The summer intern seemed bright and capable. A graduate student who had responded to a Craigslist ad seeking help at a New York City documentary production office, he showed up every day for two weeks and worked industriously.
Then one day, poof, he was gone – along with one of the office’s laptops. “We had no evidence that he’d stolen it,” says the intern’s former employer, filmmaker and communications consultant Murray Nossel. “But we couldn’t track him down either.” E-mails, text messages and phone calls all went unreturned. So did the laptop.
Lesson learned: Hiring an intern is serious business. “I now check and double check references,” says Nossel.
Since he started making films in 1996, Nossel, who was nominated for an Oscar in 2003, has employed more than 100 interns. In another unfortunate incident a summer intern failed to leave on schedule at the end of August. “We couldn’t get rid of him,” Nossel recalls. The young man, in his early 30s, had worked as a bank vice president before deciding he wanted to become a filmmaker. “It turned out he was hiding out from life, and from responsibility, in our office,” Nossel says.
After that experience, Nossel started asking interns to sign a letter of agreement about their roles, responsibilities and employment dates. Also, he has found that they perform better if they’re paid. A meager sum can make a difference. “Even if you just pay for their MetroCard, they feel valued, and you get more out of them,” he says.
Forbes has its own tales of interns run amuck. There was the Forbes 400 intern who took it upon herself to arrange a meeting with the then-fugitive financier Marc Rich and his press representative in Geneva, Switzerland. When she asked whether Forbes would pay for her flight to Europe, she was told, in no uncertain terms, no. She went anyway. Another rich-list intern started working on a tell-all book about her summer covering the wealthy at Forbes. She put out calls to billionaires for quotes from her college dorm room – until Forbes’ lawyer issued a cease and desist letter.
Stories of interns abusing their meager status are abundant. At Oprah magazine, a pair of summer interns intercepted fashion show invitations meant for high-level editors and sent back RSVPs with the editors’ names crossed out and their own written in. “We were talking major fashion week shows like Oscar de la Renta,” recalls Beth Thomas Cohen, a former Oprah accessories editor who was in charge of the internship program at the time. Cohen, who now works as a publicist, fired the interns within 24 hours of discovering their misdeeds.
Often interns do bad things out of inexperience and naïveté. There was the Tampa, Fla., insurance company intern who reportedly filed everything under clients’ first names. Liz Ryan, a Boulder, Colo., career coach who used to work in human relations at U.S. Robotics, a Chicago data communications company, says it’s important to sit down with interns at the start of their term and lay out exactly what you require. “You can say, ‘I’m going to be really basic with you, but I want you to understand our expectations about timeliness, confidentiality and professionalism.’ Walk them through exactly what you expect.”
Then there are the sex stories. Monica Lewinsky will probably always top the list, having derailed the agenda of a president of the U.S. But scratch the surface and you find intern hanky-panky all over. A quick, informal canvass of a few colleagues at Forbes revealed tales of female college students sleeping with Wall Street titans in their 40s and 50s and a young male intern who bedded the head of human resources at a financial services company.
This behavior is fueled by many interns’ failure to comprehend the importance of discreet attire. At one Wall Street firm, skimpy, dark undergarments worn under tight white pants started to disrupt trading – until the firm issued a memo stating that no one should be able to discern the type or color of underwear worn by employees. At U.S. Robotics, Liz Ryan says a college intern came to work “dressed for sex.” She was wearing a tight black miniskirt, thigh-high lace-up boots with stiletto heels and a “black, bondage-type lace-up sleeveless vest,” Ryan says. “She looked like a cross between a dominatrix and Elvira, mistress of the dark.” She was sent home.
Amid the horror stories are rays of light. On the Forbes leadership team we have had a great run of college interns. Two summers ago Seth Cline, who was unfailingly polite and always wore a tie, turned in nearly flawless copy. After Seth left, the internship gods sent us Jacquelyn Smith, possibly the finest intern ever to walk the face of the Earth. She was so good, Forbes hired her as a staffer when she finished school. Now we have Yale student Alison Griswold, a self-starter who is already doing stellar work.
Filmmaker Nossel tells the story of an intern who worked for him on international distribution of the 2004 documentary "Paternal Instinct." A Frenchman who had worked in banking in Hong Kong, the young man, Jerome Deroy, wound up becoming the production manager and distribution coordinator for all Nossel’s films, and the chief executive officer of Nossel’s consulting firm, Narativ. “Your interns might be petty thieves,” observes Nossel. “But they also can become long-term partners in your business.”
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