Onboarding should be a positive and productive experience for interns. When you build a successful onboarding program, you benefit in the short-term with satisfied interns who will give their all, and you also benefit in the long-term when your best interns convert to full-time employees.
We wanted to bring forth some best practices and common mistakes for onboarding summer interns, so we checked in with our friend Saïd Radhouani, Ph.D., Co-founder of Nextal, a collaborative applicant tracking system. Radhouani, who holds a double Ph.D. in Management and Computer Science, has built teams from scratch and put in place strategies to serve some of the largest web and mobile properties in Canada. We also gathered insight from Wes Higby, President of Full City Tech Co, where he consults in employee development and other services.
8 essential elements to successfully onboard your interns
These seven steps will help you set up your interns for success:
- Onboarding doesn’t start on the first day. Interns should begin onboarding before that, especially for interns who accept the position months before they graduate and begin your program. It is your responsibility to make a great first impression and show interns that your company is a good place to work, and that they will be given an opportunity to grow and succeed. Consider assigning each intern to a peer advisor who meets with them before they start. Consider inviting them to holiday parties, community service activities, and other office events where they can meet their future co-workers. At the very least, before your interns arrive, they should already understand your organization’s history, vision, and mission. Another excellent way to start off right is to ensure administrative paperwork is done before the first day, instead of boring your interns to death on their first day.
- Give them a personal and warm welcome. It is very important to schedule a real moment for your new interns to be personally welcomed. Interns lack experience and might need special treatment in the beginning to facilitate their transition into a professional environment. Their first day’s experience can have a big impact on their integration within the work environment. Set up their workspace and equipment so that area is clean and ready to go. All technology (computer, phones, passwords) should be set up properly and working.
- Organize a site visit for them. Give office staff notice beforehand so they can be present and introduce themselves. This will give them a taste for your organizational culture and the business background. The more people they connect with, the more they will feel included in the day to day life of your organization.
- Introduce them to their own team. They need to know right away who they will be working with. This will lay the foundation for their sense of belonging. Don’t underestimate the importance of this–your interns who feel connected, safe and included from the beginning will be likely to identify with the higher organizational needs.
- Appoint both a manager and a mentor. While the manager will manage the work of the intern and ensure projects stay on focus, the mentor will have a role of a facilitator. The mentor will be in charge of providing any information (not necessarily related to the intern’s project) that will help the intern in their role.
- Clarify expectations. The manager has to clarify expectations from both sides: what the intern is expecting to get from the internship, and what the manager is expecting to get from the intern. To do so, it’s very important to provide a real work assignment and define the success criteria. Remember that college students are used to seeing a syllabus for each of their courses. Consider creating a work plan that explains the focus and goals of each week during the internship program. And go ahead and call it a syllabus.
- Assign challenging and relevant work. Allowing to your intern to work on challenging and relevant tasks that are recognized by your company is one of the best ways to ensure the success of the internship. Once the work assignment has been done, the intern should be given the necessary documents and tools to allow them to get the necessary information. Ideally, the manager or the mentor should provide a reference checklist that the intern can follow to make sure that they are getting all what they need.
Read concrete tips and big ideas in our white paper, “How You Should Tweak Your Summer Internship Program”
- Define a communication plan. The manager should define the communication plan with the intern. For example, an intern might be expected to send a written report to their manager at the end of each week. This will not only help the intern to improve their communication skills, but it will help move projects along by documenting progress. Also, this would raise red flags if they hit a roadblock. Some interns are required to write a paper for college credit at the end of the internship program. If that’s the case, they will have a lot of materials from their weekly communication.
Intern onboarding gone wrong: Common mistakes employers make
These are five onboarding mistakes that employers often make.
- Don’t treat everybody the same. It’s important to have a process or checklist, but just be careful not to standardize it too much. Tailor the plan to the candidates you’re hiring. If new hires have accolades in sales, for example, don’t put them through a sales training program. Your college talent is now made up of Gen Z, and above all else, they demand authenticity and expect personalization.
Watch College Recruiter’s Steven Rothberg present “New Strategies to Engage Gen Z and Other Modern Candidates”
- Don’t make interns wait for benefits. There’s nothing to gain by withholding vacation days, health care, etc. Putting interns through a waiting period will make them see you as a cheapskate and can create mistrust. If you don’t trust new employees enough to give them benefits on day one, why are you hiring them?
- Don’t give unclear expectations. If you throw them to the wolves without ensuring everyone is on the same page, you will find that they don’t perform up to your expectations. This seems like a no brainer but many interns have this exact experience.
- Don’t exclude interns from the process of designing their training. Don’t just train them by talking at them. Take advantage of that training period to learn what motivates them and where they want to grow. This will engage them and you will discover ways to get the most out of them this summer.
- Don’t assume you have nothing to learn from your interns. Learning is not a one-way street. There are plenty of interns who have skills that you do not. Learn from them not only to benefit your own development but to increase their sense of inclusion and value.
Signs the internship is going well
According to Radhouani, two things will tell you whether things are on the right track. “Clear communication and measurable progress.”
Another good indicator is how well the intern has integrated within the team. During the weekly meetings with the manager, it should be clear how much progress they are making toward their goals and how they are working with their team. If you successful onboard your interns, then they will have clear objectives and all the necessary information to exceed expectations.