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Leading Interns: Guidance and Best Practices

Creating an internship program is a great way to build a company’s brand, but leading interns requires preparation to ensure a valuable experience for all involved.

The letter "J" for Justworks.
Justworks
Apr 14, 20215 minutes

Establishing an internship program is a great way to build your company’s brand, both as an employer of choice and as an industry thought-leader. Once your organization builds and implements an internship program, the next step will be to start working with interns on a day-to-day basis. Leading interns isn’t exactly the same as working with entry-level employees, so those who will oversee interns will need to be properly prepared for this important responsibility.

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Practical Educational Experiences

Internships should be invaluable educational experiences for people who participate. If you’re involved with leading interns, it’s important that you don’t view them just as an extra set of hands to help you and your team catch up. In other words, interns shouldn’t be viewed like ordinary temporary workers. Like a temp worker, interns do come in for a short period of time, but their goal is to gain real-world experience.

Interns aren't there to dive directly into tasks with minimal supervision, fill-in for employees who are on leave, or do “grunt work” that full-timers don’t want to do. That’s not to say that they can’t participate in such things, but that shouldn’t be the primary focus of what they’re doing. An intern's goal is to learn, not to help you. Ultimately, they will help you, but that’s not why they’re there. Instead, think of your role as that of an educator.

An intern's goal is to learn, not to help you. Instead, think of your role as that of an educator.

Keys to Effectively Leading Interns

When you’re working with interns, your primary role should be to help them gain real-world experience that will prepare them for their future career. Leading interns involves a unique combination of teaching, mentorship, and managing. Your primary responsibility is to provide a real-word learning experience for interns.

Put Theory Into Practice

Typically, interns have been studying their chosen career in school, so your role will involve helping them learn how to apply what they have learned in the workplace. Every good manager knows how important it is to meet employees where they are, while also providing coaching to help them reach their full potential. This is also true with interns.

  • Start by taking the time to communicate with them about what they have learned in school and have a dialogue about how it’s applicable in the workplace.

  • Find out what their career plans are, then use that information to set some specific goals for the overall internship experience.

  • Next, assign interns to work closely with experienced team members on projects that will allow them to experience how theory transfers into practice in the real world.

  • Get feedback from the team members who the intern worked with, either informally or in the form of a peer evaluation performance review.

  • After assessing initial work, provide interns with their own project or assignment to work on, either on their own or with a team. Provide support, resources, and feedback.

  • Encourage interns to shadow full-time team members in different roles, so they can get a first-hand perspective of the different types of jobs in their field.

By participating in an internship program, interns are investing time to learn a skill, and they’re counting on you to teach them.

Facilitate Skill Development

“Interns need more skill development,” says Simone Ashkar, a Business Advisor at Cultivate Advisors. By participating in an internship program, interns are investing time to learn a skill, and they’re counting on you to teach them. Plan to spend time working closely with interns in a way that will allow them to develop practical skills that will serve them well as they transition from school to work.

  • Include interns in employee training sessions.

  • Assign interns to projects appropriate for their skill level.

  • Rotate interns through different work experiences where they can learn various skills.

  • Provide specific feedback to interns via 1:1 meetings held at regular intervals.

  • Set aside time for interns to debrief you on what they have learned.

  • Set new goals and make new project assignments as appropriate.

Provide a Realistic Workplace Experience

It’s also important for interns to get a realistic perspective on what it means to be a good team player within a real-world team. With that in mind, include opportunities to participate in ordinary workplace experiences in your internship program.

  • Have interns complete an abbreviate onboarding program.

  • Assign a relatively entry-level team member to serve as a peer mentor for interns.

  • Include interns in team meetings as appropriate.

  • Invite interns to sit in on client meetings with experienced team members.

  • Encourage interns to participate in team bonding activities.

  • Have interns interview leaders in other departments and report what they learn to you.

It’s important for interns to get a realistic perspective on what it means to be a good team player within a real-world team.

Provide Career Guidance

Ashkar points out that interns are often trying to figure out how to position themselves for career success. Ashkar suggests that those who lead interns help them develop an understanding of “how to get their brand into different markets,” in addition to providing real-world work experiences.

  • Talk with interns about common career paths in their field.

  • Share information about how professional organization memberships may help them.

  • Explain how your company’s entry-level recruitment process works.

  • Provide them with a letter of recommendation based on the internship.

Mutually Beneficial Relationships

By operating a quality internship program that puts the educational needs of program participants first, you’ll also be acting in the strategic best interests of your organization. After all, interns will ultimately seek full-time employment as early-career professionals.

“Interns are great for trying to get your company first in the door," Ashkar says. "Think of developing interns as crafting a farm team for hiring later down the line.” If they had a positive experience with your company, chances are they’ll come to you first when they’re looking for full-time employment.

This material has been prepared for informational purposes only, and is not intended to provide, and should not be relied on for, legal or tax advice. If you have any legal or tax questions regarding this content or related issues, then you should consult with your professional legal or tax advisor.