Analyze This

Tips For Interns – And Their Bosses

By Kerry J. Sulkowicz
Featured on Business Week

I’m a recent college grad, interning at a company where I have a hard time expressing work concerns with my bosses – about feeling poorly treated or not included, things like that. I wind up complaining to friends or calling my mother (who tells me to go to graduate school). What, realistically, can I do? – Anonymous, New York

An internship is as good a time as any to learn how to deal effectively with the more powerful among us. As a start, it’s not a bad instinct to unburden yourself to friends. It relieves pressure and occasionally yields sound advice. But you need to be able to handle these situations on your own. And the challenge is to do so without being labeled a complainer or a victim.

Tip No. 1: Temper your youthful idealism with pragmatism. Remember that this stint is supposed to help you get a start in your career. It’s not about fighting workplace injustices. Indeed, if your model of benevolent authority is a supportive mother, you might need to adjust your expectations of the boss.

Meanwhile, compare notes with other interns and entry-level employees. Your experience may be the norm rather than a sign of disrespect. Being excluded from certain meetings, for instance, comes with the territory. If you’re still convinced that there’s unfair treatment afoot, approach your manager with a question, not an accusation: “Will I eventually be able to attend the planning meetings?” Or: “Can you suggest the best way for me to give better presentations?”

And now – since it’s intern season – some advice to managers: Young people take all experiences to heart, so their reactions may seem intense at times. Cut them a little slack. (Think back to your own early days.) Interns may also find it hard to strike the right balance when it comes to confidence – puffing up to overcompensate for anxiety or timidly fading into the woodwork hoping to be overlooked. Rather than getting annoyed with these defenses, consider the therapeutic value of assigning your interns real work (not make-work or gofer chores), no matter how small a piece of a project. That, combined with an offhand “nice job,” when it’s merited, will help them find the appropriate level of self-assurance. (Don’t gush or express surprise at work well done. That’s for an indulgent aunt or uncle, not someone whose respect they want to earn.)

Finally, because it involves effort to bring along an intern, you shouldn’t take one on if you’re not prepared to make the investment. Remember that a good experience goes beyond what your summer employees learn about your industry. It determines the message they’ll export about your company.