A Parting Word for Capitol Hill Interns
Apr 2, 2010
While looking the part will help you stand out among the crowd of poorly dressed interns, it won’t be enough to land you a full-time position. Fashion is important, but it can’t make up for work ethic, competency or professionalism. So how does an intern turn her (his) brief stint on Capitol Hill into a paid position? First, we need to hear from the Queen of all intern coordinators, Dr. Bailey aka The Nazi:
Be on Time. Arrive at your office five to 10 minutes before the bell rings, and never be more than five minutes late without letting someone know that you are running behind. We all use Metro, we will understand if the Orange Line is slow. Just don’t make it a habit.
Think no one will notice if the unpaid intern is punctual? Think again. Every time that I walk into my office and one of our interns is there before me, I make a mental note of it. The more positive mental notes in your favor the better your recommendation letter will be.
Give Good Phone. It is amazing how many new college grads have never done secretarial work or had a job where they answered the phones. Here are some tips on how to give good phone from a person who has been answering phones for more than a decade.
1) Greet the person with a smile on your face. The caller has no idea that six phone lines are ringing, and that there are twenty screaming kids in the hallway, or that you need to have this memo done in 15 minutes, and nor should they.
You are the front line between your Boss and those constituents, and it is your job to treat each one with the respect and attention that they deserve. Plus, if you screw up on the phone and one of the full-time staff has to fix the mess, they will remember.
If you think that you’re in over your head, don’t be afraid to ask someone who gets a paycheck to help you out. We’d rather deal with an angry caller now than a letter to the editor tomorrow.
2) When someone calls write down their name, organization and reason for calling BEFORE you transfer them to a paid staffer. Why? Because I might not know the name of the person who is supposed to call me back, so if you say “Jane Smith is on the line for you,” I won’t know who that is. But, if you say, “Jane Smith from House Armed Services is returning your call,” I will know exactly what you mean.
Plus, this is just proper phone etiquette from a time when people actually cared about such a thing.
3) Sometimes callers will yell at you because they are mad at your boss. Or they will yell at you because they are mad at the President. Or they will yell at you because they are frustrated with the direction they country is going. You cannot take the yelling personally.
Yes, it is unfortunate that some callers will say things to you that they wouldn’t say to their worst enemy, but this is part of the job.
Remain calm, try to be empathetic and offer them whatever remedies are available to you. Sometimes, callers just need to vent and they won’t be happy until they share their anger with someone. Don’t take it personally.
If you are polite to the callers and learn how to diffuse bad situations, someone will notice. Also, this is a skill that will come in very handy down the road no matter where you end up working.
Hustle. Nothing ticks me off more than when I walk past an intern’s desk and see him on GChat or Facebook because he finished his daily tasks and is now just killing time until closing. There is always work that you could be doing, always.
If you don’t have any work to do, ask for some. Go to each paid staffer (starting with the one whose job you want the most) and ask if there is something you could do for them. This shows initiative, and it’s also the only way to learn how to do the work that congressional staffers do.
Write, write, write. Don’t let my poor grammar fool you, I spend my entire day writing. I research and write memos. I write legislation. I write position papers. I write speeches. I write letters to constituents, organizations and other parts of the government. I write eight hours out of a ten hour day. So if you want to get a good job on the Hill, you need to spend as much time as you can writing.
Ask the paid staff if they have any letters or memos that you could write. I always have a stack of small memos that I never get to because they’re not a priority, but they still need to get done. If an intern asks for work, I give him a task, ten minutes of instruction on how to do it, and we see how it goes. If he does a good job, I give him more work because I know he can be trusted not to eff it up.
This is good for me because it crosses things off of my to do list. It’s good for him because when he goes into a job interview he can show them his writing samples. Not many interns did anything other than mail and phones, so this will separate him from the pack.
Keep Complaints to a Minimum. We’ve all interned, we’ve all answered phones, we’ve all done mail; we know that it can suck. But if you need to cry (or complain) go outside and call your mother. The only time that you should complain to your supervisor is when you really can’t handle it anymore. Learning when to escalate a complaint and when to just deal with it is perhaps, the most important skill that an intern can learn.
We don’t want you to be miserable, but if you complain to us all the time, we won’t take any of your issues seriously.
Know When to Ask for Help. If I give you a task, and while you’re working on it you have a question, don’t just run to me for the answer. Try to find the answer on your own first, because this is how you learn. If you searched and you still can’t find it, then ask me.
Bottom line, the paid staff are busy and we gave you this job to make our lives easier. We understand that we are teachers and that you are the student, but we aren’t babysitters who will hold your hand through every task. Show some initiative, but don’t be afraid to ask for help when you’re really in the weeds.
Thank You. Before you leave your office, go down to the CVS and buy a pack of Thank You Notes. Deliver said notes to all the paid staffers in your office by leaving them on their desks one morning before they come to work. Not enough interns take the time to thank their bosses, and they should. We spend weeks training you, and just when you can finally do the job without constant supervision you leave and we have to start all over again. And while you may not realize it at the time, the training you got during your internship is more valuable than anything you learned in school. So thank people.
You are interns, grunts, the bottom of the Capitol Hill food chain but that doesn’t mean that you should dress or act like it. The second that you lose your edge and start to think that it’s okay to slack off because no one is paying you is the second that you have given up any hope of getting a job in that office or a good recommendation.
Treat your internship like a full-time paid position and you will go far. Treat it like a tedious, thankless thing that you have to do for college credit and you might as well pack up your toys and go home.