Th Hill Life: How to Raise Good Interns

May 9, 2012

While the Hill is a sink or swim environment, you have to prepare your interns for their time in your office.  They’re college kids and recent grads with little or no work experience, you can’t expect them to know how to behave in your office unless you tell them.  They can’t be expected to play the game if they don’t know the rules.  Here are some tips for bringing up good interns. 

After all, you are training the farm team that will one day run this Congress.  So take this responsibility seriously.

The Intern Bible. You need to have an intern handbook.  This is not negotiable.  Your intern handbook should include the following:

A code of conduct.  A dress code for session and recess.  A list of daily tasks.  An explanation of the chain of command.  A guide to basic phone etiquette and how to greet visitors.  And, lastly, a guide to sorting mail the right way.

Your goal is to create a handbook that the interns can refer to when they have questions before they ask you. But what your intern bible includes is just as important as what it does not include.

Don’t Overshare in Writing.  Yes, your intern needs to know that when the Boss asks for “sugar,” he means Stevia.  Yes, your intern needs to know that Boss doesn’t like when you leave things on her chair.  And yes, your intern should know that if they’re hungover and will be late, that they need to let you know that they will be late.

But none of these things should be written down.  Ever.  Why?

The quirky things that your Boss likes or hates can be used as ammunition against him/her.  Just ask Don Young who had his intern guide published in Talking Points Memo.  So if you have something personal to share with your intern, tell them but don’t write it down.

Eyes Only.  This brings me to my next point, have a non-disclosure agreement.  The interns will be talking to constituents.  They will overhear things around the office.  They will be privy to conversations between the Boss and the staff, visitors and the Boss’s friends and family. 

Your interns need to understand that much of what they hear should not be shared outside the office.  And they need to sign a legal document (reviewed by an attorney) that says that they will not share this information.  Why?

Because if your intern tells his parents that a neighbor calls the office everyday to talk about his issues with Social Security and that he has said he’ll be foreclosed on, your intern has just violated his privacy and opened up a can of worms for your Boss.

Teach the Basics.  We’ve gone over this before, but it is your job to teach your intern basic phone skills, basic professional etiquette, basic writing skills and Capitol Hill 101 (difference between a rule and suspension, what the cloakroom is, etc.).  Once they leave your office, they carry your stamp of approval, so whatever you fail to teach them reflects poorly on you and your Boss.

If you want more information of what they should be learning, read this previous post.

Daily Reminders.  If your intern is late, say something.  If your intern is dressed poorly, say something.  If they’re not living up to expectations, say something.

There is a tendency on the Hill to just ignore intern failings because they’re temporary employees.  But ignoring small problems, leads to big ones.  So act like an employer and tell your employee to show up on time, dress correctly and act right.  Because failure to manage an intern well reflects as poorly on your management skils as it does on their work ethic.

Include the Interns. Encourage the interns to read the daily news clippings, the daily schedule and the newspapers (CQ, The Hill, etc.).  Let them in on what is happening in the office, on the floor, etc.  Make them feel like part of the team.  If  they feel like they’re included, they might work harder because they want to do their part.

Alright Hill Staffers and intern managers, what are your tips for raising good interns?  Share them in the comments.


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  1. K says:

    I cannot begin to stress how important this post is. I was a 26 year old intern who had a plethora of intern /work experience. (I am in a super niche field so was interning post grad degree until I got a proper job to keep my CV up to date). The office I worked in was the worst experience I have ever had in my entire life. I was never trained by any member of staff or given an office manual. Instead the intern who had been there one whole week trained me. This resulted in my not sorting the mail properly one day (essentially some things the staff didn't care to read on their leg area went in their mailbox instead of the trash, nothing major). This resulted in the SA having a massive go at me despite the fact she had never bothered to teach me how to do the mail and that it was day 3. As a result of the poor attitude and lack of training that I got along with the other interns it essentially resulted us in questioning her on where ever piece of mail went for several days before we got a better idea of what she wanted. We then promptly wrote up our own how to guide for future interns.

    Not only was this internship worthless for the interns who had never had an internship before (although maybe taught them valuable lesson in self initiative and working with people you hate) but it reflected very poorly on the member who employed such rude staff.

  2. HB says:

    As a former (non Hill) intern, the thing I appreciated most as an intern was the encouragement of my boss to create a portfolio. I have never worked on the Hill (always a non-profit employee/intern) so I don't know how many documents/manuals/memos/etc. Hill interns create, but encourage your interns to save things that are particularly well done. It will help them display their work later.

  3. r says:

    Great post! When I work with interns, I always try to give them a sense of where their project fits in so that they 1) understand its importance, especially when it's a tedious task, 2) learn about bigger issues the office is dealing with, and 3) feel as if they are part of the team. It's worth spending the few extra minutes, and usually results in a better product and a happier intern.

    It's also worth pointing out that each intern may need a slightly different managing style. For example, a shy or nervous intern may need some more praise and encouragement than a smart but over-confident intern. Managing differerent personalities is a helpful skill for anyone to learn.

  4. Courtney says:

    I have a student teacher this year and I recently had to tell her that she has to stay awake during class. I assumed that would be standard knowledge, but perhaps I should put this in my student teacher handbook…

  5. Meghan says:

    I think the last point is one of the most overlooked aspects of internships in DC. Like K, I work in a niche policy field, and at any given time there are very few full-time openings and TONS of qualified people competing for them. Because of that, I worked in unpaid internships for quite some time before finally landing a full-time gig, and let me tell you, far too many offices have a tendency to ignore the interns and completely fail to not only teach them the skills they need for that particular office, but also the essential skills they need to thrive in the field. Internships are training opportunities; an office that does not TEACH their interns is exploiting them, full stop.

    In my current position, I manage our interns and I strive to make them feel like they are essential to our mission (because they are!). More often than not, it results in high quality work, and far more initiative and independent efforts than if we had just placed them at a desk and ignored them. Sometimes an intern wasting the day surfing the web isn't because s/he's lazy or unmotivated–it's because s/he's bored or unengaged due to an office environment that affords him/her zero responsibility.

  6. Hilar says:

    You know, you're going to laugh, but actually parts of the Don Young intern guide are pretty useful. THe phones section particularly. There are always those “A Team” people, who should be put through to whatever staff they want when they call. Interns are just expected to learn them by osmosis over time. But at first there are always some mistakes–“you put WHO on hold?”–and then the intern feels terrible. I'm going to spell it out like that from now on.

    Man, is that TPM thing is rough. And hilarious. Schadenfreude, much?

  7. Belle says:

    Hilar: I LOVE The Don Young thing. I sometimes read it when I'm having a bad day because it is the truest, most unfiltered thing to ever come out of a Hill office. That being said, it should never have existed in written form.

  8. Sara says:

    I also want to add that I have my interns go on a scavenger hunt to important places around the Hill – Rayburn Room, our Committee Rooms, Member Dining Room, the Flag Office, where our state statues are in the Capitol, etc. I also have them do it with very few directives – just to take their ID's and figure it out. I've had interns take 8 hours and interns take 2 hours. From my experience, its the ones that take the time and really learn where things are that are the interns that do the best. It's helpful for the times when you have to have them take something to the Boss and they claim they don't know where it is – uh, you went there!

  9. Britt says:

    ditto on R's comment. Whenever I am working with an intern, I explain what my role is and how the task they are working on fits into the big picture. I've found their much more productive this way and take ownership of the task.

  10. Jackmo says:

    I also find that in addition to making interns aware of how their work fits in to the bigger picture, it is also important to give them some discretion and individualized ownership over their work. For example, if I am assigning them a research project/memo, I'll say something like, “Make sure to include x, y, and z, but also include anything else you think is relevant/important/interesting.” I find that letting them know I trust their judgment and value their work makes them more invested and motivates them to do better. On a similar note, I also like to give them certain projects that they develop from start to finish — even if it is just a spreadsheet or filing system.

    Like Belle said, I also think it's really important to make them feel like they are a part of the office culture by including them in happy hours (if they are legal!), birthday events, and periodically going to lunch with them (and paying if they are unpaid). I've had numerous internships and the ones where I've felt like an outsider were definitely those where I did not feel as motivated and look back on negatively.

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