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:
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.”