of the brands we steward—Catalyst and Leadercast. From day one I knew this would not be like most internships, especially like those in the creative industry. I wouldn’t be getting coffee, picking up dry-cleaning, reading through reports my boss didn’t have time for, or making supply runs to Costco every other week. The projects I would be working on were not just portfolio padders but real projects for real events. What I did and how I did it mattered.

I know most internships are not like this. You either shadow someone who is doing the job you want to eventually do or you are given menial tasks and minimal autonomy to carry out orders. In short, most internships are grunt work, plain and simple.

And, to be honest, it doesn’t help anyone. Sure, the company benefits but the individual who is doing the work is learning very little about how to actually do the work and be successful at what they want to do. It’s not setting them up for success or even equipping them with the skills to land a full-time job.

Thankfully, my internship has done quite the opposite. I have been given responsibility, coached through transition, and set up for success in future work. I have learned there are tangible ways employers can utilize interns, maximize their time, and set them up for success in the future.

1. Set Them Up to Succeed You

If you withhold information, knowledge, or opportunities because you are afraid they will take your job, you are not a leader. Your job is to prepare them to leave the internship better equipped to do their job—whether that is at your company or another. Set them up for success wherever they decide to.

2. Coach Them Up

Look for moments to coach them in better business practices or strategies rather than jumping down their throat about what they did wrong. It doesn’t mean let them avoid consequences, it means being mindful of teaching scenarios that can grow them as a person too.

3. Allow Them to Fail Forward

Good interns want to learn which means they will make mistakes. Give them opportunities to fail forward. Invaluable experience is gained when you take risks knowing you have someone in your corner who is on your side.

4. Give Them the Right Amount of Responsibility

Some interns find their niche and take everything that comes their way in stride. Identify these tendencies and begin to add a little more responsibility to their plate when you can. The confidence you show will encourage them to rise to the challenge and work even harder.

5. Invest in Them

Most interns are temporary labor. They will only be at the company a short time until they have to go back to school or move on to another job. While that sounds like an excuse to not make time, it actually means you should make more of an effort. What if they end up sticking around? If they do, it probably would be less awkward if you took an interest earlier rather than later.

6. Invite Them into the Inner Circle

Nothing makes someone feel more important than being “called-up-to-the-big-leagues.” Even if you’re just riding the bench. If you really want to set them up for success in their future, invite them into meetings where they can learn the reasons why decisions are made.

7. Ask What They Think

New faces mean fresh ideas. In a department that might be operating on the same system for the last few years, a new voice might offer fresh insight and help solve stale problems others couldn’t quite seem to figure out. Doesn’t mean they’ll get it right every time, but they will feel like they matter when it is clear their ideas are valued.

8. Stop Treating Them Like Interns

Don’t talk about them like they’re not in the room. Don’t make sarcastic remarks when they ask uninformed questions. Don’t belittle them in front of coworkers. Praise them publicly every chance you get. Speak highly of them to superiors of their work. Brag on them in front of other employees. Interns, even if they are at the bottom of the corporate food chain, are people and have feelings too.

Internships have become industry standards, but they don’t all have to be that bad. I’m grateful to have found a company that practices these eight things and more. No company is perfect, but if you treat your interns with a little more respect and attempt any handful of the suggestions above, you will begin to have more interns who desire to stay on not because it’s just a job, but because they feel like they actually belong.


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