How to manage an intern the right way

Is your team bogged down with lots of menial daily tasks that get in the way of more important projects? If that sounds familiar, you should consider establishing an internship program at your organization.

However, you’ll need to know how to manage an intern properly if you want to enjoy the benefits. When done correctly, it’s a great way to gain some cost-effective help with repetitive tasks, and you’re also giving young students a chance to get a foot in the door in the professional world.

Also, with a bustling intern program, you’ll accrue a large talent pool of experienced professionals to draw from later. After all, they’ll already know the way your organization works, so it’ll be effortless to bring them into the fold (your HR department will thank you for this).

Bear in mind that interns are inexperienced workers who require regular check-ins and mentorship to function at their best. Otherwise, they’ll feel completely lost, and they won’t learn anything valuable from being an intern at your organization.

It won’t take long for the word to get out about your less-than-stellar internship program, which is why it’s worth learning how to manage interns the right way. Being an intern is a learning experience that often informs one’s career path.

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If you provide plenty of educational resources for your interns, they’ll learn new skills that will aid in their career development.

You’ll also be training an army of brand ambassadors, as they’ll have nothing but good things to say about your internship program. That’s if they don’t wind up working for you full-time, which has its own set of benefits.

Stay tuned to learn how to develop a successful intern program for your organization.

Understanding how interns work

Most interns are young students who either just graduated or are still in college. Their ultimate goal is to accrue work experience in a field that interests them. Students who lack real-world career experience usually aren’t sure what they want to do with their lives, and internships help them narrow things down.

It’s normal for students to try a few different internships until they find one that sticks. When done correctly, internship programs are a win-win for organizations and students alike.

Why is that?

It’s because interns receive far less pay than regular employees due to their inexperience and short-term role. In fact, some internships are non-paid (although these are controversial). Therefore, organizations benefit because the interns help out with simple, often repetitive tasks that hinder full-time employees.

The interns benefit because they gain valuable work experience in a field of interest. Once their internship is complete, they can either pursue full-time work at the organization or they can list the internship on their resumes to seek other job opportunities.

It’s often difficult for young college graduates to fill up their resumes with relevant job experience, which is why internships are in high demand.

Do you want to hire active or passive interns?

The first step in developing an internship program is to decide whether you want to hire active or passive interns.

What’s the difference?

An active intern assists full-time employees with their tasks, which may vary in complexity (it could be as simple as fetching coffee, as cliche as it sounds). They’re typically assigned to a few employees who serve as their mentors. While assisting them with their work, the intern’s mentors will also teach them more about their positions and the organization as a whole.

A passive intern doesn’t actively participate in any daily tasks, as it’s more of a learning experience than anything else. These types of interns spend most of their time analyzing workflows, learning basic job functions, and studying job descriptions.

If your organization is in dire need of some cost-effective assistance, then you’ll want to hire active interns. If you’re more in the market for developing an experienced and familiar talent pool to draw from later, passive interns are what you want.

Differences between managing interns and full-time employees

Managing a team of interns is vastly different than a full-time staff. Even if you have experience onboarding new talent, working with college interns is a whole different ball game.

That’s because even new team members went through your recruitment and interview process — proving that they had the necessary experience and skill sets to positively contribute to your organization. Interns, on the other hand, tend to be completely inexperienced students who still have their high school summer jobs on their resumes.

While they likely went through some kind of selection process to land an internship with your business, the criteria pales in comparison to actual job requirements and qualifications necessary for full-time employees.

As a result, working with interns is something most managers have to get used to at first. That’s especially true for managers who prefer a more hands-off style when dealing with their team.

This style doesn’t mesh well with interns, as they require lots of guidance. Here’s a look at the primary differences between managing interns and your regular employees.

Internships are part-time and short-term

Intern managers need to understand that their interns aren’t going to be around for very long, so they’ll have a limited time to make a positive impression on them (and enjoy their cost-effective productivity).

The average internship only lasts for 18.3 weeks, which is just a little over 4 months. In other words, you’ll have them for a tad longer than one business quarter.

Since most interns are college students, they usually work internships during breaks from class, such as winter or summer break. Also, most (not all) internships feature part-time hours, so you won’t have them with you during the entire workday.

You should make the most out of the hours your interns work, especially by checking in on them, educating them about your company culture, and being present if they need assistance or have questions.

Interns are inexperienced (and may be anxious)

Remember that your interns lack professional experience and may be quite anxious during their first day. For most, it’ll be their first time working in a professional work environment, so you should be forgiving if they’re a bit aloof at first (dress code, business etiquette, acceptable language, etc.).

During their first week (preferably their first day), designate a time for them to sit down with your human resources department to go over your employee handbook. This will familiarize them with your company policies, including your expectations for performance, attendance, and behavior.

Taking this step will help interns get the lay of the land, which should put their nerves at ease. It’s also wise to give your interns a formal introduction, not only through a company-wide email — but also by personally introducing them to your team (especially the employees they’ll work with directly).

You should have a different set of expectations for your interns than the rest of your team due to their lack of experience. As such, you shouldn’t get upset if they make mistakes or take a while to get the hang of things.

That brings us to the next difference.

Managing interns requires patience

Don’t be surprised if your interns have a boatload of questions for you. In fact, you should encourage them to ask questions, as it’s better to be safe than make a costly mistake. Most interns will want to do everything right — almost to a fault. This may cause them to avoid asking questions due to feeling insecure.

On the other side of the spectrum, some interns will ask dozens of questions to ensure they aren’t making a mistake.

While it may be slightly annoying, you want your interns to ask as many questions as needed to complete their tasks correctly. Besides that, interns are ultimately there to learn, so if you’re accommodating to their questions, you’ll provide an excellent internship experience.

If you’re too busy for all that hand-holding, you’ll benefit from assigning mentors to your interns.

Designate a job position for each intern (i.e., graphic design intern, sales intern, marketing intern, etc.) when designing your internship program. From there, assign a team member from each department to act as an intern mentor (stick to one mentor per team member to avoid overloading them).

Your intern mentors are the ones who will answer their questions, assign specific tasks, educate them on their position, and help them develop new skills. That way, all you’ll have to do is occasionally check in with your interns to ensure everything is running smoothly.

How to manage an intern: Top tips

Now that you know how interns differ from your regular employees, it’s time to learn how to build a stellar internship experience for your organization.

Much like working with new employees, interns require steps like:

  • Onboarding

  • Supporting documents

  • Goal setting

  • Check-ins

Here are some effective tips for managing a team of interns.

Develop an onboarding process for interns

As mentioned before, your interns will likely lack any corporate experience. As such, it’s crucial for you to set the stage for them from day one by holding an orientation with your human resources department. This is when you should cover your company culture and employee handbook.

If possible, it also helps to schedule team introductions during this time to get everything done at once. If you’re using mentors, make sure that each intern gets a proper introduction to the mentor they’ll be working with each day.

Your orientation should also cover the big picture, where you set goals for your interns. In other words, what’s the ultimate goal for each intern? Will they learn new skills? Will there be a final test or project of some sort? Are any certifications involved with the internship?

These are all vital questions to cover during orientation or at least during your intern’s first week. That way, your interns will know what they need to get done by the end of their internship, and they’ll become familiar with your expectations and company culture.

This is the best way to relieve any anxiety or nervousness your interns may experience during their first day, so it’s worth taking the time to build an onboarding process.

Provide supporting documentation

As with new employees, your interns should all receive copies of your employee handbook.

It’s also wise to create documents that break down your company culture in an easy-to-digest format. You can include things like your brand’s values, mission statement, and any notable logos/branded messages.

Then there’s documentation that covers the little things, which is something organizations often forget.

Does your office building require you to input a code to enter? What are your building’s hours of operation? How are your interns expected to keep track of their hours? If they’re going to clock in and out, do they need unique codes for your system?

These are all crucial things to include in documents for your interns so they don’t forget. It’s even beneficial to include your building’s address to ensure your interns never get lost on the way to work.

Schedule regular check-ins with interns

You can’t ensure a fantastic internship experience if you aren’t regularly checking in with your interns to see how things are going. We live in the real world, and it’s normal for problems and conflicts to arise, even at the best of organizations. That’s why you should schedule a time to meet with your interns at least once a week.

During your check-ins, be proactive and ask questions instead of waiting for your interns to speak up. Ask them if they’re getting along with everyone and if they have all the tools they need to complete their tasks properly. Reassure them that it’s perfectly okay to come to you with their concerns. For example, if an intern isn’t happy in their current role, they may prefer switching to focus on another position in your organization.

Yet, if you aren’t performing regular check-ins (while letting them know that it’s okay to ask questions), they may not feel comfortable speaking up, causing a poor experience (which will likely turn into a poor performance, too).

Open communication channels and frequent check-ins are the best ways to avoid hiccups, mistakes, and conflicts.

Final thoughts: How to manage an intern

Managing college interns presents its own set of unique challenges, but that’s not to say that it isn’t rewarding. Giving young professionals a chance to get their foot in the door and test the waters at your organization is a noble act, and it yields benefits for both parties when done right. By providing an excellent internship experience, you’ll enjoy cost-effective support while building an experienced and loyal talent pool to draw from down the line.