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I am a student, currently interning at a fairly new startup. (I am amongst the first 10 employees). I have a role of a software developer there and the work for the most of it is very good. The pay is also sufficient, but there is just one small issue.

From time to time, I have been asked by my manager to do things like making a pot of coffee or tea for everyone or washing the pot (not peoples cups) amongst others. Since we do not own a dishwasher, this has to be done manually. While, for most I do not mind doing such things because I do not find any task/work too low to be done by someone. My issue arises when my lack of protest for doing such tasks is equated to my compliance, and these tasks are increasingly pushed on me, and not others (including other interns at the same payscale). It doesn't take a lot of time but breaks my flow of concentration when I am in the middle of some work.

Hence, my questions are:

  1. Is there any such thing as a task being too menial to be done by me, an itern? Is it unprofessional of me to not expect such tasks?
  2. How do I prevent myself from being unequally burdened by such tasks?
  3. How normal/widespread is this? Especially in the tech industry?

EDIT:

Answers to some of the questions asked/clarifications requested

  1. I am a male working in a predominantly male environment.
  2. No, it is not a junior developer position. It is a full time paid internship as I still have a year of college left.
  3. I consider myself to be fairly competent. I was selected for this position from a pool of 20+ applicants.
  4. I honestly do not mind making coffee/washing pots. But I do not want to be the one who always has to do it. But more than that, I want to know if it is widespread. I was under the impression that the days of interns "To get coffee and photocopies" are gone.
  5. There are no laws in my country which apply to internships, so there is no legal angle in this particular case.
  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – enderland Jul 21 '17 at 14:43
  • Would it be appropriate to clarify "paid intern" in the question subject line? If this were an unpaid internship, asking you to do any activity that you're not actually learning skills from is highly inappropriate (on top of the unpaid internship already being inappropriate). – R.. Jul 21 '17 at 20:40
  • Is your objection the menial nature of the task or that it is interrupting other work you would otherwise be doing? – McCann Jul 21 '17 at 20:56
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    You might be interested in the "Sweep the Floor" pattern from Apprenticeship Patterns, a great book on how to structure your development. The concept takes the idea from the blacksmith type apprentice. Those apprentices were expected to do all the menial tasks, like sweeping the floor, in return for the privilege of learning from the master. That approach and mindset will serve you well, in my opinion and experience. – Ben Fletcher Jul 22 '17 at 14:01
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    I actually find it quite hard to judge from your post whether you are being exploited, or whether you are protesting too much. There are menial tasks in any job that someone has to do, and this applies at any level. Also, it can be difficult to keep an intern fully occupied: sometimes explaining a task takes longer than doing it yourself; they may just be trying to make sure you're kept busy. I remember a lot of time spent reading process manuals because they couldn't think of anything else for me to do, and making coffee would have been a welcome relief. – Michael Kay Jul 23 '17 at 12:59

12 Answers 12

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If they are asking you in the middle of your work, when/if you're busy writing software, politely decline. There's nothing wrong with going and washing the pot when you're there and need to use it, but if someone is interrupting your actual job just so they don't have to get their hands wet, that is rude. Don't tolerate unacceptable behavior. Don't be a yes man.

At the same time, don't make an issue out of it. If someone asks you to do something and it doesn't interfere with what you're currently doing, go and do it.

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    FWIW I've been a professional for 10 years and would still do this. If you're in an office without a janitorial staff even developers or analysts or the founders will be seen washing a cup or brewing a pot of coffee. – corsiKa Jul 20 '17 at 17:37
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    There is also no janitorial service in my workplace either. I often empty the dishwasher (the only job that needs doing) but it's not just me who does it, and I also don't get asked to do it. We all do our fair share, managers, CEO, accountants- it's not just an interns job, or any specific persons job. It's a team effort. – DCON Jul 20 '17 at 19:49
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    "Give me a bit to finish this up" is better than a "No." – edthethird Jul 21 '17 at 2:21
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    @corsiKa I think the cruz of the problem is "these tasks are increasingly pushed on me" – Steve Smith Jul 21 '17 at 11:55
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    Dont be a Yes man like EvilSnack is suggesting if and only if you are certain its reached the point where saying Yes is making you the preferred laborer for a menial task for some unequal reason. – Skyler Jul 22 '17 at 2:09
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When you are starting out, NOTHING is beneath you. Learn that now, embrace it, and when you move up, keep that attitude as it will earn you a great deal of respect over the years. If as you move up, you're the boss who brings coffee, or washes the pot, or takes out the garbage, your people will respect you.

As an intern, do it because you're brand new. As you progress, do it to show that you won't make your people do anything you wouldn't do yourself.

Never have the attitude that any work is beneath you. If it needs to be done, do it, and do it without complaint. Otherwise, you'll be viewed as a whiner now, and as pompous and condescending later in your career.

as MichaelJ noted below:

There is far more than "career-related experience" to be gained when working as an intern. It is very valuable to be taught as early as possible that not everything will be meaningful and important.

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    I disagree with this. While the work may not necessarily be "beneath" OP, interrupting his/her workflow on meaningful or important projects to do such "menial" tasks is rude at the least, and likely hampering his/her entire reason for taking on the internship, i.e. career-related experience. Unless OP is interning at the company with his/her eye on a career in dishwashing, washing the dishes should not solely be OP's responsibility -- the other interns (and even regular staff) should occasionally take a turn at it too. – Doktor J Jul 20 '17 at 14:25
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    There's a difference between doing one's share (even if it's not an equal share) and being a doormat. Your answer largely suggests being a doormat. – Doktor J Jul 20 '17 at 14:26
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    I'd disagree actually. Being an intern implies you're there for work experience, and doing so for free (or reduced cost) with a view to learning your trade. Being treated as free drudge labour isn't part of the deal. – Sobrique Jul 20 '17 at 14:29
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    @TBear except OP explicitly points out that they are repeatedly asked to do these menial tasks that have nothing to do with their work experience -- yet none of the other interns are. This suggests that the regular employees see OP as a pushover and ask them to do the work so they don't have to worry about it. If they were asking all the interns to do the work, it'd be a different story (even if the other interns tried to dodge the work) – Doktor J Jul 21 '17 at 1:40
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    Disagree entirely. "Your people will respect you" - no they won't, they'll know that you are there to do any heavy lifting or cleaning or being a tea-boy whenever they don't want to do things for themselves. – James Monger Jul 21 '17 at 9:42
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This question can be location related. I agree with DCON's answer, but wanted to add this :

There is no task too menial for you to do, but this is the case for everyone. I've worked as an intern in a small startup, and those kind of tasks were somewhat equally shared amongst everyone, including interns and the boss.

And for most of those tasks, it is even faster to do it yourself than to ask someone else.

My point is that your issue may be a symptom: a boss who constantly ask an intern for things that he could just do himself in 30 seconds is not the kind of boss I would want to work for.

As for a solution, I would take the next time he asks as an opportunity to say something along the lines of:

Listen, I don't mind cleaning the pot, but I do feel like I'm the only one doing it.

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    That last sentence might not work if he gets asked to do it 1/4 of the time and rest of the 3/4 is shared by like 10 people. – Mehrdad Jul 21 '17 at 6:08
  • @Mehrdad OP has clearly stated "My issue arises when my lack of protest for doing such tasks is equated to my compliance, and these tasks are increasingly pushed on me, and not others (including other interns at the same payscale)." – Doktor J Jul 26 '17 at 16:52
  • @DoktorJ: That doesn't contradict the scenario I proposed. – Mehrdad Jul 26 '17 at 17:14
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I would say that this is somewhat widespread. If you feel that you are unfairly being targeted over other interns, then perhaps you should talk to your direct supervisor about setting up some kind of rotation for cleaning. This would show some initiative, so it will probably look good upon you.

As an intern, you are there to learn about working in the workplace. This is just part of it. Direct answers:

1. Yes, there are some tasks that you shouldn't be given, such as taking your bosses dirty clothes to the laundry, but things inside the workplace are fair game.

2. Talk to your supervisor about setting up some kind of rotation for cleaning. (as above)

3. This is pretty common, something that even non-interns have to do at some companies.

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    i gotta say "talk to your boss and express your concerns" is probably the only right answer. given the concerns are "i feel i'm the only intern doing this, is there a reason behind it" this is legitimate. I think this should be the correct answer. – bharal Jul 20 '17 at 14:21
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Assuming you are in the United States, according to The Test For Unpaid Interns on www.dol.gov:

There are some circumstances under which individuals who participate in “for-profit” private sector internships or training programs may do so without compensation. The Supreme Court has held that the term "suffer or permit to work" cannot be interpreted so as to make a person whose work serves only his or her own interest an employee of another who provides aid or instruction. This may apply to interns who receive training for their own educational benefit if the training meets certain criteria. The determination of whether an internship or training program meets this exclusion depends upon all of the facts and circumstances of each such program.

The following six criteria must be applied when making this determination:

1.) The internship, even though it includes actual operation of the facilities of the employer, is similar to training which would be given in an educational environment;

2.) The internship experience is for the benefit of the intern;

3.) The intern does not displace regular employees, but works under close supervision of existing staff;

4.) The employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the intern; and on occasion its operations may actually be impeded;

5.) The intern is not necessarily entitled to a job at the conclusion of the internship;

6.) The employer and the intern understand that the intern is not entitled to wages for the time spent in the internship.

If all of the factors listed above are met, an employment relationship does not exist under the FLSA, and the Act’s minimum wage and overtime provisions do not apply to the intern. This exclusion from the definition of employment is necessarily quite narrow because the FLSA’s definition of “employ” is very broad. Some of the most commonly discussed factors for “for-profit” private sector internship programs are considered below.

It would seem that washing dishes and other menial tasks (which are only directed at you, and not other employees) are not directly benefiting you educationally. These would not seem like duties you are required to take on.

However, since you are being compensated for this internship, you might be asked to perform menial in-office tasks. It is therefore up to you to decide if you are maximising your potential from this internship. If you don't feel as though you are gaining useful experience from this facility, you have the choice to discuss it with your boss and/or leave for a different internship.

Anecdote: I was a paid software engineer intern multiple times, and I am currently a full-time software engineer. At one internship, I was asked to assemble office chairs whenever my boss purchased new ones for the office from the local office-supply store. I did not feel as though I was under-valued, or not gaining experience from this internship. It was just something I had to do from time to time (once or twice a month, ~1 hr to assemble two chairs). Most of my time was spent designing software, so it wasn't significantly sapping my chance to learn.

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    I think this only applies to UNPAID interns, no? The OP doesn't state that the internship is unpaid, and given that it's software development I would be very surprised if it wasn't pretty well paid. And if someone wants to pay me well for washing coffee pots, I'm willing :-) – jamesqf Jul 20 '17 at 16:16
  • I listed the DOL rules for internships to give some perspective. OP wanted to know Is there any such thing as a task being too menial to be done by me, an intern?. Since he's getting paid, these rules don't apply, but he should keep the same principles in mind; he himself must decide if the internship is in his benefit, and providing an educational environment for him to apply skills later on in his career. – Lil' Bits Jul 20 '17 at 17:10
  • Though in my several paid software internships, the only one of those criteria that fully applied was #5. – jamesqf Jul 21 '17 at 4:44
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    I think this was important to mention. Some people might think that an unpaid intern is worth less than a paid one, but actually the unpaid intern has more rights. – gnasher729 Jul 21 '17 at 9:30
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    If the OP was unpaid (or under minimum wage), I think it would also be a violation of "4.) The employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the intern; and on occasion its operations may actually be impeded;" since as other's point out, this is useful work that frees up someone with more experience to do more complicated tasks. And even though the OP is getting paid, usually "intern" pays less than "entry level position" because it is implied that the intern will get benefit... – user3067860 Jul 21 '17 at 16:45
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story - as a senior engineer, I was often the first person at work in the morning, due to my commute. The second was often the CEO of this 150+ headcount not-quite-a-startup-anymore company.

One morning I came in to discover the automatic coffee pot had gone haywire and was overflowing onto the floor. While trying to find the switch to turn it off, the CEO came in.

In a couple minutes we'd dealt with the immediate problem, but had maybe 30 gallons of dirty water on the floor.

The CEO sent me off to work at my desk, and got a mop and bucket.

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    Actually it's a very good illustration of the concept that the breakroom is special. Everybody's a peon in the breakroom. Don't microwave fish, and do make more coffee, even if you're the CEO. – Harper - Reinstate Monica Jul 23 '17 at 18:07
  • Actually, it wasn't. At the time I suggested the CEO might have other things to do, and he shrugged and said 'nobody else to do it'. I think he was coming from a place I now know as a biz owner - you do everything nobody else does. I was just in the bathroom here and was thinking 'need to clean this'. It's part of a leadership ethic. – Anniepoo Jul 24 '17 at 20:17
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Well I think it's never good to get exploited. When others push it on you just because they think this work is "beneath" them or they just don't want to do it (which you probably meant by using the word "push"), tell them or deny doing this, they HAVE to learn that you don't always say YES .......and that's really important. say no, but NOT (never) in a rude way, but let them clearly know that this is not okay.

But it's good that you've realized, that no work is beneath you. NEVER. And learn to do things when you see they have to be done (of course when there is nothing which is more important).

There are people who just push work on others or think a work is "beneath" them, and people who just do it. No matter what we're talking about. but again: don't get exploited by your colleagues.

It's not unprofessional to deny doing such work (if you know that the other person pushes it on you or you have to do much more important things). It's unprofessional of THEM to push it on you. But don't be harsh with them (I know you are not), what would you do if you know that a person always says yes ;)

Good luck! :)

1
  1. I would say yes, you are there to learn about your field of study; that being said, there might be cultural factors at play here.

  2. Talk to your manager and ask that a rotation be implemented (as suggested above).

  3. I'm not sure, but among the larger companies that I worked for (each was 60+ people), I never had to make, nor clean up, coffee or other items. Having said that, if you are in a 10-person start-up, I would imagine this might be quite common.

Longer version:

Answers to this question will likely be dependent on cultural norms, but I've done 5 internships in Canada: 2 in high-tech, 2 in Science, and 1 in Government, and at none of them was I ever asked to make coffee, nor clean up after anyone.

If this internship is done through a university, then there might be someone there you can ask about these, but when I was doing my internships, I was specifically told ahead of time that I would NOT be bringing people coffee, I was expected to be doing actual engineering work. In fact, one of my high-tech jobs had me sorting boxes of cables, I chatted with the university and they arranged for me to switch to a new company.

Also, since I don't have the reputation required to comment, regarding DLS3141 comment that you switch up regular and decaf: DO NOT DO THIS. If you give someone regular when they want decaf, that can be extremely dangerous.

  • I think there's an important distinction between doing menial tasks a significant amount of the time, and being asked "from time to time" to do things that "don't take much time". – Kaz Jul 20 '17 at 15:52
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In my office there is a culture where anyone (at any level, cleaner to director) who gets up to make themselves a cup will offer to make for the whole office.

Maybe you could discuss with your manager about encouraging that kind of behaviour. Explain that you don't consider it degrading but you are simply concerned that the frequency of requests is affecting your work and it would be better if the task was distributed more fairly.

  • There's about thirty people in my office, which doesn't seem large. Even so, someone who offe d to make tea for the whole office could take half an hour getting the orders, and another half an hour making them, if more than a handful wanted tea. Someone who wants a hot drink makes it for the self. – Robert de Graaf Jul 21 '17 at 13:20
  • @RobertdeGraaf I think it would normally go like "Hey guys, I'm gonna make coffee/tea, should I make a pot or two?", and then people can pour from a large pot that gets made (by the person who first went). – mbrig Jul 23 '17 at 21:59
  • Fair enough. Such facilities have never existed in any workplace I've worked in or visited here in Australia. – Robert de Graaf Jul 24 '17 at 11:29
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I think we should keep things simple.

Is not a matter of attitude. Is not a matter of building a reputation. Definitely is not about the work been menial or been beneath somebody. It's not any of that at all.

It's a matter of what your contract says about what kind of work you should be doing.If the contract says that you should make coffee or tea, or clean pots or whatsoever, then you should do it. If not, then is just a optional task that will exclusively depend on your good will to perform them.

Imagine a programmer who is asked to clean a bathroom at work. Could he do it? Sure, why not? Is part of his tasks as a programmer? No. And if he is forced or compelled in any way to do it, them this it's just wrong.

Now, about this being possible normal in tech industry. Well, it's not. Definitely not. In fact, in my country, it's even against the law. If someone is being compelled or forced to performe tasks that he was not contracted to do, them this violates not only the contract, but the law. If your manager need someone to make coffee, tea or clean anything, he should contract someone to do it. If the company can't afford it or just thinks that's not necessary, them they should ask for vonlunteers or promote some kind of team work to deal with those tasks.

And team work is my sugestion to you. You should suggest to your manager the creation of a schedule were everyone could help voluntarily with such tasks, and not only you, because it would be better and would prevent someone alone to be overloaded with tasks that he shouldn't be doing in first place.

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    Except pretty much every contract on the face of he earth has "and other duties as assigned". If you're being asked to spend most of your working time doing menial tasks, that's one thing, but managers absolutely have the contractual right to ask you to do the odd menial task. – Kaz Jul 20 '17 at 18:48
  • It depends on the legislation and the country. Although most of the contracts might have this "do anything I tell you to do" clauses, the contract absolutely is not above the law. If someone is often compelled to do tasks that does not corresponds to his role in the company, then he have the right by the law to oppose. This is common sense in my country by the way. – dvc.junior Jul 21 '17 at 11:37
0

This may not be the answer you're looking for. But can still be the real reason.

Not everyone brings the same amount of value to a company. So it would be rational for a company to have the menial, non work related tasks be done by the ones that bring least other value to a company.

-7

No.

And importantly, even if you think it's unfair, you should do them anyway.

A huge, important part of any job (especially as an intern) is your attitude and your reputation.


Which intern do you think makes a better impression:

The one who is constantly unhappy about not being given "real" work. Who complains about the unfairness of how work is assigned. Who thinks that doing this stuff is somewhat beneath them.

OR

The intern who just Gets. Things. Done.

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    I think the issue here is the OP is concerned that they are the intern that has to do all this trivial stuff while other interns are doing things that pertain to their field of study. Depending on how long all these tasks add up to be, they may be getting less actual work done because of it, – Joe S Jul 20 '17 at 11:28
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    This is terrible advice. – JavaGuru Jul 20 '17 at 11:29
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    The times where interns got to make photocopies & coffee is gone. Being affected menial tasks on the ground that "you are the intern" is a surefire way to stop the intern from applying for a position in the company when their internship ends (which should be the employer's goal, to have a new graduate who has learnt the business and whose skills they've seen at work) – Aserre Jul 20 '17 at 11:35
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    "even if you think it's unfair, you should do them anyway." Good lord man I understand your sentiment but you've got to do some critical thinking and stand up for yourself. You didn't progress your career because you got people coffee, you progressed because you were helpful. There are many ways to be helpful, but staying mindful and not having others take advantage of you is important too. – jcam3 Jul 20 '17 at 13:59
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    @Kaz: True, but irrelevant. There are more choices than 'complaining' and 'do everything that is asked of you'. In your answer, you present a choice between types of interns, ignoring all other options. That makes it a false dilemma, and therefore not a useful answer. – user46636 Jul 21 '17 at 12:42

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