News & Politics

The Trouble With Interns

They Come Here With High Hopes, Little Experience, and Raging Hormones--and All Can Lead to Disaster

Jerry was an intern in the office of Congressman Bernard Sanders, an independent from Vermont. Like most Hill interns, Jerry helped sort mail and assisted in drafting letters to constituents. But after a few weeks, the staff noticed that Jerry would disappear for hours during the day.

"Nobody knew where he went, and when we asked him he didn't have an answer," says Hannah, a staffer. "One afternoon I went to the pay phone to make a call. I noticed someone was in the booth so I kept walking. Then I did a double take."

There was Jerry, curled up in the phone booth, asleep. Hannah didn't wake him. That summer, when they couldn't find their intern, someone would check the phone booth. Without fail, Jerry would be there sleeping. They didn't fire him because he was a constituent. But they did stop giving him assignments.

Washington interns love to complain about what employers put them through: picking up the boss's dry cleaning, stuffing envelopes, staking out a spot on the Mall–in the heat of July–for a softball game.

But in the complaint department, management may have interns beat.

"The good ones are out there, and I've worked with many of them," says Sara Sigelman, an account executive at Fleishman-Hillard, a public-relations firm. "But the bad ones are so much more memorable."

As many as 20,000 interns are in Washington this summer, according to the Washington Center for Internships and Academic Seminars. Many are working on Capitol Hill, where Senator Edward Kennedy has employed as many as 60 at a time–nearly as many as his permanent staff of 70. Others are spending the summer at corporations–America Online has 200 interns–or at nonprofits like the Heritage Foundation, which hired 60.

"Washington, more than ever, is a mecca for interns," says Eugene Alpert, vice president of academic affairs at the Washington internship-and-seminar center. "The election brought a lot of attention here."

Many interns arrive starry-eyed, with hopes of having an impact on public policy. Instead, most days are full of grunt work, which can make for cranky college kids.

"There is an attitude these days," says Alpert, who helps place about 450 interns each summer. "They come with unrealistic expectations and become disappointed when they can't contribute as much as they'd like to."

Because interns are not yet savvy in the workplace, many don't know there are unspoken rules. The foremost: Don't speak negatively about the organization you work for.

John was an eager intern who decided to help the nonprofit where he worked. The group was always struggling to raise funds and had approached a number of grant-giving foundations. When John realized a good friend of his family's was on the board of a targeted foundation, he decided to write a letter to plead the nonprofit's case.

He wrote it, sent it, and e-mailed a copy to his boss. John wanted his supervisor to know how much he was helping out.

When the boss read the letter, he was horrified. John had spent the first half of the letter spelling out management problems he felt were plaguing the organization. The letter then pleaded for money, saying if the organization didn't get some soon, it would go bankrupt. The nonprofit never heard again from the foundation.

Lochlann Boyle had just finished giving a beginning-of-summer informational talk to interns at the Institute for Multi-Track Diplomacy, a nonprofit that specializes in conflict resolution. He always encouraged interns to come up with fundraising suggestions, so he was impressed when a new intern approached after the talk and handed Boyle a two-page, single-spaced business plan.

Boyle read the plan. The intern recommended the group have an initial public offering–something that nonprofits don't do. He went on to suggest that the organization branch out from conflict-resolution training to . . . pharmaceutical sales.

One congressional intern learned that answering the phone wasn't as easy as it sounded: She got an earful from three powerhouses when she put a congressman, the White House, and a state governor on hold. With all three on the line, she grew flustered and wasn't sure which call to take.

One of the most clueless interns on the Hill worked in Senator Christopher Dodd's office. Thad was nervous about his new commute: a 20-minute walk from a Capitol Hill apartment to the Russell Senate Office Building.

Two months into the internship, Thad decided he needed to protect himself. The wiry 21-year-old bought a pair of brass knuckles.

The next day, he arrived at the Senate office building–brass knuckles in his pocket–and strolled through the metal detector. He was arrested and spent a night in DC jail. He was asked to leave the Hill soon after.

When Republican senator Nancy Kassebaum was in office, her staffers enjoyed playing pranks on their interns. One intern was told that if he wanted to get on the senator's good side, he should offer to walk her cat. When the intern nervously approached her and extended the offer, Kassebaum burst out laughing. "Who put you up to this?" she asked. The intern turned a bright red.

some employers can't wait for the more irksome interns to leave–like the young man on the Hill who quoted John F. Kennedy speeches all summer.

Lindsay, a staffer in the office of Demo-cratic congressman Tom Barrett, says she's dealt with a few less-than-perfect interns. There was Joey, who dated two of the female interns at the same time on the sly. And Lars, who on his first day asked where the restroom was, grabbed a newspaper, and headed off, saying, "I think I'll be needing this."

That's not as revealing a look at an intern's personal life as one nonprofit got a few years back. The organization places students in internships; it also used to provide housing in an apartment complex in Southwest DC. There, a front-desk attendant monitored comings and goings, and a video monitor showed live pictures of the laundry room. All for security reasons.

One afternoon, Jeanine, the program director, got a call about some interesting footage. Three interns were caught on camera "buck-naked, having wild sex, the three of them, in the laundry room," Jeanine says. Apparently, she says, "they were enjoying the movement of the washing machine."

An internship tests students by giving them a chance to live independently.

At The Washingtonian, an intern on his first day at the magazine borrowed the editor's brand-new company car to run an office errand. Before getting out of the parking garage, he hit a concrete post and put a big dent in the car's front fender.

Mortified, the intern sat in the car for three hours. Then he reappeared, handed the keys to the editor, and explained what happened. The editor told him not to worry. But the intern didn't show up the next day and was not heard from again.

Kara has worked in a few Republican congressional offices. She says that when she was an intern, some kids would go to bars at lunch and get drunk. One congressman forbade his staff to give interns free tickets to events after a group went to the Gold Cup, got drunk and rowdy, and embarrassed the office.

When she became a legislative assistant, Kara had an intern who didn't take his headphones off for entire days.

But that's minor compared to what went on in one Democratic senator's office. Staffers who worked with an intern named Jennifer noticed she was always scratching around the inside of her ear. One day while staffers were debating agricultural issues, Jennifer stuck her pinkie in and removed a huge chunk of yellow wax.

"She began to eat the wax," says one staffer. "She did this without flinching. Everyone in the room proceeded to gag."

For Hill interns, the congressional Intern Handbook is required reading. On the cover is a kitschy greeting from Washington postcard. Inside are pages of do's and don'ts for the ambitious and well-meaning, such as: "Remember that all tasks are important. Don't gripe about them." "Your first two weeks aren't necessarily going to be the greatest." "Don't expect to save the world." I'd add: The quickest way to get on a coworker's bad side is to get him in trouble.

Jack was from upstate New York, interning for the summer in the office of Republican congressman John Sweeney. During his first few weeks, Jack surprised the legislative assistants when he began to boss them around. "You really need to get back to your desk," he told one. "You really need to write this letter," he said to another.

Not all interns are brazen. Some have the opposite problem–shyness.

Another intern in John Sweeney's office didn't go to the bathroom all day because he was embarrassed to ask where it was. It was directly across the hall. Coworkers noticed his face looked pained, and he was bouncing about nervously.

At the Institute for Multi-Track Diplomacy, an intern met the CEO on his first day. "Why don't you tell me about yourself," the CEO asked. The intern said the last thing he should have–the truth. "Well, um, I am happy to be here although I didn't think I would be accepted. I'm not good at interviews, and my grades are really, really bad."

Some interns leave their mark on an office long after returning to campus. While working at a documentary-film production company, Scott DeGraw had an intern who caused more trouble than she was worth–literally. He spent a morning teaching the intern, Leslie, how to use Lexis-Nexis, an online research service. They were putting together a film about the former Soviet Union for PBS Frontline and were on a limited budget.

"I was pretty explicit about how Lexis-Nexis charged us per search–about $50 each," Scott says. "I said, 'You really need to think out your search commands carefully before hitting enter.' "

Leslie took the assignment and Scott let her be, getting back to his own work. He was happy when she turned in the bulk of the research at the end of the day. A few months later, the company got a bill for about $10,000 from Lexis-Nexis. n