Biased Rejection as an Intern? Ask Madeleine

Dear Madeleine,

I am a university student who moved to the U.S. from India about 7 years ago. I recently completed an internship for a 1500-person company in which the CEO wanted to have more diversity.

In retrospect, I can see the company offered me the internship in part to show that they were focused on being more diverse.

The problem is, from the beginning my boss didn’t seem interested in utilizing me at all, and I was given only a few tasks that I completed quickly.

When I asked for more work, my boss told me I was too pushy. Then, after letting me sit at my desk with nothing to do for a few days, she told me I didn’t have enough drive.

I thought about leaving, but I stuck it out because I wanted a recommendation. But at the end of the internship my boss told me she couldn’t write me a recommendation because I hadn’t actually done any real work.

I’m trying to figure out what happened and what I could have done differently, but I also feel that the cards were stacked against me from the start.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this.

Rejected


Dear Rejected,

Well, that sounds horrible. I am so sorry this happened to you. It does sound a little like you were hired to be the diversity poster child and that possibly you were foisted on your boss.

As a boss myself, it is my experience that managing interns is time consuming and often unproductive. Managers who do well with interns have usually asked for one to complete specific projects and are natural teachers who have a desire to nurture and mentor. Being a great boss for interns requires the willingness to take the time and an unusual generosity of spirit.

It sounds as if the person who was your boss didn’t sign up for an intern in the first place and was not interested in teaching, mentoring, or showing generosity of any kind. This may be the root of the problem.

She may also have had an aversion to your differences. It is entirely possible that you have been the object of conscious or unconscious bias. When people are not like ourselves—people of different religions, socio-economic backgrounds, race, etc.—it is easy to view them negatively without even realizing it. This is often called in-group bias.

There are so many different kinds of unconscious biases. It is fascinating and we are all susceptible to some, if not all, of them. You can read more about it here. It might not even be this complicated—it’s possible that your boss just didn’t like you. It happens. Even so, she should have been enough of a grownup to be civil and professional.

I am surprised you didn’t have a contact in HR you could have talked to. Even a small company should have had someone for you to go to. You may feel it is too late now. But ultimately, there are a couple of big things to take away here:

  • You should not, and cannot, take any of what happened personally. It is always the leader’s job to adapt to the temperament of the employee and meet them where they are to help them succeed. Your boss wasted your time and left you feeling left out and confused. Her behavior was unconscionable and is absolutely on her.
  • You must learn from your experience. Next time make sure the person you are going to be working for truly wants an employee and has a hand in hiring you. Never take a job unless you have a job description with clear tasks and goals. Make sure there is agreement up front about what a good job looks like so that you can do a good job! This helps avoid being at the mercy of a boss who isn’t on your side. Do your homework about the company beforehand—especially their efforts at diversity—so you aren’t an unwitting pioneer trying to blaze a new trail.
  • Pay attention to your own biases. We all have them. The more you are aware of your own, the more effective you will be as you move forward in your career.

You are still a student, so you have time on your side. Best to chalk this up to experience, take what you can as learning, and move on. Most of us learn a lot about what not to do from terrible bosses, so there is value in that: you will never do to some poor kid what was done to you!

Love, Madeleine

About the author

Madeleine Homan Blanchard is a master certified coach, author, speaker, and cofounder of Blanchard Coaching Services. Madeleine’s Advice for the Well Intentioned Manager is a regular Saturday feature for a very select group: well intentioned managers. Leadership is hard—and the more you care, the harder it gets. Join us here each week for insight, resources, and conversation.

Got a question for Madeleine? Email Madeleine and look for your response here next week!

3 thoughts on “Biased Rejection as an Intern? Ask Madeleine

  1. Madeleine

    One further suggestion. I have managed our internship program at EWU on and off for 25 plus years.

    If the internship is connected to the university, the intern should have looked there for help.

    I have coached interns through difficult situations like this on a number of occasions.

    And 2 or 3 times I have intervened with the organization. Once I even pulled the intern, and found them a new better spot with no penalty to their grade.

    Jeff

    Jeffrey L. Stafford, PhD
    Professor: Organizational Communication & Leadership
    Chair: Department of Communication Studies
    Co-Coordinator: Communication and PR Internships
    Co-Director: Leadership Certificate
    Department of Communication Studies

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    Address: 117 COMM Building
    Eastern Washington University
    Cheney, WA 99004

    Voice: 509.359.7929
    Fax: 509.359.2496

  2. Madeleine

    One further suggestion. I have managed our internship program at my university on and off for 25 plus years.

    If the internship is connected to the university, the intern could have looked there for help.

    I have coached interns through difficult situations like this on a number of occasions.

    And 2 or 3 times I have intervened with the organization. Once I even pulled the intern, and found them a new better spot with no penalty to their grade.

    Jeff

  3. It is hard to read this sort of comment..”As a boss myself, it is my experience that managing interns is time consuming and often unproductive. Managers who do well with interns have usually asked for one to complete specific projects and are natural teachers who have a desire to nurture and mentor. Being a great boss for interns requires the willingness to take the time and an unusual generosity of spirit”…

    Come on, dear Madelaine, when some interns are hired for some companies is because this a internal policy which have been well meditated, studied and planned in order to get the best from this kind of personnel.
    These unexpensive workforce is conformed for almost graduated professionals and it has been demonstrated they are as useful as their own employees.

    So if I were this company’s CEO I would call for attention to all the Departments in order to take the best of this workforce.

    I am a 30 year-graduated System Engineer with some experience in supervisory and management duties and the opening comment I did was the position of the bosses in my begining years as an engineer. Later I felt that attitude changed in the company where I spent my first 15 years of my career and those hired interns shown to be first-line workers, more efficients than some experienced employees.

    So, it is hard, difficult and unbelievable to read that position against interns is still kept in mind if many bosses.

    I am a proffesional of Third-World Country, but it seems there is not any difference with First-world ones…uffff

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