Red Flags: How to Tell if Your Interns are a Good Fit

Most companies have already started, or have even finished, hiring summer interns. Sadly, many times, the intern who shows up on the first day is not the person represented in the résumé or throughout the interview. Employers should be able to spot and correct early warning signs, as well as be prepared to teach new interns the tricks of the trade in order to create a successful work environment for the intern and your company.

Two definite signs that an intern is not going to work out are a lack of questions and tardiness. Alone, each shows that the intern is not committed to the job and has no interest in improvement. Together, they’re dangerous to the company. Additionally, today’s college students spend a lot of time with texting, Twitter, and Facebook. Oftentimes, this leads to young professionals not understanding the difference between work time and personal time. It’s a clear warning sign of impending trouble when interns cannot abide by these workplace rules. Other deal breakers include inappropriate language, a distasteful attitude, and inappropriate behavior. Being insensitive and rude only contributes to a hostile work environment. All of these can be corrected if clear boundaries are set in the very beginning on what’s considered appropriate use of time and conduct in a professional workplace. Much of this can be avoided by providing mentoring and coaching for the intern so he can work and learn professional protocol in a non-threatening manner.

Many of the issues interns struggle with are little ones, which can be corrected through coaching. Simple guidance on routine tasks eases the transition between student and intern quite a bit. The good intern is new to the environment and wants to do things correctly in order to add value to the company – she just isn’t sure how to go about it. It’s important to teach interns the business communication style used in the workplace, particularly considering it will be relatively new to most. Interns should use a professional email address, instead of one like [email protected] Often, they will also need to be guided through the use of appropriate abbreviations in written correspondence. While “LOL” is great for texts and tweets, using it in a workplace memo could result in the next sexual harassment seminar being conducted by HR. Backgrounds, wallpapers, and religious sayings should also be edited out of email formats and signature blocks; they should be replaced with the intern’s full name in order to maintain a professional and non-offensive environment. Though interns are mostly college students and have been writing and rewriting papers for their entire school career, be sure to emphasize the fact that they must proofread before hitting the “send” button. (While they’re at it, make sure they realize they need to double-check the recipients listed before sending. Some of the biggest workplace blunders have happened that way – save an intern some embarrassment.)

Business clothing is another aspect where I’ve seen it all. I have had to explain to college students that business casual does not mean your cargo shorts simply need to be khaki-colored. What college students sometimes fail to understand is that the impression they make will last. Dressing too casually will result in them simply not being taken seriously. Their image and personal brand starts with dress, as it is the first thing someone notices about a person when introduced – and there will be a lot of introductions being made in a new internship. Be sure to instill the guidelines provided by the University of Missouri’s Trulaske College of Business; it will make a world of difference.

Business Casual

  • Men: Should avoid khaki pants and shirts with loud prints. Consider dark-colored slacks with a nice Oxford shirt with muted colors and a conservative matching tie. If the weather is cold, pull on a nice, solid-colored sweater. Another option is wearing dark slacks, a solid or bold-line shirt, and a nice, dark-colored sport coat or blazer. Belt and shoes should match.
  • Women: Should consider wearing business skirts with appropriate blouses, such as silks, polyester, or rayon with attractive prints. Nice slacks with a blazer, or pants suits, are also acceptable. Larger pieces of jewelry are acceptable for nice casual. Flats or small heels are appropriate, and of course, always wear pantyhose.


  • Men: It’s acceptable for men to wear nice khaki, navy, or some other basic color slacks. Polo-type shirts, “camp” shirts, or collared shirts (long- or short-sleeved) would be appropriate. Stay away from denim and sweatshirt material. Shirts should be crisp and colorful, but not “neon-looking.” No cut-offs or jean shorts.
  • Women: Appropriate attire for women might be a skirt and blouse, or tailored slacks, a blouse, and a nice belt with attractive, coordinated flats. No cut-offs or jean shorts.

While it may seem interns are the most likely to mess up, companies need to be aware of times when they’re taking advantage of unpaid interns. The primary concept behind an internship is to educate the intern and give him some experience in a particular field. Benefiting the employer is a secondary extra. According to the Fair Labor Standards Act, interns must receive beneficial training that mirrors what could be received in a vocational school. They are not legally allowed to perform the duties actual employees are supposed to be doing, such as stuffing envelopes.

College prepares the student to enter the workforce, but it doesn’t prepare them for the connections and interwoven workings of an actual company – this is where an internship comes in. Providing a work environment that teaches the intern the standards and expectations of the business world allows you to guarantee a successful worker will be entering the workforce in the future. Remember: someone’s intern will eventually end up working for you, so guide your interns with the reality that they’ll be someone’s employee someday. It will be free advertising for your company – and it will certainly help your karma.

Dr. Greg Bier is a Professor of Management at the University of Missouri. He leads the newly formed Entrepreneurship Alliance in the Robert J. Trulaske Sr. College of Business. He is also a partner with Entrepreneur MO (www.mo.com). Follow Greg @gregbier.


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