Not every task will be glamorous, one expert told Moneyish — but if it’s ‘demeaning, illegal, illicit (or) really disrespectful, know your limits.’
Today’s internships aren’t all fetching coffee and making copies.
Students have increasingly flocked to internships, with almost 60% of college grads in a National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) survey last year reporting they’d had one while they were in school, in contrast to nearly 50% a decade earlier. And many of the tasks that today’s interns perform aren’t stereotypical grunt work: Participants in internships and co-ops (aka cooperative education programs) spend more than half their time on analytic/problem-solving tasks and project management, according to NACE, and less than 10% on administrative and clerical duties. About 67% of interns were offered jobs in 2017.
Still, some intern cautionary tales making headlines can paint a different picture. An ex-employee’s lawsuit in June, for example, alleged that country singer Martina McBride and her husband had had unpaid interns clean bathrooms and pick up groceries. (McBride has called the claims unfounded.) And Conde Nast in 2014 settled a reported $5.8 million class-action lawsuit with former interns who claimed they’d been underpaid for their efforts — including, according to one ex-intern, working 10-plus-hour days and running editors’ personal errands.
Paid or unpaid, here’s advice from HR professionals and career coaches on how to decide which tasks to take on as an intern — and how to say no if you need to:
Know what you’re getting into. Have a clear understanding from the get-go what the job description entails, said Shannon Smedstad of the employer brand experience firm Exaqueo, who has years of experience in talent acquisition and campus recruiting. Come prepared with a list of questions for your interviewer, she said, and don’t be afraid to ask: “What is a typical day? What are the projects that I’ll be working on? Can you help me understand the administrative tasks that are part of my role?”
“Once you accept a job, whether it’s an internship or a full-time professional role, you’ve already ‘bought in’ to the nonsense of a job. You’re there for the ride in exchange for a paycheck,” added human resources consultant Laurie Ruettimann. “What you think is silly and ridiculous might be core and critical to a leader who is trying to accomplish something you know nothing about. Your visibility and perspective is yours, but it’s limited because you’re not a CEO. So, say no at your peril.”
Around 43% of internships in 2017 were unpaid, per NACE, a decline from roughly half in 2012. “An unpaid internship pays you in quality and life experiences, but again, you’re either there for the ride or you’re not,” Ruettimann said. “You don’t have any power to quibble over tasks. Do what you’ve been asked to do … or don’t, but learn from it either way.”
Know your own limits. Not every task will be glamorous, career coach Julie Cohen pointed out — “but if this is demeaning, illegal, illicit (or) really disrespectful, know your limits.” Trust your instincts, Smedstad said: “If you’ve been asked to do something and there’s just something that feels off about it, that in your gut it just doesn’t feel right,” it may be worth having a conversation with your manager.
“If it’s making copies, making coffee, if it’s something that’s still in a work context, then it’s just doing what it takes, right? You do it because you’re asked,” Smedstad added. “But if it’s something that crosses a line, feels more personal, doesn’t feel like it’s really in the context of work, then I think that’s where you have (a) conversation.”
If you feel a particular ask crosses a line, Smedstad said, it’s OK to seek more context and ask your manager to help you understand how this fits into your role. You can also suggest that you’re not comfortable performing that task, and then ask what else you can do, Cohen said. “Instead of just saying ‘no,’ say, ‘How about this?’” And if you don’t feel like you can approach your hiring manager directly, Smedstad said, HR can help you navigate the situation.
Make the most of low-status work. Try to mentally reframe the inevitable grunt work that tends to fall to people low on the totem pole, career coach Kathy Caprino suggested: “Yes, I’m standing here for two hours making copies, but on the other hand, this is for a high-level meeting that could win a client, and I was part of that chain,” she said by way of example. “I think most of us know what menial feels like, and most of us don’t feel like we should have to do it — but if you’re an intern and you want to learn the ways of this office, of this industry, then it will be part of what you do.”
And understand how your “menial” work fits into the bigger picture. “Without the context, without understanding the ‘why,’ I think that becomes a missing piece for some people, and that’s where you might have that perception that it’s ‘menial’ — you might assume it doesn’t matter; that it’s busywork,” Smedstad said. Managers in particular should make an effort to help workers understand how their work fits into the larger business strategy, she said: “It gives their work more meaning.”
Leave a mark. These duties can also present an opportunity for you to streamline the process or implement a more efficient way of performing certain tasks, Smedstad said, cementing a lasting impact long past your tenure. “Instead of starting from scratch every time with a new task, maybe it’s creating templates that can live on after you’ve left,” she said.
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