In an Anthropology class at California State University last semester, a professor was teaching about power dynamics. Each student made a list of the people who have power over us. Then, we made a list of power we have over others. In every instance where a person has power over us, we have power over them as we are giving them power. For example, in a classroom, the professor holds power as it is his job to conduct the class, but the students have power as well. They have power in numbers. They can get the professor fired if they feel the instructor is being disrespectful, dishonest, unprofessional or what have you. As we head into internships this summer, paid and unpaid, let us remember the dynamics of power.
Many companies, especially large corporations, have been accused of taking advantage of interns. Sending students off on coffee runs day after day without any interest in helping them grow in their professional lives is not an unpaid internship; that is an errand boy. It is true that we all need to start somewhere. Be sure to know and see the difference between starting at the bottom and getting taken advantage of. It is up to you to decide whether you are being treated fairly, no one will do this for you.
Some unpaid internships are worth your time and energy if you are honing your skills and learning under experts. To be sure that you are not wasting your time, be sure to ask your future employer what exactly your responsibilities will be. Being asked to take lunch orders is a red flag. Answering phones however, is a task that falls under the “do what you have to do to get started” category.
There are early signs that can indicate if an internship is going to kick start your career or turn you into a barista. How long does it take for the company to contact you? If you ask your future boss a question, a month should not go by before you figure an answer. On the same note, do not expect the world to stop what they are doing to cater to your every beck and call.
A word on payment: do not be fooled by the words “paid internship.” Paid internship does not necessarily mean well-paid internship. It is like when you see those sales racks in the mall of things $5 and up. Theoretically, they can put a $50 tee shirt there and not be lying. Will you be getting hourly pay, making commission, per article or per whatever it is that you will be producing? Will you be getting paid as a stipend at the end, receive monthly, bi-weekly, or weekly payments? These are all important questions to ask when speaking with a future employer.
Sometimes after the internship begins, red flags arise. Do you constantly feel as though you are being talked down upon? Do you feel the people you are working with have any interest in helping you? Don’t get me wrong; the person you are interning for is not a Guru, a teacher, nor a babysitter, but they should show some interest in helping you learn the ropes, especially to start.
If you feel as though you are getting mistreated, your first step toward solving the problem should be taking a deep breath. Not much good comes from anger. Talk with someone you trust to figure out if you are being played or need to suck it up and get to work. Once you have decided that you need to talk with your boss, you then need to choose how to do so.
If your check is late, a polite email is appropriate. If you feel you are being disrespected or degraded in some way, an eight-page text is not the way to go. Ask for a meeting with your boss. Calmly explain your situation. Be sure to have a plate full of moxie before you sit him or her down as it will be one of those times in your life where you almost pee your pants. Deep breath, talk calmly but make your point clear.
Let’s try to fix things before we blow them up, although if you come into problem after problem or feel completely disrespected, be sure to do what is best for you. It is easy to get wrapped up doing what’s best for others, and generally you are ultimately benefitting, but remember that if your not happy yourself, you won’t be able to please anyone else.