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Bring strategic rigor to your internship program

Hiring slowly via a rigorous process should be your mantra for any level of employment going forward, especially internships.

5 min read


Great hiring isn’t an instant process, and many companies would benefit from developing more-structured internship programs, in which success and proof of a good fit are measured over time

Image credit, phillipspears, via iStock

Great hiring isn’t an instant process, and many companies would benefit from developing more-structured internship programs, in which success and proof of a good fit are measured over time. For a model of this approach, look to the top consulting firms of the world. Bain, McKinsey and BCG tap only the brightest, most highly accomplished, perfectly polished college and graduate program candidates to interview with their respective companies. Then, only the very best of those best are offered summer internships and positions after graduation.

With a new academic year approaching, now is a good time for companies large and small to carefully consider more strategic internship policies.  Here are five suggestions that can help.

  • Consider academic calendars when planning internship phases. Obviously the pace of business and the economic realities of your office rule, but you’ll get better results if you  respect critical exam, term paper and thesis periods.  The best college seniors and final-year graduate students are gunning for top grades, and you don’t want your internship to stand in their way. If your company prefers short internships, brief field studies or specific hiring periods that coincide with annual conferences or isolated events, holiday breaks  between semesters can be ideal. And ramp up expectations with each semester: Begin phase one in the fall, matriculate to phase two in the spring and then offer an intense phase three internship during the summer. This system also makes it easier to analyze patterns of performance before hiring full-time the following fall.
  • Scare B-list candidates away upfront. General, fluffy job listings create more work for your HR team in the long run than a sharply  focused one would.  First, too many random candidates respond. Second, HR must then sift through a mountain of lackluster or insincere applicants. Third, these are short-term applicants that need any job they can get, as opposed to A-list candidates interested in a long-term career path with you. There’s a much better way: Sit down with key managers to carefully draft the most challenging, rigorous, mutually exclusive and collectively exhaustive job description write-ups as possible –– with zero fluff. Include a roster of advanced role requirements and high cover letter expectations that invite only the keenest and most accomplished to apply. In short, scare the heck out of flaky applicants. Shotgun-blast resume slingers and well-dressed slackers won’t bother applying.
  • Require each intern to digest an advanced reading list. This intense material absorption not only tests each intern’s mettle, mind and priority management, advanced reading lists help bridge that frustrating gap between academia and the real business world. At our strategy and turnaround management firm, intern reading lists consist of 13 industry-, client- and position-leading books. Some are classic works, others contemporary and cutting edge works. Most are math, science and behavioral economics reads. This aggressive syllabus  requires time-consuming homework outside working hours, which further defends against weak or lazy applicants upfront.
  • Pay your interns. Sadly, internships are widely considered as sources of free labor, which is absolutely false. Internships are supposed to be intense learning experiences, extended job interviews and on-the-job training as a mutual exchange of service and education. The best companies attract and retain the best interns by offering modest bonuses at critical stages during their tenure. The secret is to not mention compensation until the third interview. And get creative. Besides paying them a wage, offer to pay for schoolbooks, a campus meal plan, a holiday trip home to see friends or family, or even a laptop.  Appropriately compensating candidates throughout the internship process helps them avoid financial duress, which builds a better working relationship and brands your company as a fair and equitable place to work.
  • Deliberately schedule interns to attend multiple mixed-company events. Beyond the workplace, job description and weekly to-do list, observing potential hires in multiple real-world situations is imperative before full-time positions are offered. Cocktail parties, golf outings, industry-related conferences, civic club lunches, company BBQs or a day of local community service –– the list of potential events is endless. Mixed-company events take your working relationship beyond their classroom and your conference room to engage real-world settings with real people.  How appropriately do interns dress or carry themselves during various occasions? Is their ability to mingle and carry on multiple conversations crisp, or do they thumb their BlackBerry every few minutes? Do they gulp down the last sip of wine (if legally aged), or confidently leave a half-inch in their glass? Do they offer to help clean up after a company picnic, or eat and run? Do they adhere to the rules of golf? You get the idea. Devise your own list of multiple mixed-company events, and then observe interns in various settings to gauge behavior.

As potential candidates emerge from colleges and graduate schools, hiring processes should be especially selective and exhaustive over time. No one in their right mind would choose a spouse after one date, admit a student at the first recruiting event or hire a CEO after one interview. Even top athletes at the college, professional and Olympic sporting levels must be carefully scouted and coached over time. In short, hiring slowly via a rigorous process should be your mantra for any level of employment going forward, especially internships.


Baron Christopher Hanson is the principal and lead strategist at RedBaron Advisors in Charleston, S.C., and Palm Beach, Fla. A former rugby player, Harvard graduate, and expert on workplace and small-business turnarounds, Hanson has written for Harvard Business Review and SmartBrief considerably. He can be reached for consulting roles and speaking gigs via e-mail or over Twitter @RBC_ThinkTank.