Ready for your interns?

By Gerard Beenen

Executive Summary
Many organizations rely on internship programs to accomplish short-term projects and broaden their hiring pipeline. To maximize the benefits of internships, you should use a rigorous hiring process, provide rapid onboarding, encourage intern proactivity, support both a learning and performance mindset and provide a realistic preview of insider work life to raise your chances of closing the deal on potential full-time job offers.

Internships are becoming increasingly important as a source of employee selection and training. More than 80 percent of undergraduates complete at least one internship, up from about 50 percent a couple of decades ago. Professional graduate education relies even more on internships to hone skills and introduce students to real work settings.

Research by engineering faculty at Arizona State University shows internships are instrumental in developing competencies based on ABET criteria. In a paper published in IIE Transactions, Diane Bailey and Steve Barley from Stanford's management science and engineering department have even proposed internships as a requirement for engineering programs to ensure the U.S. remains competitive. For nearly all full-time MBA programs, internships are a key step in the critical path for full-time hiring.

Internships offer a number of benefits for employers. First, internships provide a "try before you buy" employment arrangement. Rather than risking a hiring mistake, internships provide managers a six- to 12-week window to get to know a candidate's personality, motivation, skills, abilities and fit with the organization. In other words, internships provide a more rigorous selection process than conventional hiring. Second, internships offer an opportunity to build reputational capital with your hiring pool. Student interns with positive experiences can be your best endorsement for attracting the most talented candidates.

Third, internships provide an opportunity to accomplish actual work. Rather than using organizational resources such as valuable supervisory time, properly managed interns can become a worthwhile human resource to complete short-term work with a potential to contribute in the long term by recruiting full-time talent.

But poorly managed internships can backfire. For instance, interns with bad experiences can impair rather than enhance your organization's reputation as they return to school, making it harder for your company to attract top talent. A poorly scoped and incompetently supervised project assigned to an intern can waste resources if work needs to be redone.

Therefore, to maximize the benefits and minimize the risks, it is critical to ensure that you're ready to manage the incoming class of interns. Here are five guidelines, also shown in Figure 1, to help you make the most out of your organization's internship program.

1. Rigorous selection is key

If your organization views interns only as a source of low-cost, temporary help, think again. The internship hiring process should be no less rigorous than your full-time employee hiring process.

Organizations that take internships seriously have long recognized this. In fact, in top-tier MBA and graduate engineering programs, internship hiring can be even more competitive than regular full-time positions. This is because most organizations that use internships to recruit full-time talent have fewer internship positions available than regular positions. The war for talent has escalated to a full-blown arms race with increasingly rigorous intern selection processes designed to identify the highest potential candidates.

For example, Microsoft has experimented with a three-stage selection process for hiring its highest potential MBA candidates. First, student teams compete in a case analysis tournament, with the winning team presenting to Microsoft executives and earning the right to interview for an internship position. Those who make it through the process work as Microsoft interns on high-profile projects. Based on their internship performance, a select group then earns the right to interview for a full-time position. This rigorous process reflects the important role internships play at Microsoft.

Google also views internships as a critical source of engineering talent. The company has a dedicated team with the sole purpose of hiring and developing tech interns. It should be no surprise that Google recently was ranked by as offering the best internship experience in America.

Internships also can identify and fast-track high-potential talent. For example, recognizing the value of diversity in Pepsico's management team, former Pepsico CEO Steven Reinemund developed a program that hired minority candidates for internships from seven highly ranked MBA programs. Their summer internship program included periodic meetings with the top management team, rigorous evaluation of their potential fit with the organization and placement on high-profile short-term projects. Those who meet Pepsico's selection standards then have a shot at a full-time fast-track leadership development program.

Microsoft and Pepsico take their internship programs seriously. Your organization should too by making its intern selection process indistinguishable from its process for recruiting full-time talent.

2. Get on board quickly

Onboarding refers to the training and socialization process that organizations use to "teach the ropes" to newly hired employees, helping them become acclimated to the social and technical aspects of their new work environment.

This can occur through formal processes, such as new employee orientations and structured training, and through informal processes, such as mentoring and on-the-job learning. In today's highly competitive environment, rapid onboarding has become the norm when bringing new talent into an organization. While employees used to be given months to adjust to their new roles, they're now expected to be up to speed within weeks. Rapid training and socialization fits well with the short-term nature of internships.

In fact, organizations that take their internship programs seriously treat interns like regular full-time employees during the onboarding process. For example, Pittsburgh-based PNC bank puts its MBA interns through its regular new employee training and orientation program. Newly hired managers and student interns participate in training activities side by side with no distinctions between the two. A new full-time employee may be surprised to learn that a new colleague is a Carnegie Mellon MBA intern who will be staffed on a 10-week project.

This raises the expectations for interns and managers to ensure that both stakeholders understand an internship is a real job with real responsibilities. It also can streamline selection and training, eliminating the need for redundant onboarding programs for interns and regular full-time new hires. While onboarding involves organizational actions intended to help get new employees and interns up to speed as quickly as possible, interns need to play a role in this process also. That's where encouraging proactivity comes into play.

3. Encourage proactivity

Proactivity is the exercise of disciplined, goal-direct action that helps you achieve what you intend to accomplish. If there's a problem, roadblock or barrier, you solve it. You don't complain about it. That's the proactive mentality.

Research on socialization has shown that when starting a new job, the specific key proactive behaviors include information seeking, feedback seeking and relationship building. Interns should be provided an environment and supportive atmosphere focused on encouraging these kinds of behaviors. The value of proactive behaviors became clear decades ago when studies of new employees at Bell Labs showed proactive behavior within the first few weeks of starting a new job predicted long-term career success within the organization. Interns should be encouraged to exhibit these same behaviors.

In my internship research published recently in Human Resource Management, my colleague Shaun Pichler and I found that a combination of organizational actions, such as formal and informal mentoring, and intern proactive behaviors independently contributed to how interns came to view their employer as a potential longer-term career destination. The combination of both also had synergistic effects, further amplifying interns' learning. And the more interns learned about their internship employer, the more likely they were to accept full-time job offers with the same employer.

Research published in Management Science last year also shows interns are more likely to stick with an employer when they have friendship networks inside the organization, a consequence of proactive behavior. Investing in both rapid onboarding and encouraging intern proactivity paid dividends in terms of higher yields on employment offers.

4. Embrace the learning-performance tension

Because of their short duration, internships magnify the tension between learning and performance that is inherent to any new work setting. Specifically, there are trade-offs between these two critical outcomes.

On the one hand, focused learning involves developing new skills that may involve sacrificing a unit of short-term performance. If the employee is learning something new, it means the worker is not doing something that he or she already does well. But as workers build new skills, they also build their capability to perform better in the future. On the other hand, focusing on performance involves doing what employees already do well, which involves sacrificing a unit of short-term learning. Although this may help them perform well in the short term, it also means that they're not developing new skills that may help them perform better in the future.

Consequently, there is an ongoing trade-off between learning and performance whenever we face a new task, job or work environment.

How can this tension be managed most effectively? In my own research on MBA internships published last year in Academy of Management Learning and Education, I found that interns with managers who provided an environment that supports both these goals learned the most and performed the best. Consistent with this, experimental research on creative performance that I published this year in Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes with my colleague Ella Miron-Spektor at Technion-Israel Institute of Technology indicated that the most creative performance occurred when subjects were encouraged to have both learning and performance-oriented mindsets.

Learning-oriented mindsets focus on skill development and learning from mistakes, while performance-oriented mindsets focus on displaying one's abilities and outperforming one's peers. The key is that by supporting and encouraging both mindsets, you provide interns the freedom and autonomy to choose which is more important at a given time.

Of course, trying to emphasize both learning and performance can be challenging. So if you need to lean more on one side of the fence than the other, tip toward learning over performance. Learning and development signals a future upside for interns. It shows that your organization cares about the future development and career progression of its members.

This approach will make your organization a more attractive career destination for those who are eager to learn, develop and contribute to the future. And if your intern is above the bar and worthy of a full-time offer, it also will help you close the deal.

5. Close the deal

Ultimately, internships are about building long-term relationships with both individual job candidates and the schools from which they're hired. As in any long-term relationship, this involves building trust.

That's why internships shouldn't provide candidates an overly rosy picture of "what it's like to work here." Instead they should provide a realistic job preview. This doesn't mean you should proudly wave your organization's dirty laundry as interns enter the building. But it does mean you should give interns an accurate picture of what insiders experience in their daily roles. Somewhat counterintuitively, research on realistic job previews has demonstrated that candidates are more likely to accept offers when they're provided deliberately lower expectations about real life inside the organization. In other words, a combination of positive and negative realistic inside information is better than a skewed and unrealistically positive view of the inside.

It's also critical to understand that your internship program can help or hurt your reputation as a potential employer of choice for graduates who have the potential for high performance. You're not just closing "this deal" with "this intern." You're also trying to keep future deals flowing into your organization as you battle competitors for talent. Interns return to school, and word gets out quickly about whether your organization is "the place to be" or not. In a world of social media and employer rating sites like, word gets out quickly.

In an extreme version of intern hiring that aims to "close the deal" as quickly as possible, one approach is to merge intern and full-time employee hiring into the same process.

For instance, Texas Instruments has experimented with hiring engineering managers from targeted specific schools, like Carnegie Mellon, where graduates with strong technical backgrounds provide a rich talent pool. To close the deal early, they make a select number of internship offers that include immediate full-time employment. In other words, a pre-offer is made that is not contingent on internship performance. This eliminates post-graduation employment risk for the student and signals the company's confidence in the future capabilities of its interns. Organizations that do an especially good job of selecting talent are the best candidates for such a pre-emptive approach.

Perfect time to take a chance

In the coming weeks, a new crop of interns will either trickle or stream into your organization, contingent on your company's size and dependence on interns for selection and hiring.

This is the opportunity to get a leg up by taking the internship role seriously through a rigorous hiring process, an onboarding process that treats them like colleagues instead of temps, and by encouraging them to be proactive in an environment that focuses on both learning and performing, perhaps with a little bent toward learning. This will help ensure that you can close the deal when it comes to hiring the best and brightest as the war for talent continues to escalate in our improving economic climate.

Gerard Beenen is an assistant professor of management, department vice chair and faculty coordinator for graduate programs at the Mihaylo College of Business and Economics at California State University, Fullerton. He has a Ph.D. in organizational behavior and theory from Carnegie Mellon University, an MBA from Northwestern University and an M.A. from Fuller Theological Seminary. His research on workplace motivation and learning has been published in Organizational Behavior & Human Decision Processes, Human Resource Management, Academy of Management Learning & Education, and the Journal of Computer Mediated Communication. Prior to his academic career, he was CEO of a cancer center, a dot-com co-founder and a management consultant with both Bain & Co. and Ernst & Young.