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employee managing interns

Best Practices

A Newbie’s Guide to Managing Interns

May 24th, 2016

Before you had interns, you probably joked about needing one. It would be fantastic to have an eager college student take on the dullest parts of your job, fetch you coffee and deliver it with a smile, wouldn’t it? But now that you have interns, you know that’s not quite how it works.

If you’re new to managing interns, it can be a scary role to take on. Interns depend on you to show them the ropes, act as a mentor and a friendly face around the office, and teach them valuable skills that will help them land a job one day.

Mediabistro talked to three people in the industry about how they manage interns: editorial director at ReadItForward Abbe Wright, who has held positions at Glamour and O, The Oprah Magazine; Ben Kassoy, editor in chief at DoSomething.org; and Lily Herman, co-founder of college admissions blog The Prospect.

They walked us through making sure the internship is mutually beneficial, communicating with your interns and smoothing over problems when they inevitably arise.

Hiring managers: We are running a $99 special on internship posts. That’s more than 60% off a standard job post.

Before hiring interns, consider whether you really need them.

You might think a team of interns will automatically make your job easier. Not necessarily! While interns can help you with a wide variety of tasks, you still have to spend time delegating tasks, making sure they’re on track, reviewing their work and more. It’s a lot of work. Before you place an ad for an intern, consider whether their help will be worth the extra time on your part.

“Come up with a list of at least 10 important duties an intern could help with before you hire one, as well as at least five ways you could help an intern grow and learn things during his or her time working with you,” Herman suggested.

Herman hired 25 to 30 interns to assist her during her first summer running The Prospect, but in, retrospect, she wishes she hadn’t.

“We should’ve started off with way fewer interns,” she says. “Considering I had a limited amount of management experience, I wasn’t ready for the barrage of emails, questions and random other things that came up having so many brand new staffers, many of whom had never held any sort of professional position before.”

So start small—it’s easier to hire another intern halfway through the semester than to fire an extraneous one! Herman would know; today, she oversees 45 to 60 remote interns across the country at any given time.

Take time to acclimate your interns on their first day.

Prior to the first day, send your interns an email explaining what time they should arrive and where they should meet you. If you have any other crucial first-day tips (dress code, information about the cafeteria, items they should bring), let them know!

“On their first day, give them a tour of the office,” says Wright. “Show them where they can get water and coffee and don’t forget to point them towards the restrooms! A lot of interns might be too nervous to ask.” She also advised getting them settled with work email or other programs via tech support directly, so they know who to turn to when tech issues come up.

It’s also a good idea to prepare cheat sheets or a list of responsibilities for them. “I created an intern binder that gave them a sense of what they’d be doing, and usually have them pore over that on their first day,” says Wright. “We sit together at the end of the day, and the intern asks any questions of me that she or he might have.”

If you have the option of introducing your interns to other editors or interns in other departments, do so. Internships are about exploring options, and you never know if your editorial intern might one day take interest in the marketing department. If you can help your interns forge those connections early on, they’ll be forever grateful.

“I like to connect with my intern and acclimate him or her on both a personal professional level,” says Kassoy. “I’ll take him or her out to lunch and specifically talk about things that aren’t work related—really just trying to get acquainted as people.”

Once the semester is in full swing, it can be hard to find the time to chat. So take a lunch break on Day 1 and get to know each other! The relationships you establish now will make the rest of the semester go smoothly.

Establish the best methods of communication, then stay in constant contact.

Every manager is different, so determine how you’d like your interns to communicate with you (in person, via email, Google Hangouts or another method?) and let them know. There’s nothing more nerve-wracking for an intern than working up the courage to approach your desk, only to find out you’re annoyed and really prefer email.

Once you have communication routines in place, make a point of staying in constant contact. Your intern should never be left hanging—touch base first thing in the morning, throughout the day and at the end of the day to let them know it’s OK to leave.

You might also consider longer, one-on-one check-ins throughout the semester. These meetings are ideal for giving your intern feedback on his or her progress, hearing their goals for the semester and allowing them to ask any questions they might have.

“I schedule a standing weekly check-in,” says Kassoy. “We also have an overall review at the beginning of the term, midway through and, finally, at the end. Communication and feedback both ways are super important, so I do lots of both.”

When managing remote interns, you will need to be even more on top of communication, since you won’t be physically in the same room as them. “You really have to break things down a lot more when you’re working virtually,” says Herman.

If you find yourself emailing back and forth forever and feel like you’re still not getting your point across, don’t be afraid to pick up the phone and call (or Skype or FaceTime!) to have a smoother conversation.

Have intern tasks at the ready.

Want to know the fastest way to make your intern despise you? Don’t say a word to him or her until you need an hour-long transcription done before lunch. Nuh-uh.

Take inspiration from Wright, who says: “I would ask interns to maintain lists of industry contacts, to file and keep track of incoming samples, do research for stories editors were working on, and to transcribe interviews. I decided the tasks by determining the things that needed to happen in order for the magazine to run smoothly, but weren’t able to fit on a busy editor’s plate.”

Intern tasks can be creative, too. “In the past, my interns have conducted research and written copy for our 11 facts pages,” Kassoy says. “One intern researched and wrote petitions—and also wrote scripts for YouTube videos. Another revamped our content guide and communications guide. The important thing is that we give our interns real responsibility, and autonomy, on projects that are important to the organization.”

Regardless of the project, make sure interns understand how to complete each task. This might be your intern’s first exposure to the industry, so consider explaining industry-specific jargon or giving step-by-step instructions. Wright suggested having these conversations face-to-face in order to cut down on confusion.

“A lot of times, we connect dots in our heads because we’ve been doing something for so long, but we forget that other people haven’t necessarily connected those dots,” says Herman. “I was once talking to a community outreach intern about our media kit without stopping to think that the intern had never heard the phrase ‘media kit’ before and had no idea what I was talking about.”

Looking for an internship? There are plenty of internship opportunities on our job board.

When you need to give constructive feedback, be supportive.

It’s never easy to tell someone he or she messed up, but now that you’re in charge, it’s bound to happen. Whether an intern made a mistake on a work project, spent half the day on Facebook or wore office-inappropriate shorts, it’s best to address the issue quickly and calmly.

“I like to call interns into a conference room and close the door and have a little check-in,” says Wright. “At this point, they’ll look terrified and think they’re in trouble, so to ease them into the meeting, I take the first five minutes to hear from them about how they feel it’s going.”

They should understand that an internship should be seen as an audition, a stepping stone to a permanent position—and that editors will notice any missteps.

“If it’s a matter of doing work late or incorrectly,” added Wright, “start examining the way you first told them about the assignment. Perhaps it was unclear at the outset.”

Creating an open dialogue for these meetings is crucial; you want to encourage your interns to give you feedback, too! Kassoy says, “I end with a question: ‘What can I do to help you improve?'”

Oh, and one final tip for being the best intern manager ever? Always, always, always get your own coffee.