Internships can be an amazing experience, both for interns and for employers. As a business, offering internships allows you to tackle temporary projects, scout out new talent, and offer supervisory experience to individual contributors who aspire to transition into management.
But while it can be tempting to treat interns as seasonal temps with a different title, that’s not what interns are. They are there to contribute to the organization, yes, but primarily they are there to learn.
This means that you may end up as the guinea pig as they develop an understanding of professional norms, industry standards, and basic skills. And where you might fire an entry-level employee for being too casual on the telephone with clients, for example, you might find yourself explaining phone etiquette to an intern instead. That’s part of your responsibility when you take on interns.
Does this mean you should never fire an intern? Not at all. But the goalposts are in a different place than with a traditional employee. Here are some guidelines for when to help your intern learn to succeed, and when it’s time to say goodbye.
Have you given the intern an opportunity to learn?
There are a lot of things about working in a professional environment that are unspoken rules. We tend to think of these things as “common sense,” but for interns with no personal experience in professional environments (and especially for interns whose parents and adult family members don’t come from a professional background) these unspoken norms need to be spoken.
And possibly written. Even if that feels awkward. (It’s quite likely to feel awkward.)
This can mean having conversations about things like:
- Dress codes
- Appropriate topics of conversation
- Appropriate use of company resources
- When it makes sense to speak up in meetings, and when to be silent and listen
- Attendance and punctuality
- Appropriate cell phone use
That being said, if you have had explicit conversations about this topic, pointed out the inappropriate behaviors in question, and explained that this needs to be fixed in the future and your intern is still failing to follow instructions, this might be a situation in which they are unwilling or unable to improve. This might be an intern that you’ll have to terminate.
Has the intern done something egregious?
In general, you’ll want to provide lots of opportunities for interns to learn from their mistakes. There are some situations in which you can’t wait for them to improve, however. You should consider terminating the intern immediately if they have engaged in behaviors such as
- Making other employees feel unsafe
- Damaging major equipment
- Acting publicly in a way that could severely damage the company’s reputation
- Illegal actions while at work
- Coming to work drunk or impaired
- Taking an action that could affect your business’ license, accreditation, or other key credential
- Plagiarizing work or otherwise engaging in dishonest behavior
Has the intern met the requirements of the placement?
Like a regular job, internships come with a description of the work that will be performed. This is especially true in fields like accounting and engineering, where interns are expected to have already mastered the basic skills involved and are learning to apply them in the workplace. While interns might be expected to make some mistakes, they do need to be able to fulfill the basic requirements of the position.
Journalism interns who aren’t able to proofread their own work, lab research interns whose documentation is scattered and inadequate, administrative interns who consistently send documents to the wrong people … these may not be problems that a patient and encouraging supervisor can fix. In these cases, termination may be the best solution.
Being fired as an intern isn’t the end of the world.
It can definitely feel like it from the intern’s perspective. But internships are an opportunity for people who are new to their field to struggle and sometimes fail in a relatively safe environment. It’s much better, professionally speaking, to be fired from an internship at 20 than to be fired from an entry-level job at 24.
It can be a kindness to let them know that they have a lot of learning to do before they’re prepared for the working world, or even that they might not have the skills to pursue this kind of position. That aspiring journalist with atrocious grammar might find it’s the research aspect of the work that they love, not the writing. Termination can be a new beginning, not just an end.
For more information and insights into the laws, best practices and complexities around terminating employees, check out our resource page, A Complete Guide to Employee Terminations. It's an all-in-one page that includes thorough insights, instructions and plenty of links to other helpful resources.