Biz Life // Hiring Interns & Assistants

Originally published as part of the Unf*ckwithable Girlfriends series presented by The Middle Finger Project

I am so excited to share with you what I’ve learned from over TWELVE YEARS (suddenly I feel old) of developing intern programs and hiring assistants for small businesses and entrepreneurs, as well as mentoring young women (and a few men!) who were trying to find the right fit for them. Getting a good team of interns and a stellar assistant can do amazing things for your business - they bring a ton of fresh-faced energy and excitement, can apply new skill sets directly to practical work, AND they will bring you whatever pretentious whipped cream covered coffee drink you like! WITH A SMILE. It’s magical!!! However, when it doesn’t go well with your junior team, things can go south fast - causing major stress for an already stressed business owner AND potential legal ramifications. Here’s what I recommend:  

1) Determine what you need and what you expect.

This is THE MOST IMPORTANT thing to consider when you decide you want to hire junior staff. THE MOST IMPORTANT. (Did you know it’s very important?) Many business owners do not take the time to sit down and evaluate what they truly need and what will be mutually beneficial for all parties. They just think "Oh cool, INTERNS - I will get cheap labor and I vaguely think this will help them with school." Business owners MUST evaluate not only their needs, but also what they are able to give. I break down junior support staff into 3 categories:

  • Intern: Undergrad or grad student whose work may be evaluated for academic credit. The duties they perform should directly relate to their course of study. The intern should not spend more than 30% of their time on administrative duties. The business owner/senior staff should not only be prepared to mentor this young person, but also set aside time to evaluate their work, and perhaps meet with their academic adviser or internship director. If the business owner is really just looking for support staff, then they should consider hiring an . . .

  • Assistant! I love assistants. An assistant is the perfect choice when if it feels like things are falling through the cracks. A good assistant helps manage the office and is willing to do all the menial chores - like filing, organizing, coffee-getting, etc, but is also competent, trustworthy, and capable of doing research, professionally working with clients (maybe even doing basic intake, etc), cold-calling/emailing, taking initiative and managing up. Yes, this will cost you more than an intern, but it is a great opportunity to invest in someone who might be with your company for a long time! However, if you really just need someone to get the coffee, then consider . . .

  • A “go-fer” assistant that you can assign simple tasks (errands, shipping, coffee-getting, office tidiness, etc), but don't need or want for more complex jobs.

2) How to find this mythical creature:

Finding an intern or assistant should not be difficult, but the more time and mindfulness you apply to seeking the best match for your company, the more successful your hire will be. Here are my top three recommendations:

  • Cast a wide net. Start at your local college or university - the career services center often has a full time employee who works with local businesses. They can help you with their job board and other ways to engage their students. Then move on to Craig’s List (yep, definitely still a thing and definitely still viable), LinkedIn, and any industry specific job boards you personally like. However, it’s important to note that young people today don’t always use traditional job boards to find opportunities. Make sure to post about your openings on your social media and maybe even send out a newsletter to your list!

  • Especially if you post on Craig’s List, you’ll have to sort through a lot applications. While I know all you conscientious humans will want to spend time evaluating every candidate, this is not realistic. You can easily weed out half of your potential candidates just by deleting anyone who didn’t follow directions (you clearly don’t want an assistant who can’t follow simple instructions.) If you ask for a cover letter and they don’t send one? DELETE. If the position you’re hiring is a graphic design intern and they say that are looking for a photography internship? TRASH. Additionally, if the candidate makes major grammatical errors in their cover letter, they are a no go. Even if you need an assistant for basket weaving or kitten cuddling, these type of errors indicate communication might not be their forte and therefore they will not be a good fit for a go-getter business owner like yourself.

  • PLEASE, PLEASE, PLEASE, especially with interns, familiarize yourself with your state or country’s laws governing these types of employment! Yes, as a small business, you probably won't get caught if you have an unpaid intern for 40 hours a week doing the work of an entry level employee, but it is a) illegal b) there will be consequences if you are ever audited or have a worker's comp issue c) you make yourself more liable for various types of harassment suits, and d) it's yucky. Set a good example. Most of these kids work super hard and are taking on massive amounts of debt to get a bachelor's degree. Don't screw them over.

3) Cultivating your special little flower of an intern/assistant

In short, interns are work for the business owner/senior staff. By hiring an intern you are, figuratively and sometimes literally, signing a contract that you are going to teach them. The business owner must exercise patience, compassion, and planning. In many ways, an intern cannot be held accountable in the same ways an actual staff person can.

Assistants are a different ball game, but they still require training and patience. Do not expect some 23 year old recent graduate to come on board part-time and "get it" the way someone with even just a few years of experience would. If you decide to hire a more senior assistant, there will still be a learning curve. Take time to assess and start slowly while you get to know this person. Don't throw them immediately into a complicated, nuanced, or super industry specific project. If you plan to have an assistant help you with personal tasks or business tasks of a sensitive or confidential nature (and, by the way, an intern should NEVER do either of these things), take time to really get to know them and build trust. It is well worth the cost of a couple of nice lunches.

If you're hiring a "go-fer," it is still super important to be realistic. Don't give them 37 tasks and then be upset when they can't complete them in two hours. Be super clear in your directions. (Don't be the a-hole who says things like "Can you get that coffee from the place on 6th Ave?" and then be mad when what you really wanted was the tea from the shop on Washington.) Always be grateful and whatever you do, don't yell at this person if they mess up, especially if you're already having a bad day. It doesn't fix the situation, it makes them feel bad, and you will also feel yucky, all while delaying the solution.

4) Next steps

Some students think internship = job. Sometimes this will happen! It's wonderful when it does. However, don't promise them ANYTHING until you are 100% sure you can and want to offer them a position. When the internship comes to an end, make sure to follow up with the intern’s academic/internship adviser. Be honest in your end of semester evaluation - being overly nice or rushing through it does not help you, does not help the student, and does not help the university develop a good internship program. If your intern ends up being awful, make sure you have been communicating with their university throughout the semester - don’t just grin and bear it. University career centers want to keep you AND their students happy, and they have many resources, tips, and tricks for working through sticky situations. If the intern was an exceptional standout, make sure they feel appreciated! Buy them a small gift or take them out for a lunch (don’t take them for drinks, even if they are of age, because #boundaries) that they can’t afford on a student’s budget, tell them specifically how they rocked it, and if there’s anything they can do better. Make sure they know you will be happy to write them a recommendation or serve as a reference - they may be too nervous to ask!

With assistants, especially hungry, college-educated ones, it is to be expected that they are going to want to "move up" after 1-2 years with the company. This is great! It means you did an excellent job with them. You may or may not have a more senior position available and that's ok. Regardless, think of how you can support them as they transition and, if you can't keep them on, don't take it out on them as you onboard a new assistant, which might be understandably stressful.

Your task go-fer may only last for a few weeks - or they may be with you for years. Either way, this is a temporary position and you should accept its temporary nature.

Good luck with all your new hires! If you have questions, comments, or stories to share, please email me at OR come follow me on Instagram!

Shea Keats