Articles

Interns Will Teach Companies About GIVING and TAKING

February 06, 2016 - By Ian Munro, Director, B Bus Sci (IS Hons) M Com (IS)

So you have decided to participate in one of the growing number of internship programmes in South Africa. Whether your particular internship project is a success or a failure, you can be sure of one thing: it will clarify whether your organisation (or your part of it) is a “giving” or a “taking” one.

This is because in almost all internship projects, there will be more “give” by the employer than “take”. And that is essentially because the company is able to give a lot more – it has all the experience and knowledge. Conversely, the intern is not easily able to give because she does not have that experience and knowledge yet.

The concepts of giving and taking are essential in understanding an internship. Both the manager and the intern need to understand them, and keep conscious of them during the internship.

Of course the employer could have a Dickensian taking attitude, seeing the intern as cheap labour – putting him in front of a screen to do data capture every day, and not introducing him to anyone. When the intern leaves, neither the company nor the intern will have gained anything significant.

Giving to interns may not initially be easy. Some interns arrive with a good attitude to work. But in my experience, graduate interns particularly often have an expectation that the world is there to give them something – that they are entitled to this work and to a job. It apparently does not cross their mind that they might need to make a contribution.

If the intern reacts in this kind of taking way, his manager’s job is to not respond in kind but rather to give appropriately in response. That appropriate response is likely to include a reprimand, setting a standard, and performance managing the intern.

When a manager reacts to a taking intern by taking (by, for instance, telling the intern to “just get on with it – I’m not going to take time to explain to you why this works this way” or by giving the intern a menial job because she can’t be bothered to adhere to the planned internship), then the internships will fail.

Not everyone responds to giving by giving. But invariably people (including interns) respond to taking by taking.

A company may have one or a combination of motives for investing in an internship programme: it may see it as a way of recruiting good, young people (that is, particularly people who give more than they take) using (perhaps) a government-subsidised trial period; or it may want to represent its business in a marketing way; or it may see this as a give-back to society by preparing the intern for the world of work (and thereby reducing the number of unemployable people in South Africa).

All of these are valid reasons for participating in an internship programme.

10 points to bear in mind before and during the programme:

  1. The programme should be carefully planned and you should be sure to make a good first impression. You are representing your company to the new entrant, but remember also that you are representing the workplace generally. Will he leave after the internship with the impression that work sucks, or that your company sucks? Or will he leave with the thought that work can be an engaging and fulfilling experience where people can grow and achieve success individually and collectively? We all start off with some preconceived notions of what the workplace is going to be like and those notions are cemented or not during our early experience of work.
  2. Do not outsource this to human resources (HR). Day one should locate the intern and her designated manager together – not the intern with HR. Ensure that the intern’s manager is there before she arrives – there is nothing more awkward for the intern than sitting on a bench waiting for her manager to arrive. Schedule on the intern’s first day (or preferably before the first day) for the intern to ask the manager any questions and tell the manager what her expectations are.
  3. Ensure that managers taking interns are qualified to do so – in other words they understand management, they have done some sort of leadership development and have experience in managing people, setting expectations, etc. Many managers are in their positions through the toothpaste tube – they are eventually pushed upwards but have no management training. At minimum, the manager should know what she needs to give and what makes X a good leader and Y a bad leader, and what that implies for leading an intern.
  4. “Just an intern” is still a person with a career in front of her. It’s not an opportunity to unleash your worst people on her. Remember other people in your organisation are also observing how you treat the intern.
  5. Get to know the intern and hold an informal function so that other people in her work surroundings can get to know her.
  6. Ensure that both the intern and the manager have the tools that they need to succeed. Ensure that very soon after arrival the intern is given the networks and broader exposure, and the confidence to ask questions and challenge.
  7. Don’t make generational assumptions like “he is acting like a brat because he is from generation Y” or “this generation doesn’t know how to behave”. If we look back realistically, we were all there once.
  8. Teach the intern to be respectful – which means you treat them with respect. The most important thing you can do to prepare an intern is to actually listen to him and give his questions the countenance they deserve.
  9. Be extra careful with accountability. Keenly understand the difference between making a mistake and doing something malevolent deliberately. Recognise the intern for work which is done to the standard; reward him for work which is done to above the standard; censure him for below-standard work done carelessly; and discipline him for malevolently doing below-standard work. Don’t tolerate mediocrity or immaturity.
  10. The most important thing you can do for an intern during the internship is to allow him to gain a sense of contribution – that is, to feel what it is like to be part of something bigger than himself, doing something because it makes a difference to someone else or something else. Some interns who have an initial sense of entitlement quickly get over it; others do not. The best response to this is to take the intern aside and tell her that it is not just a matter of turning a tap and getting new or better equipment, for instance. This is a working environment where we make do and the most important thing is to make a contribution. In other word, don’t only worry about what you are getting out and what you are going to be given.

An intern who has an entitlement attitude should not be spurned because this is part of their maturity journey. Before one enters the world of work, the world of childhood and school have typically been about you, about the results that you “get”. At school, how often do you get to make a contribution? People mature significantly through the world of work.

The most important shift to be achieved through internship is to move the intern away from an attitude of getting (for instance, “I’m here to get experience”) to one of giving (“I’m here to actually give something to this job”).

If someone comes out of an internship able to clearly articulate what contribution she can make and able to focus on that contribution, she will have an infinitely higher chance of either getting a job in your organisation or other organisations.

EXAMPLE: THE INTERN IN SLIPSLOPS

We had an intern who arrived on the first day in slipslops and a t-shirt. We told him he needed to dress in shoes and a shirt, if not a tie. After all, some of our customers were banks.

But he said, “No, this is the new economy, I dress how I like and if women are allowed to wear open shoes, I should be allowed to wear open shoes.”

Definitely, the wrong response here would have been to say “okay well that’s fine”.

We told him: “I’m afraid you’re not going to the bank then – where you are going is home and you need to make up your mind whether you want to do this or not. You are more than welcome to go home and not come back. But if you do come back, you’re not going to walk through that entrance in slipslops. Regardless of your thoughts about making a stand for gender equality, we are giving you a standard and it is your job to meet that standard.”

Ian Munro
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