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How to manage an intern

The racist and pun-laden names a San Francisco TV station mistakenly identified onscreen as the pilots of the Asiana Airlines flight crash may have sent the Internet tittering (and of course, Twittering).

But this was no laughing matter. The airline considered suing the TV station (it has now dropped plans to do so), and the intern at the National Transportation Safety Board who "confirmed" the names to the TV station has been canned.

Who knows what actually transpired when the TV station reached the NTSB's intern for confirmation? He could have tuned out the part of orientation that said "we don't confirm pilots' names in a flight crash to the media." He could have been distracted while updating his Tumblr and decided it was easier to just say "yes" than find his boss for an answer. (Beyond its statement on the matter, the NTSB is only saying that the intern acted “outside the scope of his authority,” as a spokesperson told the Post's Paul Farhi. “He should not have even been addressing the [station’s] question in the first place, but he did. He made a very bad mistake and a bad judgment call, but it wasn’t a malicious thing.”)

That Intern Meme That Intern Meme

Blame-the-intern may be a popular strategy, but here's the thing about interns: Most of them want to impress their supervisors. They want to get jobs when they graduate. They don't want to be forever known as the Second Most Famous Intern in the History of Washington.

What seems just as likely is that the NTSB intern was trying not to bother his boss and took the (misguided) initiative to try to resolve something himself. Yes, one wonders why he didn't catch the names himself. But nerves and intern jitters could have easily played a role—they're common among twenty-somethings who get plunked down into their first professional working environment with a bunch of people who are so busy doing their own jobs that they don't have time to teach someone else. Here, make some copies. Fill out this database. And don't bother me if I'm on a deadline. Even if those words aren't actually said, it's often the message that's sent.

In today's over-stretched, do-more-with-less workplace, the kind of time and mentoring needed to help people learn their jobs (especially people who won't be around come September) tends to get pushed out. H.R. experts suggest that actively managing an intern could take 20 to 30 percent of a mentor's time. So while having an intern may seem like a way to delegate grunt work and get out of the office faster during the summer, as anyone who's managed one knows, it can actually take more work than it saves.

That doesn't have to be the case. Read anything on how to manage interns well, and the most common piece of advice is to make yourself available. Have an open-door policy, invest time getting to know the intern upfront so the lines of communication are open, and always make yourself accessible. Maybe you'll still hire a clueless intern. But chances are at least better that they'll ask for help that could save you from a big embarrassment.

Jena McGregor is a columnist for On Leadership.

Read also:

It's summer. You have interns. Are you paying them what you should?

NTSB cans intern who 'confirmed' names of Asiana pilots

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Jena McGregor writes a daily column analyzing leadership in the news for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.



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