When Evaluating Interns, Aim For a Level Playing Field

Even in a normal year, April is a busy time for recruiters and talent professionals. One of the many items on their lists is preparation for annual summer internship programs.

The COVID-19 pandemic threatens such programs in many workplaces, according to Kevin Davis, founder and chairman of First Workings, a Manhattan-based non-profit that connects underrepresented and underserved students to paid internships. Small employers aren’t likely to take on college interns in the current climate, Davis told USA Today in an interview, and programs at larger companies are also likely to see adjustments.

“A lot of them are going to be counting every penny,” Davis said of internship programs at larger firms. “If the worst forecasts are borne out … I would say even they’re probably going to be under threat.”

But some employers are dependent on internships to provide needed talent, which means they probably won’t be nixing their internship programs entirely, Davis added.

At Chicago marketing agency Walker Sands, the priority of hiring interns in relation to the rest of the business hasn’t changed, even if circumstances mean the need and number of interns hired may shift, Chester Lantin, Walker Sands’ director of HR, told USA Today in an email. “We have, and still do, look at our intern program as our best source for entry-level talent,” he said. “While it’s certainly a very different environment right now, that hasn’t changed how we view the internship program.”

Regardless of the circumstances, employers that choose to maintain their internship programs will also need to make adjustments to those programs to ensure talent needs are met.

Mentors Play a Huge Role

In evaluating the effectiveness of internship programs, talent professionals will need to draw input from employees directly involved in those programs, particularly mentors.

Walker Sands enlists employees to be coaches for incoming interns, Lantin said in an interview. Coaches take note of several aspects of an intern’s performance: how many successful pitches they made to clients, how many press releases they put out, which bylines they published, etc. Coaches must also provide an assessment of their intern’s professionalism and enthusiasm on the job. Essentially, the coach’s assessment is based on both “hard” and “soft” skills, Lantin said.

Interns, too, have a role in their evaluation process. Walker Sands has them complete a final self-assessment at the end of their internship. The company also asks for a peer review to be filled out by someone with whom the intern has worked.

The program has evolved over time, according to Lantin, and the company does in-depth evaluations in order to ensure that each intern is operating on a level playing field. “We’re not changing something that works,” he said. “It’s more about leveling the playing field and making sure our assessment and decisions of who we bring in isn’t tied to the luck of who [the intern] had in the beginning.”

How to Determine Who Stands Out

That last point is critical as not all coaches evaluate their interns in the exact same way. Some coaches, Lantin said, may be better at providing feedback than others, or they may take a stricter approach to grading certain criteria. Walker Sands, he added, takes a holistic view of post-internship evaluations with an eye toward providing equal opportunity.

“You shouldn’t evaluate interns on things you don’t have time to teach them,” Lantin said of the agency’s approach. “We’re giving everyone the same ability to be successful here.”

To that end, the agency’s timelines and training schedules are made uniform, so that interns are operating on the same schedule. But when it comes time to figure out which interns should be offered a full-time position, the agency looks at a specific set of criteria, Lantin said. Program participants are evaluated via written assessment, and Walker Sands also looks at passive experience, transferable skills and other aspects, like coachability.

Supporting Interns After Their Hiring

Onboarding interns into a full-time position can be largely the same as that conducted for external hires. At Walker Sands, both types of new employees take part in new hire classes and department overviews, among other introductory sessions.

But former interns also play a role in the evaluation process by suggesting program improvements. “A lot of how the program is structured today is based off that type of feedback,” Lantin said. Examples of such feedback include wanting to learn more about various departments, or needing more training about a specific software that the company uses.

Over time, Walker Sands has built that feedback into its introductory training for interns, Lantin said. One of his biggest takeaways for other talent professionals is that they should be looking to balance how to support interns while still allowing them space to grow on their own.

“Not everyone is built for sink or swim,” Lantin said. “The more you can support people without holding their hand, the more they can be successful at the next level.”

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