Interns Anonymous: Working with Workplace Conflict

You thought the struggle was finally over and done with. You’ve made it through training and finally think you know how to do your job…

And then you overhear crying in the bathroom stall during lunch hour. More than likely this will be caused by simple workplace bullying. According to Forbes, 75% of employees are affected by experiences as either a witness or victim of office aggression.

It’s hard enough to land an internship but no one mentioned after all the drafts of cover-letters, resumes, and bad headshots for LinkedIn the arrival of the inevitable workplace conflict. This for most of us will arise in the same form it did for me, the witness of one employee’s personal victimization, but the principle holds true for all professional squabbles. As an intern this situation is confusing both professionally and personally. Personally, our own morals will invoke a sense of right and wrong. Professionally, it is not our place to say anything.

It is an unfortunate fact that interns are more in debt to the companies for which work for those companies are to them. A more unfortunate fact is the company and the employee’s awareness of this power disparity. The most well-meaning employers will not be pleased by a novice’s identification, opinion or mere observation of unprofessional actions within the administration. It threatens the company’s well-being and those therein. It might also happen that you as an intern identify an unaddressed workplace conflict/bullying situation. More often than not it will be because those involved intentionally want the situation to pass by undetected.  It will be uncomfortable, possibly unsettling. Inevitably you will have an opinion and more than likely will not be asked or wanted to share it. It is an inconvenient symptom of bureaucracy.

Now, in a perfect world nothing would inhibit an intern from furthering this relevant experience. This is not a perfect world and regrettably there are no perfect careers. In reality, in this situation, there are two choices here: say nothing or say something.

Voicing your opinions or observations could risk your position. Although most workplace bullies are actually not those in power, some companies consider all employees as supervisors to the intern. Approaching a superior, no matter how trusted or understanding, is intimidating and the sensitive topic multiplies these insecurities. The cost of losing months of relevant training and experience might be too much to risk for some. The cost of compromising one’s values and the pain of another employee might seem too much for others. Yet it is something we should educate young students entering the workforce about.

What I’ve hoped to illustrate here is not a moralization of how to handle the situation, because there is no right way to proceed. There is what is right morally or the right career move or a mixture of both and neither possible. As we prepare for the job market, we should be prepared also for the spider-silk thin line that separates personal and professional. It is one thing to be proud of the job you do, and another to be proud of how you do it. Therefore we should be aware that even in the professional world some will inhibit that for us and others.

Image Credit: Feature, 1, 2, 3