Internships can be incredible learning experiences, but they can also harm your reputation if you don't conduct yourself professionally during them. Here are the top 10 mistakes interns make, and how they can avoid them:
1. Scoffing at boring or menial tasks. You might wonder what being good at photocopying has to do with your ability to do higher-level work. But if you excel at the boring tasks and do them cheerfully, you may be given more interesting assignments. That's because when you start as an intern, you typically haven't proven yourself in the work world. If you do a great job on the boring work, show that you pay attention to detail, follow instructions, and care about quality, you're more likely to be trusted with more interesting work. So it's important to go into the job determined to do every task well, no matter how menial.
2. Dressing inappropriately. If you look like you're dressing for a class rather than a job, you'll signal that you don't take your job seriously. So pay attention to how higher-ups in your office dress and mirror that level of formality. Flip flops, exposed midriffs, and visible bra straps generally aren't appropriate for the office.
3. Ignoring the office culture. Office culture is the invisible force that tells you "how things are done around here." You can pick up on it by observing how others in the office behave. For instance, if people lower their voices when taking phone calls or avoid walking through the halls on the phone, do the same. If they're precisely on time for meetings, you should be too. While these things may sound small, they'll help you come across as someone who fits into a professional setting.
4. Being too casual. Even informal workplaces tend to be more formal than a campus atmosphere, and interns need to adapt. That means don't put your feet up on your desk, use text-speak in emails, swear, or use cavalier phrases like "my bad" when you realize you made a mistake.
5. Segregating yourself with the other interns. It might be tempting to hang out with your peer group, but make sure that you get to know other employees too, including those who are older. More experienced co-workers are generally better positioned to give you career advice, help you connect to a future job, and provide strong references.
6. Not asking for feedback. If your manager doesn't offer up much feedback, ask how you're doing and what you could do better. And welcome critical or corrective feedback; that's how you'll learn and get better at what you do.
7. Neglecting to thank people who help you. If a co-worker takes the time to help you learn something, make sure you offer a sincere thank you. People who feel appreciated are more likely to go out of their way to help you again.
8. Not paying attention when something doesn't involve you. Part of the value of an internship is that you can absorb a ton of information about how things work in your field, even things beyond the scope of your immediate work. So pay attention even when something isn't directly relevant to your work--like during meetings that would otherwise be boring.
9. Talking more than listening. You might think that you have plenty of answers, but before you offer up new ways of doing things, soak up as much information as you can about how the organization works and why things are done the way they're done.
10. Not keeping in touch once your internship ends. Once you're back at school or in another job, make sure that you stay in touch with the manager and co-workers from this internship. The occasional email about what you're up to can maintain the relationship and build professional relationships that can help you for years to come.
Alison Green writes the popular Ask a Manager blog, where she dispenses advice on career, job search, and management issues. She's also the co-author of Managing to Change the World: The Nonprofit Manager's Guide to Getting Results, and former chief of staff of a successful nonprofit organization, where she oversaw day-to-day staff management, hiring, firing, and employee development.
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