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Interns and poor work habits

Q: What is a good way to help interns in your office learn to be more professional? There are two interns sitting near me this summer, and while I am not supervising them, I interact with them during most of the day. The problem is, they are completely unprofessional and I'm worried that it will reflect poorly on me because of our proximity because we all sit right outside of my boss' offices. They talk very loudly for a large portion of the day about topics unrelated to work. They also generally have a pretty bad work ethic. I have spoken to them and so has their manager, and they responded for a while, but it hasn't lasted. I think they just have no experience working in an office, and I know that this is their chance to get experience, but how can I help point them in the right direction and save my sanity?


A: Interns, students and others early in the career are often left to their own devices when trying to understand the organizational culture and expectations of the workplace. And company cultures differ. Flips flops may be completely acceptable in a technology start-up company in Cambridge. Yet, if you wore flip flops to the office for a large Boston law firm, you might be sent home to change your shoes!

It is helpful for many "newbies" to receive some guidelines or ground rules early on. Often this occurs during an orientation or onboarding program. Many of my clients have spent considerable time trying to establish ground rules up front and early (rather than later) in the hiring process. If expectations are clear in the beginning, it is much easier on all involved. Some ground rules to consider:

- Dress - specifying what is acceptable and what is not. This can be an enormous challenge especially in the summer months.
- Work schedules - including what are reasonable start and end times. Are there rules around break times, lunch times, overtime and expectations around flexibility?
- Use of office equipment including PCs and telephones - how, when and for what purpose? Can employees check social media sites during the day (or not).
- Are there guidelines for using personal cell phones or texting/instant messaging?
- There may be other norms within the office like who makes coffee, where it is acceptable to eat lunch, where to print documents, locations for smoking, etc.

Many interns need to be told directly that when they have completed their assigned work that they then need to raise their hands and ask, "What else can I do?" This is definitely the preferred behavior (rather than chat incessantly about topics unrelated to work). Again, it should be established as a ground rule early rather than letting poor work habits continue. Then these poor work habits become more difficult to control.

When I have conducted orientation programs, especially for those early in their careers, I always try to impress upon my audience a very important fact – first impressions count. There is no second chance to make a first impression. You and I know this face. And sometimes interns and those early in their career may need to make a few mistakes to understand that this is a truism.

Internships are often a testing ground. Employers will assess a group of interns over a summer or even a semester. If an employer is hiring, an employer will then decide who will receive a job offer (and who will not!). Work ethic and good work habits count!

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