by Regina Waters and Christina GilstrapNACE Journal, April 2012
NACE research indicates that college graduates with internship experience are more likely to get a job offer and a higher starting salary than graduates with no such background.1 Internships also help students develop a more realistic understanding of general workplace practices. Performance reviews are one workplace practice that can help prepare interns for future professional demands. Unfortunately, some research shows not all interns receive timely, meaningful, and quality feedback regarding their work performance. A 2008 study found more than 20 percent of the participating interns rarely or never received feedback about their work.2 The internship and employment literature provide little insight into the contributing factors behind this statistic.
The internship literature examines student perceptions of supervisor feedback, but does not adequately address the supervisor’s perspective or experience of communicating feedback to interns. Given the importance of supervisor feedback in work-learning settings, the authors designed a qualitative study to learn how internship supervisors view the internship performance appraisal process. The following questions were asked:
Analysis of the responses may help universities and hosting organizations evaluate their practices, identify opportunities for improvement, and develop a plan of action to strengthen the internship experience for students and their site supervisors.
Interview participants were 24 internship supervisors from Missouri, Oklahoma, Texas, and South Dakota. (See Figure 1.) These individuals were listed in an internship database at a small Midwestern liberal arts university and had sponsored one or more interns within two years of the study. After reviewing the list, the authors contacted supervisors in different industries to determine their interest in participating in this study.
While the number of participants is small, of note is that the supervisors represented diverse fields of employment, including banking, financial services, food production, law, media, medical health, nonprofit, publishing, recreation, and utilities. In-depth telephone interviews were conducted with the internship supervisors and the average interview length was 21:31 minutes.
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Oral vs. Written Feedback
Supervisors understand the importance of timely oral feedback. When asked to describe their approach to communicating feedback to interns, the participants said they provide oral comments throughout the internship experience.
Cindy, a supervisor in the healthcare field, described the importance of frequent oral feedback, “An internship should be a chance to learn and grow, so I do provide ongoing critique [and] encouragement, as projects are being worked on. Basically, constant oral feedback [such as] what are you doing, how can we improve, how did you like this, and do you see how this would apply to a real job?”
More in-depth written evaluations are typically produced only in response to university requests for end-ofthe semester performance reviews. Surprisingly, few of the participants share and discuss a written copy of the evaluation with interns. Supervisors were asked what university officials use the written evaluations. Most were unsure, although several respondents said they hope or assume the evaluation is read by the intern, faculty, and/or intern placement coordinators. Many supervisors are not convinced their written feedback about an intern’s work performance is valued by university officials.
What Supervisors Would Like
Internship supervisors were asked how colleges and universities could help them fulfill their responsibilities when working with and evaluating interns. Three areas were identified: Clarify the university’s expectations for the internship, screen candidates, and better prepare students for the workplace.
First, supervisors said there should be greater clarity regarding the school’s expectations and better guidance on evaluating interns. Supervisors suggested that the end-of-the-semester evaluation forms be distributed at the internship’s start to better facilitate monitoring of performance indicators important to the school. Participating supervisors indicated they would like university officials to stay in touch throughout the internship and use site visits to learn about the organization’s needs. Flora, a supervisor in the food production industry, said, “I felt like I was in touch with the school at the beginning and at the end, but not really throughout [the internship]. It was hard for me to keep it top of mind that this was for school credit and for evaluation.”
Second, the supervisors said universities can play a stronger role in identifying qualified intern candidates to create a better match between the organization’s needs and the intern’s knowledge and abilities. John, a supervisor in the nonprofit sector, described his expectation, “If there are 20 kids out there looking for internships, and I’m going to talk with three of them, I want to talk with the three best ones you’ve got. And that’s very judgmental, but I don’t have time to talk to 20 kids. I have time to talk with the three most outstanding ones.”
Third, there is a strong desire among intern supervisors for universities to offer career training classes on the professionalism required in today’s workplace. Supervisors reported problems with inappropriate dress, punctuality, and communication etiquette via e-mail and voice mail. “Students need more than just tips from their adviser…they need an understanding of a more business-like environment,” said Kassey, a supervisor in the publishing industry.
Participants were also asked to describe how their organization could help them better perform their role as an intern supervisor. Surprisingly, a majority of the respondents had no suggestions; they are given the flexibility to manage the situation as they see fit. Some, however, said the organization could provide more structure through developing clear job descriptions and more tightly defined expectations for interns. This is not surprising since nearly half of the supervisors did not provide interns with a written job description. Further, supervisors would like their organizations to help identify projects with clear beginnings and end points as well as provide more physical work space for interns.
Challenges Facing Supervisors
The greatest challenge expressed by supervisors is finding the time to supervise and mentor students, including the time required to teach interns, delegate tasks, and correct errors. Others described the never-ending cycle of recruiting and training interns.
“They come in so quickly, they leave so quickly, and the changeover from semester to semester might be a challenge on our part because you feel like you are always training. You’re always in the middle of a program trying to train a new person,” said Sarah, a supervisor in a nonprofit organization.
Supervisors face two other notable challenges when providing feedback to interns. The first is how to communicate constructive feedback to interns who are not receptive to such criticism.
“The only difficult thing is if the intern is not mature enough to accept constructive criticism. We have had to have that conversation about feedback and constructive criticism not being a personal issue,” said Leann, a supervisor in the healthcare industry.
Second, the forms or evaluation tools made available by universities or the supervisors’ organizations are problematic. Specifically, assessment items are not relevant to the work performed in the organization or standardized written evaluation tools are not provided at all.
Evaluating Interns: What’s Important?
Supervisors were asked what is most important to them when evaluating an intern’s performance. Three focus areas emerged: the individual’s traits, the individual’s behaviors, and the results produced by the individual during the internship. These themes are consistent with the three most common performance appraisal assessment systems used by organizations to evaluate regular employees: trait, behavioral, and work result assessments.3
First, supervisors placed heavy emphasis on trait assessment when providing feedback. A trait-based appraisal system focuses more on who a person is, such as personality and characteristics, rather than what he or she actually does. In this study, supervisor assessments focused on students’ traits, such as professionalism (attitude toward work, punctuality, and maturity), willingness to take initiative, communication style, willingness to learn, and ability to learn. Brenda, a supervisor in the broadcasting industry, captured this priority on traits when she said, “Attitude. That’s really number one. [Interns need to demonstrate] flexibility and willingness to learn and work.”
Second, supervisors used behavioral assessments to address how a job is performed and to provide feedback on the process required to complete a task. This type of feedback can identify what behaviors need to be changed to correct poor performance on a task. In this study, intern supervisors were concerned with an intern’s ability to skillfully perform tasks and respond to directions. As a group, they also monitored an intern’s attention to detail and punctuality.
The third performance appraisal method was assessment of work results. In this approach, less emphasis is placed on how results are achieved and greater attention is placed on quantifiable results, such as the number of items produced in a given work period or sales results. Although supervisors occasionally noted the importance of meeting work goals and getting the job done, they more frequently commented on the interns’ traits and behaviors.
That’s a Tough Topic
More than half the supervisors surveyed said there were situations in which they were concerned about an intern’s dress and personal appearance, and felt uncomfortable addressing this topic with the student.
Poor choices related to clothing and appearance often meant a supervisor would also question the student’s professionalism. As Kassey said, “The intern’s clothing was a little racy-looking. I didn’t do much about it at first, just to see if it was a one-time thing. The semester progressed and we had to talk about professionalism. I think she understood, but I didn’t feel comfortable calling her out directly.”
Supervisors often attributed problems with dress and personal appearance to generational differences, that young adults tend to be more relaxed in their interpretation of organizational dress codes. Laura, a supervisor at a utility company, described the tension between respecting an intern’s taste in clothing while expecting compliance with the organization’s dress code. “It’s a personal issue,” she said. “You don’t want to tell somebody they’re dressing inappropriately or that their tastes don’t match up. I don’t want to insult anyone’s intelligence; I want to say, (We’re going to be interacting with a conservative [association] member who owns us and has expectations, so that’s why we need to dress a bit more to the conservative side of the policy).”
As noted earlier, delivering negative feedback can create discomfort for some supervisors. Participants described experiences in which the intern took the feedback personally and was not open to the constructive nature of the message. Uncomfortable or not, supervisors said they owe it to students to correct their performance to better prepare them for the workplace. Often, the lesson being taught is about how to accept constructive criticism.
Gloria, a supervisor in a hospital, describes her approach, “I’m careful about how I give feedback because I don’t want them to take it personally. It’s never about them personally, it’s about the work they’ve done, but that’s difficult for people to separate. You’ve got to learn to separate, to step back and say okay, if they don’t like this, it’s not because they don’t like me, it’s because they don’t like the path I took.”
Few studies have focused on the communication experiences of internship supervisors, especially regarding their efforts to give interns constructive feedback. Upon interviewing supervisors in diverse industries, the authors found that supervisors want to provide formative performance feedback to interns; however, a number of obstacles can impede their efforts. These findings present opportunities for supervisors and career services staff (or other appropriate university officials) to improve the communication and evaluation processes.
While supervisors provide written evaluations of an intern’s performance to university officials, many do not have a clear understanding of how that feedback is used. Career services staff and faculty advisers should review their efforts to communicate the evaluation process to supervisors, covering such details as who receives copies of the evaluation and how the evaluation is used to award academic credit or determine a student’s grade. Copies of mid-term and final evaluation forms could be provided at the beginning of the internship to educate intern supervisors about the institution’s performance standards. At the same time, intern supervisors are urged to request necessary clarification of evaluation procedures. Given the time pressures experienced by supervisors and the revolving nature of interns entering and exiting an organization, timely and effective correspondence between university officials and supervisors is at risk.
Few supervisors in this study reported sitting down with interns for a one-on-one conversation to discuss the written evaluation provided to the university at the end of the internship. This finding is notably consistent with a 2007 study that reported interns want more one-on-one feedback from their supervisors. From the perspective of the hosting organization, the discussions could reveal students’ perceptions of the internship experience that could lead to enhancements in organizations’ internship programs.4 For students, an oral review of the written evaluation can provide several benefits, including preparation for performance review sessions with future employers, meaningful self-reflection on the significance of the work-learning experience, and valuable, focused dialogue with a professional in the field about the student’s readiness for a particular career path or position.
Research by McDonough, Rodriguez, and Prior-Miller further illustrates the need for supervisor-intern discussions regarding evaluations.5
Their study compared intern self-ratings with those of their supervisors at the mid-term and end of the internship. As might be expected, interns and supervisors often held differing views of the intern’s performance. In the final evaluation, they found the largest discrepancies between supervisors and interns in the areas of interpersonal skills and professional conduct. Students rated themselves higher than their supervisors with regards to their ability to communicate with others, take initiative, accept constructive criticism, demonstrate punctuality, and dress appropriately for the workplace. Interestingly, many of these issues were of concern to the supervisors who participated in the Waters-Gilstrap study. Clearly, in-depth discussions centered upon established performance standards could enhance the likelihood that students would leave the internship with a more realistic understanding of their professional performance.
This study’s findings indicate supervisors may encounter topics that are difficult to discuss, particularly issues related to dress and personal appearance. While there are few studies examining supervisor feedback in applied learning contexts, a study by Hoffman, Hill, Holmes, and Freitas echoes the authors’ conclusion that supervisors encounter both easy and difficult topics when discussing job-related matters with student interns.6 Most notably, Hoffman, Hill, Holmes, and Freitas found topics related to specific skills and clients’ well-being (in a clinical counseling setting) deemed easier topics to discuss than those related to supervisees’ personality or professional behavior. Such discomfort often meant feedback was withheld, clearly diminishing the interns’ learning opportunity. Universities can work with intern supervisors to develop approaches to effectively communicate constructive criticism to interns on problematic topics, such as personal appearance, dress, and professionalism. These strategies could be compiled and shared with supervisors—especially those who are new to the mentor role—as a best practices list. Additionally, students may not interpret written dress codes as expected. Including visual examples of appropriate and inappropriate attire could supplement written content. Given the employers’ expectation that universities prepare students for the professional work setting, detailed materials on professional dress and appearance could be distributed as part of career training classes and/or included on career services websites.
While supervisors may not always share and orally review the end-ofthe semester written critiques of an intern’s performance, ongoing oral feedback during the daily or weekly work routine was reported as a priority among supervisors. When asked to identify the types of items most important to them when providing feedback, issues related to an intern’s traits were most commonly cited, followed by the intern’s behaviors and performance outcomes. The emphasis on interns’ personality characteristics is noteworthy because trait-based evaluations may not generate feedback that can prepare individuals for actual role performance. Traits are easy to identify, but human resource experts note a “weak link between personal traits and actual job behavior.”7 Feedback that focuses on who a person is does not necessarily change what a person does. Intern supervisors and universities should review existing feedback guidelines and evaluation criteria/forms to determine if there is an appropriate balance of measurements addressing traits, behaviors, and results.
The greatest challenge facing intern supervisors is perhaps the toughest one to resolve: limited time to teach and mentor interns. The supervisors in this study expressed a remarkable level of concern for student learning and growth, but were often frustrated with their ability to dedicate time and attention to the mentoring role. Interestingly, supervisors viewed universities as part of the solution to resolving their time pressures by prescreening intern candidates and educating students on basic professional workplace behaviors. Not surprisingly, universities vary in their approaches to these areas. While there is no quick fix to the time obstacle, this study underscores the importance of a collaborative approach among intern employers, supervisors, and university officials in managing and strengthening internship programs to ensure student learning and development.
Internship programs are and will continue to be important to students, universities, and employers. For these work-learning experiences to deliver the maximum educational value, students should receive regular, constructive feedback from their supervisors and experience in-depth performance reviews at the end of the internship. The insights gained from supervisors in this study suggest conversations between university staff and intern supervisors about opportunities to strengthen evaluation and feedback processes are warranted.
1 NACE Research Brief: 2010 Student Survey, September, 2010, p. 4.
2 R. Bottner, “Internship Insights: A Report From the National Internship and Co-Op Study,” NACE Journal, February 2010, 3.
3 C.D. Fisher, L.F. Schoenfeldt, and J.B. Shaw, J.B. Human resource management (5th edition). Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2003.
4 M. Rothman, “Lessons Learned: Advice to Employers From Interns,” Journal of Education for Business, 82(3), 2007, 140-144.
5 K. McDonough, R. Lulu, M.R. Prior- Miller, “A Comparison of Student Interns and Supervisors Regarding Internship Performance Ratings,” Journalism & Mass Communication Educator, 64(2), 2009, 140-155.
6 M.A. Hoffman, C.E. Hill, S.E. Holmes, G.F. Freitas, “Supervisor Perspectives on the Process and Outcome of Giving Easy, Difficult, or No Feedback to Supervisees,” Journal of Counseling Psychology, 52(1), 2005, 3-15.
7Fisher, Schoenfeldt, and Shaw, 503.
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