What to Do When Interns Don’t Work Out

Interns are often a low-cost, low-risk way for startups to evaluate potential talent or partners for the company. Paid interns are often compensated at a lower wage or salary than permanent employee, and internships are usually short-term fixed periods of three, six, nine, or twelve months. However, what is an employer, startup or otherwise, to do when it becomes clear, before the end of the internship period, that an intern just isn’t working out, or even must be let go immediately?

Often, it is simpler for everyone involved to just wait out the remainder of the internship period rather than terminating an underperforming intern. It may not be worth being rid of an underperforming intern a few weeks early only to have to deal a now-disgruntled former intern who may be attempting to generate negative press for your company. While many companies attempting to wait out an unsatisfactory intern can assign the intern to non-critical tasks, such a tactic may not be possible for startups that usually must have everyone working there doing all things — product development, marketing, sales, administrative work — at all times. There are very few non-critical tasks in a startup. Moreover, the intern may realize he or she is being marginalized and become just as disgruntled as if the company outright fired the intern.

There are both preventative and corrective measures companies can take to deal with unsatisfactory interns. However, before taking any measures, the company must be cognizant of the nature of the internship — chiefly, whether the intern is paid or unpaid. I’ve previously discussed issues relating to treating unpaid interns like paid interns or employees. Startups generally do not have the luxury or the capability of providing a true unpaid internship experience (since startups need all hands working on all things, and unpaid interns are technically prohibited from providing direct economic benefit to the employer), and therefore should usually be hiring paid interns; if a startup treats an unpaid intern like an employee and then terminates the internship, that intern is more likely to seek legal retribution for the company’s employment law violations.

In that same vein, before putting measures in place to deal with underperforming interns, a company or the company’s attorney should double-check the state’s laws regarding interns — some states’ laws may treat interns differently from regular employees, and the company’s policies should reflect that. As a preventative measure, a company that hires interns should have an internship manual that interns read and agree to, or if a separate manual is not practical for the company, have the employee manual have provisions that concern interns (however, as I just stated, some states may have different laws for interns or may not consider interns to be employees, and therefore internship manuals or amended employee manuals must be drafted accordingly).

Company policies regarding interns, whether in a discrete manual or otherwise codified, should have corrective measures in place to help underperforming interns. Quantifiable goals should be set to measure the intern’s progress. Most importantly, progress meetings should be held with the intern (at least once during the internship term, although the more frequently, the better). An intern’s underperformance is often the result of boredom with assigned tasks, so a progress meeting can allow an intern to tell the company what projects he or she would be most interested in working on. A progress meeting also allows the company to correct any behavioral or professional deficiencies in the intern. In addition to progress meetings, a company should also conduct an exit interview at the end of the internship. Not only will an exit interview give both parties a sense of whether permanent employment is a possibility, but also allows the company to refine its internship program and policies if it decides to hire interns again in the future.

Of course, there are certain circumstances that, like employees, require immediate termination of interns, such as lying to superiors, stealing from other employees or the company, breaches of professional ethics (if applicable), or other illegal activity. Termination (for the “disgruntled intern” reasons stated above, among others) should always be a last resort for the company, and the company should check to ensure that it is in compliance with state and federal laws regarding termination of interns, or if there are no such laws, termination of employees in general. However, baring a drastic event, an internship that just isn’t working out for the company or the intern can usually be prevented or corrected by the measures outlined above.