Ask a Boss: My Intern Is Unbelievably Rude!

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Photo: Susan Wood

Dear Boss,

I’m not a manager, but I could use some outside advice. I’m an entry-level engineer who’s been with this company for just over a year. I’ve found this to be a great place to work with very friendly co-workers and exceptionally accommodating management. I feel I’ve gone out of my way to help the team out, improve our internal operations, and generally be a positive influence in the office (so much so that I’ve received a 10 percent raise after my first year — not sure if that means anything, but I’m super-proud of myself). But I’ve recently run into a problem with one of the new interns we’ve hired.

Some background: We’re an event-based service, and I’m part of the production department. That basically means sometimes things ramp up to insane levels and I pull 30-hour shifts, while other times things are so quiet I have nothing to do but to work on outside projects (this is one of the benefits of the job my boss stated in our interview process). Our corporate culture is basically that you get your work done, you cover for others’ mistakes, you make sure the client doesn’t notice screw-ups, and nobody questions what you do. Our dress code is “yes, be dressed.” I could practically run around this office with my pants on my head screaming that I’m the king of Australia and nobody would care as long as I don’t interrupt an event or client call. (I just asked my boss if I could do that and he joked “as long as you don’t do it on the security cameras” — just to stress that we’re a really chill office.)

This intern I’m writing about has started asking me some uncomfortable questions that I feel are inappropriate. Yes, I’ve told him explicitly that I don’t want to answer them, but he persists. He’s asked me the following:

* “How much money do you make?” (an innocent enough question by a young person, but asked several times after I’ve said I don’t want to answer that)

* “What do you do — do you even do anything?” (implying that I don’t do any work, again asked several times)

* “Don’t you feel bad for not doing any work?” (outright stating I don’t bring anything to the table, again asked several times)

* “Why don’t you exercise more?” (referencing my weight)

Here’s what really annoys me: It’s not as if these questions even come up in a conversation — he just shows up next to me and asks me. I’ve tried to explain some things to him (I can only do the work that’s available, we’re currently in the summer downtime and will ramp up again in September), but he keeps asking these questions, and it’s getting to the point that I’m starting to get annoyed that an intern is questioning my value at this company.

Given that, I have two questions for you. First, am I being a jerk? I have some social awkwardness history that I don’t want to get into, so I honestly need to know. It’s been my experience that you just don’t ask people “what do you do here?” or “how much do you make?” I’ve been taught that’s a bit of a business faux pas. Am I wrong?

Second, as someone with managerial aspirations (and I realize I’m probably a long ways off), I’m curious how a good manager — someone who cares about the company and its employees — would consider to be the best way to handle this situation. I think my options are:

- Talk to his boss about the uncomfortable questioning. (I don’t like this option as I feel like I’d be interfering in their business.)

- Talk to HR about this (but I feel that’s overkill and taking things “outside the business,” as it were).

- Talk to the intern about it privately and politely explain I want him to stop asking me these questions. (I’ve already done this out in the office, but perhaps a more private conversation would work? I doubt it myself.)

- Suck it up, wait for his internship to end, and let it go (with the knowledge that this guy may one day land on his face out in the real world).

I would think “suck it up” would be the best option for this particular situation.

What the hell?!

This guy is being incredibly rude. You are not being a jerk by having a problem with these questions! You are actually being way too nice by continuing to answer him and not shutting him down.

His behavior would be incredibly rude for anyone, but the fact that he’s an intern — someone who’s supposed to recognize that he’s there to learn from other people — gives this a whole additional layer of WTF-ness. It also means that “suck it up” isn’t something you should even be considering. You should never have to put up with this behavior from anyone, but if it’s coming from above you, it can sometimes be harder to shut it down. When it’s coming from the lowest person on the totem pole, though, it’s very, very easy to stamp it out. (Or at least it should be, in an even halfway functional company … even in a 25 percent functional company.)

You should do two things, and neither of them involve sucking it up:

1. The next time this guy makes one of these rude comments to you, say this in the sternest tone you can muster: “Why on earth would you ask someone that, let alone someone at a company where you’re an intern hoping to make a good impression?” Some other phrases to use in this conversation: “That is shockingly rude. Do not ask anyone here a question like that again.” (And if you don’t trust yourself to be appropriately stern in the moment, we need to arrange to have me talking into an earpiece in your ear and feeding you lines like Cyrano de Bergerac, because I really, really want you to shut this down.)

2. Relay all of this to his boss. You mentioned that you’re worried that this would be interfering in her management of the intern, but it absolutely would not be. Any manager would want to know that her intern was being openly rude to other employees — and in fact would be upset if you didn’t tell her about this and then she found out after the fact. By not telling her, you’re actually denying her crucial information that she needs to manage him effectively. Tell her what’s going on and don’t pull any punches.

I would say it this way: “Hey, I need to let you know that Rupert has been repeatedly rude to me. He’s told me several times he doesn’t think I do any work here, has asked why I don’t exercise more, and has asked over and over how much money I make, after I’ve told him to stop. To be clear, this isn’t typical intern naïveté; it’s intentional and aggressive rudeness, and I’m pretty appalled by it.”

If you find yourself feeling guilty about doing this, remember that not only is it a favor to his manager, but it’s also a favor to the dude himself; he’s far better off getting this lesson now, as an intern, rather than at a regular job where the stakes are higher.

And last, can we talk about  your assumption that you had to put up with such flagrant mistreatment? It worries me that you felt like you probably just had to accept it, because that likely means you’ve been assuming that you have to accept other things that you actually shouldn’t put up with (and which good managers wouldn’t want you to suffer in silence about). Sometimes that tendency can be traced back to past bad bosses; if you’ve had a string of employers who expected you to tolerate really inappropriate behavior or who shot you down when you raised legitimate issues, it can lead to a sort of workplace PTSD where you hesitate to ever speak up again. Other times it can have even deeper roots, like a family who didn’t teach you how to advocate for yourself in a healthy way or who taught you through their own behavior that it wouldn’t matter if you tried. Sometimes that results in not hugely important personal-style differences (maybe it’s not a huge deal if, for example, you decide to stew silently rather than ask your loud co-worker to stop taking all his calls on speaker phone), but other times it really matters, like if it makes you reluctant to speak up about harassment, or safety issues, or fair pay — or yes, really horrid colleagues.

So it might make sense to take this jerky intern as a flag to revisit any other crappy things you’re putting up with. Every job comes with a certain amount of less than awesome elements, but when something feels mean-spirited or makes you feel deeply uncomfortable or mistreated — and especially when it’s also part of an ongoing pattern — speaking up is often the right move.

Got something to Ask a Boss? Send your questions to askaboss@nymag.com.