I believe that interns are our future—teach them well and they might one day lead a company. Each is a bundle of joy, starry-eyed and wobbly, embarking on his or her career path. I feel blessed to be able to, along with my fellow full-time employees, aid in our interns’ upbringings. It truly takes an office to raise a stable employee.
I cherish that moment at the beginning of each summer when the little darlings arrive—most cannot even dress themselves at this point. Black fishnet stockings, low-cut tops, gold sequined skirts, skullcaps—little girls can be so adventurous! And the boys: in their just too short chinos and solid pair of penny loafers. Though “business casual” can be somewhat ambiguous, outer appearance is so important in the workplace that I like to help steer them all in the right direction. My methods are more hands-off, because we have a policy in my company against fondling the interns. I work with equal parts “setting a good example” and “silent, quizzical up and down assessment stares.”
Small tasks are a great way to get interns acclimated. Plus each little accomplishment feels like such a milestone! I like to start them off with a little mail sorting and then ease into unpacking boxes from Staples. Remember, baby steps—new names and supply closets provide so much stimulation, it can become overwhelming. So, make sure to gauge the occasional:
“Wait, where does this pack of Post-its go again?”
If your intern is sounding more tense than monotone, a little encouragement can go a long way. Respond with:
“On the shelf labeled ‘Post-its.’ Great job. We’ve all been there! But, of course, we don’t ask our interns to do anything we haven’t done, or have to do, ourselves.”
It’s okay to tell a cluster of little white lies every once in a while. It’s for their own good.
One of the most beautiful moments in a young intern’s life is when she learns to speak on the phone.
“Hello, John Smith Agency. How can I help you?”
“One moment, please.”
Music to my ears! Sure, it can take many tears and dropped calls to get there, but isn’t the destination worth the journey? Besides, you’ll miss those difficult days when your intern starts initiating conference calls without even asking you to come watch to make sure they’re doing it right.
You’ll especially miss those early phone days when you move on to the fine motor skills: copying. Oh the Xerox machine, what a glorious beast, a hunk of office equipment that can copy and collate. I used to think interns loved copying, that they would do anything to draw out the process, even going so far as to copy a packet page by page, lifting the top of the machine over and over, completely ignoring the page feeder! Then I realized that the poor angels needed to be told about staple removers, which was such a great teaching moment for me. Communication is so important: never gloss over the details. Now directions are posted in every copying station:
1. Remove any staples from the document.
2. Throw the staple away in the trash.
3. Put the document in the page feeder on TOP of the machine.
4. Staple it and its copy (not together!) when you’re all done.
5. Last but not least, try not to leave any beverages behind—we don’t want to attract any little buggies, do we?
It’s great to let an intern know that he can ask you questions. It’s better to take the time to ask rather than have something done incorrectly, right? I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard:
“Can you please fix the jam in the printer again?”
“What happens if the paper sticks together?”
These moments show just how much those little rays of sunshine need your guidance.
Of course a good attitude cannot be taught. You can tell a lot about an intern’s future just by informing him that he’ll be scanning and cataloguing documents for the next three months. If you get a scowl, you’ve got a real rascal on your hands! He’ll be nothing but trouble—you’ll spend late nights lying in bed awake, wondering if he’s even paying attention to the filing system. On the other hand, if his response is a quick nod and a smile, you’ll really have something to brag about over happy hour drinks with your coworkers.
Now, I should mention that though interns will usually be fresh out of college, there is another type: the intern who was held back by another career. Yes, the Older Intern. Precocious and eager, they often feel need to prove themselves better than the rest. These growing pains are to be expected. Though it’s true that the Older Intern can possibly have more know-how and life experience than the others, I find it’s best to make sure all interns know that they are equal—with each other, not with me. If you don’t assert yourself, the tykes will walk all over you.
I know I talk a pretty confident talk, but Super Mentor I am not. I’m only human—I worry about making mistakes with my charges all the time. In theory, it is imperative to keep boundaries, but in practice it can be difficult. Sometimes they seem so mature. Sometimes you get an intern who is just cute as a button. Maybe you joke around too much. Maybe at a work party at the CEO’s house where the interns are acting as servers you just happen to get a little loose and, on the way home, slip one the tongue in the cab you’re sharing. Alas, no mentor is perfect. You just have to cross your fingers that your actions won’t do any long term damage.
Regardless, I am proud of the work I do because, after all, the interns are our future.