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Etiquette for an Intern Newbie

By Eric Hurlock

When you do an internship, you're in a different world than the campus. Even if you've worked before, an internship might be your first chance to work with people who are experienced in your chosen field. Navigating this world can be tricky, especially your first time.

Common sense and courtesy are the basics for professional conduct, but we recommend reviewing some of the finer points of office etiquette before you make your debut.

In some ways, being an intern is like being a freshman again-you're lower than entry-level, you've never worked in a professional environment, and you'd really like to avoid committing any embarrassing blunders. Common sense and courtesy are the basics for professional conduct, but we recommend reviewing some of the finer points of office etiquette before you make your debut. Creating a good impression during your internship will help you secure networking contacts, or maybe even a full-time job.

Keeping up on what is appropriate workplace behavior and what's not can be a real challenge, especially for someone new to the workplace. In addition, the people you'll be working with probably will be older than you and may have different values. Remember that you're in an office-not a frat house-and avoid these office no-nos:

  • Don't swear at work; it will only make you sound immature and unintelligent and might make coworkers uncomfortable.
  • Remember that people like to maintain a certain realm of personal space.
  • Don't steal office supplies.
  • Don't talk negatively about coworkers.
  • Avoid sexually suggestive comments, racist language, and inappropriate jokes.
  • Try not to contradict your boss.
  • Keep personal calls to a minimum.

Email mainstays
Email has become just as much a part of conducting business as face-to-face meetings, phone calls, and written memos. Effective communication-verbal and written, including email-will help you make the best possible impression.

  • Keep your messages short and to the point.
  • Remember that tone is easy to misinterpret over email, so be straightforward.
  • Use proper English, grammar, and spelling.
  • Always include a subject line in your message for easy reference.
  • Use the signature feature. (It looks professional and it's easy.)
  • Avoid sending personal email from work. (Your company may monitor your emails.)

Putting your best shoe forward
"Business casual" is the vague dress code that many offices follow these days. If you don't know how to dress for your first day of work, ask your hiring manager what people wear to the office so you aren't the only one wearing flip-flops.

  • Never be sloppy; always be ironed, tucked in, and combed.
  • If your office policy stipulates business attire, you can't go wrong with the conservative suit. As a student, you're not expected to own an extensive business wardrobe; just make sure you always look professional and polished.
  • If your office is casual, or has casual Fridays, don't pull out the baseball hat and shorts right away. Wait to see how casual is casual.
  • Conservative is a good rule of thumb; tight-fitting or revealing clothes will create the wrong impression.

Phone fanatic
Ah - the telephone. You've been using it all your life; what more do you need to know? Plenty. Just as grammatical errors work against you in professional documents, the way you handle yourself in phone conversations and on voice mail messages creates an impression of you.

  • Speak clearly and slowly.
  • Answer your phone in a professional manner. Identify yourself. Be polite.
  • If you find yourself tangled in a game of phone tag, don't worry-just be persistent. Don't give up just because you think you're being annoying. Tags like "I'm sure you must be very busy" can be helpful.
  • If you have phone phobia, try writing out what you want to say before you make a call. This way you'll be sure to cover all your points and you won't sound jumbled.
  • If you're the opposite of phone-phobic, remember that conversation is a two-way street. Let the other person talk.

How friendly is too friendly?
As a college student, you pride yourself on your hyper-developed social skills. But a workplace is not a party. Boundaries can be a good thing. While we're not suggesting you fend off traditional friendships in the workplace, it may be easier to have some borders between your work and nonwork lives. That way, outside tensions won't creep into your work, and you'll truly be able to leave work behind at the end of each day. And should you find yourself falling in love with the hottie in the next cube, try to think clearly. If you're serious about developing your professional reputation, getting involved with a coworker is a risky move.

Play nicely with others
Don't be surprised if you don't get along with everyone in the office. Working in teams, especially, can make for some combustible situations. As an intern, it's your duty to get along with the staff as well as possible. But an impossible working relationship can cause stress and anxiety, create tension in the office, and lead to poor performance. So what can you do?

  • Remember that you and your fellow intern or coworker don't have to be friends; just focus on improving your working relationship. Communicate with each other in straightforward, nonthreatening discussion.
  • Talk about the barriers that are preventing you from doing your jobs as they relate to one another. Recognize your own faults, too.
  • Talk about solutions. Work with your colleague to remedy the situation by agreeing to be mindful of the issues that are bothering each of you. If you find that it's just impossible for you and a coworker to get along, act professionally no matter what, and be sure you don't make a worse situation for yourself. If the conflict affects your work, speak with your supervisor, but avoid bad-mouthing the other employee. And don't act petty. Your own reputation may suffer.

Common sense is the best rule of thumb when navigating the rules of office etiquette. And if you err on the side of conservative behavior, you will always be in the clear. Remember, you're the new kid. Chances are you're the youngest and most inexperienced, as well. Be observant, ask questions, and do a good job.

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