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Don't Put Up with This as an Intern

Peter Vogt, Monster Senior Contributing Writer

November 03, 2009

As an intern, you’ll be the one who has to make copies, fetch snacks, pick up the boss’s dry cleaning or give the company vice president a ride to the airport. Sure, it’s demoralizing, but it’s an acceptable (if unpleasant) part of the gig.

But there are some things that even a “lowly” intern shouldn’t endure. You need to know what these situations include and what you can do about them.

Beware of Bad Behavior

You never know what sorts of circumstances you’re going to run into during your internship, but here are several potential red-flag behaviors:

  • Sexual Harassment: This often emerges as sexually oriented innuendos or even more blatant behavior like tying your performance review to your willingness to go on a date or hop into bed with someone.

  • Discrimination: You may face instances of racism or sexism or even discriminatory behavior linked to a disability or your sexual orientation.

  • Abuse: It’s one thing to receive constructive criticism from a colleague or boss, and in rare instances, an old-fashioned butt chewing isn’t out of line. But if you’re consistently being belittled or criticized for just about anything you do, such behavior is inappropriate.

  • Being Asked to Do Something Unethical or Illegal: You might be told to cover up certain information or events, or to lie to protect someone else.

  • Being Asked to Take the Blame: Perhaps your colleague is afraid the mistake she made on the fund-raising brochure will be the end of her job, so she wants you to take the fall.

  • You don’t have to tolerate any of these behaviors. On the contrary, you can and should do something about them, not only for your own sake but also for the benefit of other current and future interns in the organization.

    Don’t Go It Alone

    Fortunately, you don’t have to tackle this dicey task alone. You’ve probably got several people you can turn to for guidance and support.

    The most obvious one is your school’s internship coordinator. The two of you can discuss your situation and seek “advice from the university’s office of women’s affairs, the university’s legal counsel or its risk-management office,” says Marianne Ehrlich Green, author of Internship Success and a career counselor at the University of Delaware.

    But what if there is no such person at your school or you arranged your internship yourself? Seek advice from a trusted mentor or family friend, says business executive Alexandra Levit, author of They Don’t Teach Corporate in College.

    “Depending on the circumstances, it may also be worth paying your company’s HR department a visit,” she says. “Sometimes, particularly in harassment or ethics cases, HR may be able to step in and quietly resolve the issue without costing you your internship.”

    Get to the Point

    It’s also critical for you to be clear and direct in your response to inappropriate workplace behavior, says Craig Donovan, coauthor of Internships for Dummies a professor of business at Kean University in Union, New Jersey.

    “If your boss asks you to do something you feel is wrong, repeat it: ‘You really want me to mislead people about the consequences of our factory in their neighborhood?’” Donovan says. “When you put something in this light, many times the boss will sense your disapproval or, even better, recognize that what they proposed is wrong.”

    Remember that you have one other option when you’re on the receiving end of out-of-bounds behaviors -quitting your internship.

    An unwise overreaction? Not necessarily, says Levit.

    “After all, no job, especially one that is supposed to jump-start your brand new career, is worth sacrificing your mental and physical well-being or your future potential,” she says.