UK: How To Run An Effective Internship Programme

Last Updated: 20 February 2012

Starting an internship programme has many benefits. It's a good way to test out potential employees. An internship programme helps you establish ties and a recruiting edge with your local community, and it helps to generate conversations about your company, as the intern you bring on will likely become a "brand ambassador".

However, there is one caveat: Bringing on an intern is not a good way to get needed work done when your company is shorthanded and short on cash. Using interns to do the work normally done by skilled employees usually turns into a terrible experience for both the company and the intern. Interns don't perform at the same level as veteran workers, and they take time away from veteran workers and managers because they require significant coaching and mentoring.

Who benefits from an internship programme?

Internship programmes are first and foremost for the benefit and education of the intern. The work that an intern accomplishes at your company is offset by the planning, training, supervising, coaching and extra work that goes into creating a positive experience for both your company and the intern.

If your motivation to start an internship programme is to give a student the opportunity to explore career options and practise their business skills, then you'll most likely have a rewarding experience with your interns.

Here are 11 steps to building an internship programme that works for both employers and interns.

1. Write a job description

Writing a job description helps you to better understand how you will use your intern and what you want them to do. And the written description gives your interns a clear sense of direction, responsibilities and goals while at your company.

2. Set beginning and end dates

Defined dates help the intern schedule and plan their life. Because most interns are enrolled in educational institutions, consider dates that coincide with the semesters or quarters for local universities or colleges. It's also helpful to ask your intern for their mid-term and final exam schedule and plan accordingly.

At the end of the internship mark the occasion with a formal closure, such as an exit interview, an evaluation, or just a nice lunch out to thank them for their service.

3. Create an intern manual

Many interns have no previous experience in an office environment, and may not be aware of office decorum or etiquette. To avoid drama and distractions in the workplace, give your interns a training manual that brings them up to speed on what's expected and how things are done at your organisation.

The handbook should contain your general office policies, dress code, computer and internet use policies, office hours, work schedule, confidentiality policy, Twitter/Facebook or other social media policy, a description of how interns are evaluated, and a disciplinary policy.

If you don't have an existing manual and you don't have time to put one together, prepare a one-page handout of your most important policies and expectations.

4. Recruit and interview

Post internship positions on your own site, job boards (craigslist.org, monster.com or internships.com) and through the internship or career offices of local high schools, colleges, universities or vocational schools. Many of these institutions have an internship coordinator who can match students with employers.

Once you have your candidates, interview them and put them through a hiring process similar to the one that employee candidates go through. This treatment is good experience for the intern and it helps you select a candidate who might make a good hire once their internship is completed.

5. Predefine the selection criteria

Predefine the decision-making criteria and process for securing interns. This way you avoid the influence of employees, executives, board of directors, etc. sending over nieces and nephews "to be considered". While leaders have good intentions, the bias and influence of family or related folks for an intern makes it difficult for managers to objectively manage – or fire the intern if needed; it gives the intern more pressure to perform, or the opposite – not enough pressure to be tested.

6. Reserve a cubicle or workstation

Interns, like employees or contractors, need a dedicated place to work. And, unless the job is manual labour, they'll need a computer, a company email address, a login and password to access your network, and a phone.

7. On-board your intern

Plan a day or two of on-boarding activities. Make sure your interns have meetings with each employee they're likely to interact with. During the meetings the employee can explain how they contribute to the company and its goals. Also take time to familiarise your interns with the company's processes, systems and culture.

8. Pay your interns

There are two good reasons why you should pay your interns:

  • They'll be highly motivated and act more responsibly.
  • There's a fine line between unpaid interns and unpaid employees.

You may not need to pay your intern if they are a student getting course credit for the internship. It's best to seek legal advice before bringing on any unpaid intern, whether they are part of a school programme or not.

9. Assign one person to manage the intern

Interns require more supervision than employees. When they don't get the guidance they need, they often choose to be unproductive rather than risk making mistakes. The best manager for an intern is an experienced employee who is accessible (i.e. not in meetings) throughout the day.

Take your coaching and mentoring moment seriously. A core strength of an internship programme is to wisely select and assess future talent. Every effort should be made to connect interns to capable mentors to raise their performance and assess their capabilities.

10. Give your interns meaningful work

Interns want responsibilities, not just tasks. Tasks are one-time, short assignments such as making copies or filing invoices. Responsibilities are long-term areas of ownership or projects such as coordinating a programme, managing your company Facebook page, or creating a library of customer testimonials.

Interns want to feel that they are making a meaningful contribution and they want to be able to point to something tangible and say: "I did that."

Also, it's good practice to invite your interns to meetings that pertain to their team, department or projects. Such inclusion makes them feel valued and gives them an inside look into how corporate decisions and compromises are made. Have the intern take minutes or meeting notes if needed.

11. Set your expectations

Intern perfection is rare. Set your expectations fairly and be prepared for inconsistency in the quality of their work and a mishap now and then. Use the rough episodes to help the intern to develop personally and professionally. Also, never rely on an intern to complete a critical project or one with a tight deadline. Use employees for mission-critical work!

And finally ...

There's another thing you should expect: your final obligation to the intern is to write them a letter of recommendation.

Interns can be capable junior employees and they can be developed and coached into significant performers. Great organisations expand their pipeline of exceptional talent by creating strong internship programmes. This allows both intern and employer to mutually assess for fit and value – a kind of test drive.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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