The Worst Internships in America
Like many recent college graduates, I’ve endured my fair share of internships. I was fortunate enough to have a pretty good streak, doing real work at interesting places with bosses who took a genuine interest in my career and still serve as mentors for me today. But then I interned at a certain New York newspaper (that shall remain nameless) during my last semester in college.
For this position, I travelled all over the city to “report” on stories -- and once had to go to four of the five boroughs in one day. I say “report” because the truth is for much of this four-month internship, all I really did was stand on the street, waiting. My internship started just after Heath Ledger died, so it was up to us interns to lurk outside the homes of his friends, family and employees for eight hours or more each day (in the middle of winter.) The hope was that one of them would show up so I could ask how they were doing. Thankfully, no one ever appeared on my watch, and even if they had, I'm not sure I would have learned too much… except perhaps how to behave very, very insensitively. Frankly, the only thing I did learn was the limits of layering. At a certain point, your body is cold regardless of how many sweaters you wear.
But it’s important to remember here that I, like many interns today, was not paid a dime for my efforts. This has particular implications because these days, for many companies, the word “internship” has become synonymous with “free labor.”
It wasn’t always this way…
Photo Credit: Pink Sherbet Photography
What You Need to Know
The internship as we know it really started in the early 1980’s. According to Forbes, they were originally established by business schools as “a way to build relationships and earn occupational experience.” Of course, that is still what they are intended for today, but as Forbes notes, the explosion of internships in the work force now allows people to sample careers that might not be related to the path they are on.
At the same time, the demand for internships arguably allows companies to take advantage of free or cheap labor. In a recent article, the Wall Street Journal described what companies are and are not allowed to ask from their unpaid interns. “An unpaid intern must not displace a regular employee and he or she should be learning beneficial skills similar to what would be taught in a vocational school,” they write. Moreover, unpaid interns “shouldn’t do work that provides an ‘immediate advantage’ to the company.” So, for example, had my stint stalking the friends and family of Heath Ledger been successful, and I had landed a big scoop, arguably that could have been considered work that provides immediate advantage to the company.
But I’m not complaining. It’s a tough line. Interns want to do “real” work to some extent, but figuring out at what point companies are taking advantage is difficult, and often relative. Plus, compared to the internship experiences on the list, I think I got off easy. Here is our round up of horror stories and facts you should know before getting an internship.
Photo Credit: adpowers
Too Sexy for Her Job
Karen, from Seattle, studied advertising in college and was thrilled when she scored an unpaid internship with a small ad agency called Fine Advertising, named after its owner, Dan Fine. Unfortunately, the internship proved to be less about hands on experience and more about doing chores. “I used to have to run errands driving his car,” she said, which might not have been too bad except for one small thing. “He had a personalized license plate that read ‘IamFine.’” So she had to drive around town with an easy excuse for people to cat call her. “I was a 20 year old woman and was mortified!” Still, she completed the internship and never actually confronted her boss about how awkward she felt. “I don’t think… I had the self confidence at that point in my life.”
Photo Credit: Ed Yourdon
Crashing Your Boss's Car
If there’s one thing we learned, it’s that interns should not be asked to drive their boss’s cars. One of the worst internship experiences we heard about didn’t come from the intern, but from his boss.
Dave Leftkow is the owner of J&D Foods, a company based in Seattle. He hired a marketing intern who was charged with the task of getting the company’s food products into stores. One day, the intern used Leftkow’s car to run errands. “He ended up getting t-boned when he was making a turn, which completely totaled the car. Luckily, it was a Volvo. If it was any other type of car, he might have been dead,” Leftkow said.
Amazingly, the intern worked for two months after that to finish the internship. As awkward as that must have been, Leftkow and his associates decided to make it even worse. “We bought him a pink shirt that he had to wear every day he came in from then on,” he said. The shirt said: “My boss is making me wear this shirt because I crashed his car.” Ouch.
Photo Credit: bettyx1138
The Terrible Phone Call
Missy from New York has held several public relations internships, but one experience in particular really scarred her. She was working at a beauty agency in New York while in her sophomore year at the University of Maryland. The internship was unpaid and she was asked to do the work of a normal employee. But the real problem was the company’s president, a tough, temperamental woman. “She dressed immaculately and had a larger-than-life size self-portrait hanging in her corner office,” Missy said.
One day, Missy was asked to fill in for the receptionist who was out sick. No one gave her instructions, but she managed fine, until a call came in for the president. She notified the president that there was a call for her, and in response the president asked who it was. Missy realized she didn’t know and told the president she had not thought to ask. The president then lost her mind, exclaiming “That simply isn’t good enough. What if it is DEATH on the line? What if Death is calling me? Should I answer?”
It’s one thing to get reprimanded for doing your real job wrong, it’s another to be shouted at by manic boss for making a small mistake while doing someone else’s job.
Photo Credit: TheGiantVermin
The Two Week Internship Disaster
Last year, David, a public relations major at Syracuse University, was offered an unpaid internship at a communications firm with the guarantee that he would “be fully involved in all the work the agency was doing.” But not only was he left out of meaningful assignments, he was nearly left out of all interactions with people working at the company. His boss almost never spoke to him and the place was so disorganized that he never really got assignments.
“After two weeks of unreturned e-mails and spending my day catching up on news and updating my social networking profiles, I quit the position to spend my time working a part time job,” David told us. A few days later, he received an e-mail from his boss saying she was sorry that the internship didn’t work out. This apology might have smoothed things over for him except that a few hours later he received an e-mail from one of his boss’s employees about an assignment he should be working on. “Great office communication for a communications firm right?”
Photo Credit: e-strategyblog.com
You Want Me To Do What Now?
While in school at Indiana University, Dan O’Connell accepted an internship at an ad agency with the understanding that he’d be working in the creative department. “Since it was [my] major and close to graduation, I jumped at the chance,” he said. But when he showed up for work the first day, he realized that the “agency” was really just a woman working part time out of her home “looking for free labor.”
Perhaps out of desperation, O’Connell actually interned with her for three months. Some of the worst “highlights” from his internship were being forced to type out school assignments for his boss’s daughter and washing his boss’s car. To make matter worse, “all the time I was fending off her not so subtle advances about ‘being in the home all by ourselves.’”
Photo Credit: Christopher Blizzard
The Pooping Intern
A couple years ago, Gawker reported a rumor about the ultimate internship horror story. The story itself has never been confirmed but it’s so gross we just have to mention it here anyway.
According to Gawker, one intern at NBC could not make it to a bathroom fast enough and apparently defecated “all over” the hallowed halls of the 30 Rockefeller Center building. From Gawker: “She did it in the hallway, on the floor, on a pile of FedEx boxes, on the way between floors… pretty much everywhere but the bathroom or (hey, sometimes you’re desperate) a garbage can.” As the story goes, she had just come back from a trip to Israel and blamed the incident on some “bad water.”
If that’s not terrible enough, this all happened on the intern’s first day. Against all odds, she decided to come back the next day and managed to complete the internship.
Photo Credit: mslavick
The Business Cards
A great Web site for ridiculous internship stories is TheDailyIntern. One of my favorites from this site is story of the intern who got his own business cards. It sounds like a nice thing at first until you think about it a bit more.
“My boss ordered me my own business cards. The cards have “INTERN” in bold letters under my name. He makes me hand them out to superiors at company events, who give me the weirdest looks I have ever seen. I have given my intern card to almost every member of upper management of the banking firm I’m interning for, including the CEO.”
Photo Credit: L. Marie
Too Much Responsibility
The usual complaint is that interns are not given enough real tasks and responsibility, and are instead forced to do more menial tasks. But in at least one case, the opposite was the problem. Jared Ilovar was interning for Ohio’s Office of Management and Budget and “was given the responsibility of safeguarding the personal information of thousands of state employees.”
The data was kept on a “storage device,” which Ilovar, foolishly, kept in his car. But one day, someone broke into his car and stole the device along with another of Ilovar’s possessions, thereby putting the names and social security numbers of 64,000 state employees at risk. Government officials later claimed it was “inappropriate” for an intern (getting paid $10 an hour) to have that much responsibility.
Photo Credit: Heliotrop3
Paying to Be An Unpaid Intern
The Huffington Post is a great Web site and a wonderful place for journalists to get published, but they are also infamous in the journalism community for relying on free labor, both from interns and freelancers. But last year, the site actually auctioned off one of their “coveted” internships, and what’s more outstanding is that people bid up to $13,000 for the opportunity. I sincerely hope they didn’t pay that much just fetch coffee for editors!
Then again, there are also expensive services out there that charge thousands of dollars to place candidates in the right internship. That too is a strange kind of robbery.
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Not Just An American Problem
While all of the above examples are from Americans, it is worth noting that there are issues surrounding internships abroad, too. One recent article in the New Statesmen described how the British parliament runs on a cast of 450 “revolving interns.” These interns “prop up our democracy by providing as many as 18,000 hours of free labour a week.” This reportedly saves the government millions of pounds every year in labor costs. The article goes on to report that many interns work multiple jobs to finance themselves, and some must call in sick because they can’t even afford the transportation to and from parliament. “Interns are disposable, and those who question the conditions are rebuked.”
Photo Credit: respres
A Better Way?
With so many questionable internships out there, it’s worth considering whether there’s another option to get your foot in the door of a company. Charlie Hoehn, a recent college graduate and marketing expert, found success with a slightly different method. Rather than fight for internships where he’d probably be relegated to getting coffee, Hoehn decided to put the “free” back in freelancer. (That’s my phrase, not his, but it’s terrible either way.)
Hoehn found businesses he was interested in working with, and pitched them project ideas that he would do pro bono. In this way, he was able to do meaningful work and get his name out there. Of course, at the end of the day, he’s still doing labor without financial compensation, but it sounds a helluva lot better than some of the previous examples.
Photo Credit: notfrancois
Tell Us Your Stories
Don’t be shy, we’re sure you or someone you know has a uniquely bad story from an internship gone wrong. So tell us about it in the comments section!
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