How to get the most out of your intern

June 17, 2013 | Hamilton, Ontario
Contributed by Catherine Connelly, Associate Professor and Canada Research Chair

InternInterns can surprise you.  Even if they don’t have a lot of paid work experience, they often bring in good skills from past internships or their volunteer work. The trick is for managers to take the time to find out a little more about their summer intern or temporary staff members, so that they can choose the right tasks for these workers to tackle.

Did you hire your interns with a fair process?

It might be convenient to hire your neighbour’s daughter or your CEO’s second cousin, but this type of process can backfire. Once you have identified the tasks that the intern will accomplish, you need to work backwards to determine what skills would be necessary for someone to be successful in the role. Do you need someone who is enrolled in a particular degree program? Or is it more important that they are familiar with your product or your industry? At this point, it makes sense to involve the direct manager and some coworkers in the interview process. Hiring and managing an intern can be useful experience for a rising star who you would like to see take on a managerial role.

Are you training your interns properly?

It may not be necessary to run a long orientation session, but interns should be made aware of the employee handbook if there is one, as well as any other informal rules of the workplace. Sometimes employers are annoyed by interns who wear shorts or check Facebook at work, but it is difficult to fault an intern who was never told to avoid doing either. If your company doesn’t have an employee handbook, that might be a suitable task to assign to an intern.

Are you giving your intern guided tasks?

Interns should be given tasks that are easy for them to learn quickly and that can be easily supervised. It’s also important to take into account how their work will affect everyone when they have left.  For example, asking an intern to re-organize the warehouse or the filing system may result in no one being able to find anything.  Instead, ask them to help someone else with this task, or give them something else entirely.

Are you treating your interns well?

It might be tempting to ask your intern to cover the phones while all your other employees attend the company BBQ, and you might accidentally forget to tell them about the cake being served in the break room, but consistently excluding your intern from social events deprives them of an opportunity to network within the company, and sends a message to your other employees about your own values as a leader.

Are you encouraging your intern to refine their skills?

Interns can be motivated and versatile workers.  Although they can help to fill in for everyone who will be on holiday, especially in the summer months, they can also complete “extra” projects that permanent staff doesn’t have time to take on.  Many students have excellent technological skills; they might even be able to set up a company social networking page or blog. You might be able to ask them to train some of your less tech-savvy staff on new software that you have adopted, or on how to use some of the extra features on the technology that you have. Interns can also give you a different perspective; unlike your more experienced employees they will never tell you that something should be done a certain way only because it’s always been done that way.

How does your intern benefit from the experience?

Ideally, interns will finish their placements with a portfolio of projects that they can list on their resumes and talk about on their next interviews.  Given today’s tough job market, few companies will hire someone based on their potential alone; temporary work experience can help to give applicants the edge that they need. Interesting work experiences can also help interns to narrow down their career options, and might reinforce some of the theories that they have learned in class.

Are you paying your interns?

You should be. There are instances where an unpaid internship is legal, but to avoid a lawsuit be sure to follow the guidelines stipulated by the Employment Standards Act. Unpaid interns can’t perform the same tasks that paid employees do, they cannot be promised paid employment at the end of their internship, and in general they need to be learning more from the experience than what they contribute to the organization.

Even if the company isn’t able to hire an intern permanently, a worker who has been treated well and who has had a good experience will spread the word about why the company is a good place to work. As they advance in their own careers, you may also gain a contact who understands your business and who you can trust.

Looking for something for your intern to do?

Here are some potential projects perfect for interns:

  • Prepare a report on the recent activities of the company’s competitors (new products or services, pricing, discounts, advertising)
  • Research upcoming legislative or bylaw changes that might affect the company
  • Set up a company social networking page or blog
  • Provide suggestions on how to make the company more energy efficient or environmentally friendly
  • Train staff on the advanced features of the software being used at the company, and make a presentation on what alternatives are now on the market
  • Evaluate the usefulness of alternative advertising methods, such as Groupon or WagJag

Catherine Connelly, is a Tier II Canada Research Chair of organizational behaviour at McMaster University’s DeGroote School of Business. 

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