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‘My Intern Is a Complainer!’

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Dear Boss,

I’m struggling to figure out how to give feedback to an intern about the constant barrage of criticism she emits.

The intern in question, “Alice,” spends one day a week here, along with several other interns, through a graduate-level academic program that will last four years. All of these interns are over 21 and are paid; this work experience is a required part of their program. 

She’s very bright and competent, but I think she sees herself as proactive and a problem-solver, when actually she comes across as simply complaining all the time. Her complaints range from relatively minor issues that are easily fixed (“this task takes too long!” — because she doesn’t know how to use a particular program efficiently yet) to issues that are endemic to the field as a whole, to things like the physical layout of the office (she suggested remodeling the office at an all-staff meeting). She often tries to offer solutions to the “problems” she identifies, but because of her lack of experience, her suggestions are often unwieldy, impractical due to costs or time requirements, or ignore external constraints like regulatory requirements. She seems to think that all explanations to this effect simply reflect a lack of will or energy to solve the problem on the part of the office. We’re generally pretty responsive to intern feedback and we’ve accommodated a number of the more reasonable complaints (getting her additional training on the computer program, revamping some of our orientation process, etc.), but obviously we are not going to remodel the office to her preferences or magically find a solution to a structural issue that affects literally every graduate program in this field.

Her attitude is starting to rub off on the other interns in her cohort. Even worse, she is taking all of these complaints back to her program, which initially assumed that the problem must be with our office. (Fortunately, it sounds like they are starting to hear that she is exactly the same way in other settings, so that particular issue may resolve itself.)

We really can’t get rid of her unless she leaves the program, and her actual work is done well. But I would like to give her some feedback about how she’s being perceived, both for her benefit and for ours. I’m finding it hard to do because she’s not necessarily wrong about the individual things she finds annoying, but the sheer volume of complaints, lack of filter, and tendency to escalate issues to higher-ups regardless of the severity or validity of her complaint is making everyone in the office dread seeing her. One of the other managers referred to her as a “dementor” at a recent meeting, and it’s … not inaccurate. Being around her can be very draining. As I said, though, I feel like she sees herself as a proactive go-getter and advocate, and I worry that unless we phrase this very well she may simply decide that we’re just being defensive. 

Ooooh, yeah, you’ll be doing everyone involved such a favor if you do talk to her about this — including her, because it sounds like it’s seriously hurting her reputation. And she’s with you for four years? After four years of this, she’s going to have so solidly established herself as a pain in the ass that whatever connections she probably hoped to make from this program will be thoroughly convinced not to hire her, recommend her, or otherwise help her — and will probably actively warn others away from hiring her.

But even if that weren’t the case, you and your co-workers would be entitled to tell her to cut it out simply because what she’s doing is annoying and disruptive. It’s not that people can’t make suggestions or identify problems, of course, and frankly you’ve got to expect a certain amount of naïveté from interns who don’t yet have the expertise to always know which suggestions are worth making and which aren’t, but chronic complainers are exhausting and distracting to everyone around them. And the fact that it’s rubbing off on your other interns now isn’t good. These are all legitimate reasons to tell her to cut it out — even aside from the impact on her own reputation.

So, yes, talk to her! I’d start by saying something like this: “I want to talk to you about something that’s concerning me and I think it will hold you back professionally if you don’t address it. I’m sure you don’t realize or intend to do this, but you’re building up a pattern of frequent complaints about work. It’s becoming disruptive, and it’s going to make it hard for you to build the reputation that I’m sure you want to build through your work here.”

You could also say, “I appreciate that you want to identify and solve problems. But at this stage in your career, you don’t yet have the experience you need to make you really effective at doing that. You don’t know how to use all our software effectively yet, or know all the regulatory requirements that might be in play, or (fill in a few more reasons why her judgment is not yet where it needs to be). That’s normal at this point in your career, so you shouldn’t feel badly about it — but you do need to recognize that it’s the case. The reality is that, as an intern, you’re primarily here to learn. That doesn’t mean that we’re not interested in your thoughts and ideas.
But the majority of your time here should be spent listening and learning, because that’s what will build up your professional standing and credibility over time. Coming in without a lot of experience and telling people to change things is going to turn people off — because you don’t yet have the credibility or expertise that you need to do that.”

Of course, one of the frustrating things about dealing with this kind of person is that they tend to hear this kind of thing as an indication that you’re just not open to hearing about problems, or that you can’t handle their sharp-eyed truth-telling. So it’s helpful to address that explicitly by saying something like this: “It’s not that you shouldn’t ever speak up when something is important to you or when you see a problem that needs to be fixed or when you have a better way of doing something. But you need to do it thoughtfully, which means assessing it against other priorities, and judging whether you’re the right person to raise an issue (which as an intern you might not be), and knowing how to pick your battles. You will make yourself much less effective — in any work environment, not just ours — if you do it indiscriminately.”

Ideally if you approach it this way, that initial conversation will be part “stop doing this” and part coaching on why. But if her behavior continues after that,  you may need to drop the coaching element altogether and just tell her it needs to stop. That could sound like this: “Pushing back this frequently takes up quite a bit of time and, like we talked about earlier, has become disruptive. Going forward, if you have questions about your work, please let me know, but otherwise I need you to stop pushing for things like X, Y, or Z and simply stay focused on your assignments.”

And if it still keeps happening after thatI’d strongly urge you to consider removing her from the program. I know you said you can’t do that — but typically that means “we don’t generally do that” rather than “we can’t do that under any circumstances.” If you’ve told her repeatedly that she’s being disruptive and she’s not changing her behavior — and it’s affecting other interns and distracting the rest of you from your work — that’s a serious enough issue that it warrants removing her.

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‘My Intern Is a Complainer!’