I have an intern at work right now - I'll name him Kyle - who seems uninterested in the field. He's been here for almost 9 months now.

I had provided Kyle some cheatsheets for work, and taught him a few things. However, in the next week. Kyle comes in like a "blank slate", as if he's starting fresh, forgetting what was taught to him in the previous week. I asked him once, "Kyle, where's the cheatsheet I provided for you?. Kyle replies, "It's here...". He had placed the cheatsheets under a pile of books.

Kyle also doesn't write notes, so that leads me to think he remembers the answers or tips I provide. That's not the case, because over the next few days, the same issues arises, and he doesn't remember the answers or tips that I had previously provided for him. I politely asked him to write the answers down. But he doesn't.

I provide him with sticky notes, and he later comes to me asking what to do, when the answers are on the sticky notes.

I've also caught him looking at unrelated work stuff, such as looking at YouTube, music videos and movies, and game streaming sites. Kyle tried to quickly switch the site tabs.

I'm not sure what to do now...

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – Jane S
    Feb 1, 2017 at 12:39
  • 3
    Paid internship? Unpaid internship? Please clarify this in the question. Feb 1, 2017 at 13:35

7 Answers 7


What you are experiencing is relatively common with people in "entry level" positions, including interns. One of the reasons for these 'soft' kinds of positions is to give people good feedback and advice, and let them do what they will with it. It's an opportunity to excel as well, but not everyone "gets it" right away (and some don't get it at all).

What I would recommend is an honest conversation with the employee that cuts directly to the point. This kind of conversation is often not easy to have, especially in a way that doesn't encourage defensiveness and isn't demotivating, but it can be an incredibly valuable skill for someone in your position to develop. Everyone's style is a bit different, but I would suggest something along the lines of, "It seems like you don't seem very interested in your work here."

The conversation could go many different ways, but the key here is that it seems like you are not on the same page. You say he doesn't seem interested, but you don't know whether or not he's actually interested, or if it's something else. It could be that he actually really isn't interested in this job. That's OK - that's actually a large point of having things like internships, so people can figure out if this is something they want to spend years of their life on.

It could also be that he's bored and the lack of challenge makes him not want to try, or that he feels that the work isn't important and he's just putting in his required time. He might not want to work there in the future, but in talking to him you might find that he thinks he does want a similar sort of position in a different company - in which case you can talk with him about how you'd be willing to help him develop the skills and a good reference, which will be invaluable in getting a job at another company.

This person might also be genuinely unaware that he isn't currently on track for a good reference. "I thought I was doing a good job - I got the work done, didn't I?" - that's a really common thing for someone to believe who doesn't understand the idea of "doing the minimum" versus "going above and beyond to excel".

None of this needs to be confrontational or unpleasant. I had a similar conversation with a programmer who just didn't put in the time on a project and seemed like he didn't pay attention in meetings. It turned out he realized during the project that he wanted to be a missionary in a foreign country, and didn't actually want to be a professional programmer anymore. Well jeeze, that rather changed my expectations of him at work! Surprisingly we found a way to get the project done, even with the understanding that this would be possibly his last programming job for years. We focused on how he enjoyed the group and liked learning new things, and he figured the skill could come in handy someday so it turned hurt to schedule time to make things happen.

So, I would strongly suggest you have an honest, friendly conversation with this person that goes beyond the small details (note taking, etc) and focuses on motivation and how he thinks and feels about this internship, and what he plans to do after. I bet you are both on very different pages, and you both might be really surprised by what you find out! If he says he hopes to get a job at the company or wants a good reference for his next job, that's a perfect invitation to talk honestly with him about how he is not on track for that, and make a plan for what he'll need to do to change that. And if you find out he's just passing the time, well then you can safely minimize further investment of you and your company's time and send him on his way. Regardless, you'll have improved some very important leadership and communication skills of your own! Good luck!

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    "It's an opportunity to excel" - and therefore an opportunity to fail. I agree that it's best to handle the situation with the assumption that this intern has potential, but it would be prudent to be mentally prepared for the possibility that this intern is incapable of meeting expectations.
    – Jeutnarg
    Jan 31, 2017 at 21:59
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    @Wildcard Promise of reward is the issue here, not the reward itself. If there is no expectation of payment, it doesn't matter if him working harder would normally get him paid or not.
    – Weckar E.
    Feb 1, 2017 at 9:10
  • If his reward is "can graduate the program" and the price he has to pay is "be physically present in some company for at least X months", this seems to work out quite well for him. I don't fully understand the situation (why is he still around if he graduated?), but if this are the circumstances I'd probably do the same. (Work minimum required at a boring job to get my reward. If I would never work there afterwards, who cares what they think of me?)
    – Josef
    Feb 1, 2017 at 10:08

This is a leadership challenge. It great practice and perhaps your boss is looking for you to increase your skill as a lead. You may need to read some books, articles, and find out more about this person and what makes them tick.

Through many circumstances a person will find themselves leading a team or a project with people they had no say in hiring and have no authority to effect their compensation.

Still the age old management company exists: How do I get employees to perform?

In the end, the intern will be gone and forgotten a short time. How can you make an impact on yourself is a more important goal/question? This is an incredible opportunity for you and you should do your best to learn from it.


You should be explicit in your suggestions. Rather than giving him post-it notes and expecting him to take notes on them when learning new concepts, tell him why you're giving him the post-it notes. Explicitly ask him to take notes on them when learning new processes. He may not understand why you're giving him post-it notes and cheatsheets. He may even find your behavior quirky, if you're giving him items without instructing him on how/when to use them.

How to use the cheat sheet may seem obvious to you, but to an intern it may not be so obvious -- especially if it isn't strictly and explicitly labeled as a "cheatsheet". It may appear to be just another piece of paper, given to him as formal procedure as part of the onboarding process.

When you give him things like post-it notes and cheat-sheets, explain why they will benefit him. Explain how you expect him to use them, and follow up with him to make sure he understands and is using them.

You cannot expect an intern, who is as entry-level as they get, to understand all of the subtle expectations you have for him. You should set time ahead to meet with him in one-on-one sessions and tell him what he is doing well and what he could improve on. Ask him questions regarding the information/processes you have been teaching him to ensure he understands. If he isn't comprehending, prod him to find out what he is struggling with.

Work with him to get him to a point where he can excel in his performance and add value to the company, but don't expect him to get there without help.

It's not uncommon for employees to take quick breaks at work, especially if their work is finished. It's your job to make sure he has ample work to do. If he's not getting his work done, talk to him about time management. Explain to him that he shouldn't be browsing the web when he has work to do.

Possibly he's only doing the internship as a requirement for school and has no desire to work, and if this is the case you should consider replacing him with an intern who will do the work. You need to let him know if you're not happy with his performance though, which will give him a chance to get on track. He may not see a future with the company, but you should let him know that he is not earning a good future job recommendation.

  • I have tried instructing him, and explaining to him why. I'm going to have a thorough sit down conversation with him. Technically, he's on unrelated work sites for 30-60 minutes, and then a couple of hours. And hides them, when I go into the room he's in. I know breaks help clears one's mind. However, if it's for more than 60 minutes per day...in a consecutive session. Then that's unprofessional. He has apologized to me before, for his behaviour. However, he's exhibiting them again now. He's done school, this is career work related internship.
    – Turtle
    Jan 31, 2017 at 19:20
  • I agree that the breaks are likely uncalled for. You should try to get to the bottom of why he feels the need to take these breaks. Does he feel the work given to him is beneath him? Does he feel it is too hard to work on without some direction? Does he have a poor work ethic? Does he not realize that his internet activity is monitored? You should bring these subjects up in your meeting with him, even if he tries to resist or change the subject. Perhaps knowing that he is being monitored will force him to actually do work. Also important: is this an unpaid or a paid internship? Feb 1, 2017 at 18:37
  • If the internship is unpaid, then I can see why he might not care about how he spends his time. But... if he is being paid, he should be working. Feb 1, 2017 at 18:37

Someone high enough in your company needs to set out guidelines what your company wants to achieve by hiring interns. And then someone probably a bit lower but with enough power to take actions must decide whether the company achieves what it wants to achieve in the case of Kyle, and if not, what to do about it. Plus a lawyer needs to say what can and what can not be done if the company is not happy the Kyle.

If you are the person who can make the decision, then it looks like you need to have a very, very serious talk with Kyle, and if nothing changes, he's out. If you can't make the decision, talk to whoever can make it. You can still have a serious talk with Kyle.

  • In many organizations defining goals of the internship program and measuring Kyle against them would take longer than the 1-1.5 months that Kyle has left.
    – Myles
    Jan 31, 2017 at 18:16
  • My supervisor is aware of this. I've talked to them about the situation.
    – Turtle
    Jan 31, 2017 at 18:19
  • I would expect the guidelines for what should be achieved to be determined by the person who did the hiring. This is true from the intern level all the way up to C level execs.
    – corsiKa
    Jan 31, 2017 at 21:26
  • @Myles - you're right that this won't fix the Kyle problem - but it should help with the next intern...
    – HorusKol
    Feb 1, 2017 at 1:38

He's not motivated, but it's not your problem to motivate him, you have already tried more than you needed to.

Let him finish out his time on mundane tasks and then send him on his way with a truthful reference. He's just an intern, you don't have him on mission critical work anyway (or shouldn't).

  • 5
    I still feel responsible for him, since I'm mentoring him. Thanks for responding!
    – Turtle
    Jan 31, 2017 at 18:18
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    You can only do so much, after that it affects your own productivity and peace of mind. You're not his mum (I assume), he lacks basic work ethic and learning skills.
    – Kilisi
    Jan 31, 2017 at 18:24
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    If it isn't a managers responsibility to motivate employees, wtf is their job?!
    – corsiKa
    Jan 31, 2017 at 21:23
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    I don't particularly like this answer because of what @corsiKa mentioned - management's role is to inspire and lead, not avoid and ignore. Feb 1, 2017 at 0:01
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    @Kilisi - if you agree to take on an intern, you agree to a certain amount of tutelage. As for motivation - I agree with corsiKa. The real problem is that this has taken almost to the completion of the internship for the manager to recognise the problem, and is far too late to do anything about
    – HorusKol
    Feb 1, 2017 at 1:32

If he's done with his degree, as you say, you should work with him on wrapping up his internship now. That doesn't mean waiting for him to finish a project or find a new job - it means one to two weeks and his desk is cleared.

From the 'blank slate' description, it sounds like neither of you are getting what you want from this business relationship, and you could put your energy more motivated intern who's still a student.

It doesn't sound like you'll be giving him a great reference, but maybe he'll show signs of life when you spend your next session on his resume and cover letter. Give him that much and you'll have given him more than enough.


Are you sure you are teaching him effectively in the first place? I don't know by the description you have given, but is there a chance he doesn't understand the things you think you are explaining to him? I once had a boss that sucked at explaining things and whenever I asked him a question he said he had explained it to me and why I need him to explain it again, when in fact he just dropped a few buzzwords in a brief conversation as he passes by my desk and considered that explaining. I don't think you're doing it, but it may help if after you finish explaining something you ask him if he gets it or has any questions. If he isn't able to understand the notes you left on the cheat sheets than it may be why it's buried under a pile of books.

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