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Decoding office etiquette: guiding interns effectively

Interns often struggle with office etiquette, from dress codes to punctuality and communication norms. Clear, explicit guidelines help bridge this gap. Evil HR Lady explains how to ensure a smooth integration and shares her insights.

Suzanne Lucas
Suzanne Lucas

Suzanne, the Evil HR Lady, shares expertise, guidance, and insights based on 10+ years of experience in corporate human resources....

Decoding office etiquette

According to this post on Reddit, when an intern showed up to work in a crop top, even though it violated the written dress code, she defended her outfit, saying she’d learned it from an HR TikTok video.

Someone in the thread suggested it sounded like this influencer:


View this post on Instagram


A post shared by Nicole Pellegrino (@nicolepellegrin0)

To which the original poster said, yes, just with shorts instead of a mini skirt.

Now, to defend the Instagrammer, she plays the role of a clueless person, but apparently, not everyone catches on to that.

It’s intern season, and this Redditor discovered that even though the company gave the interns a dress code, it didn’t stick in their heads.

If you have interns showing up to work, you could use more clarity around office rules than you need for more established employees.

If you have interns showing up to work, you could use more clarity around office rules than you need for more established employees.

Or, as one Redditor said,  “spell it out in crayons.”

Here is some help spelling things out so every employee–even your interns can understand.

Office etiquette: dress code 

Because dress code violations brought this all on, let’s start there. Things like “business casual” or “business attire” and, especially, “dress for the day you have” can work just fine with experienced professionals, but with people who are in their first professional environment, it’s not enough.

Be crystal clear with what you mean by your dress code. HR Director at LPS, Marie Lobbezoo, suggests wording such as:

  • Backs and stomachs should be covered at all times. 
  • Proper undergarments must be worn at all times. T-Shirts, Camisoles, and/or Bras are recommended for office wear under outer clothing.
  • Underwear as outerwear is not permitted in the office.
  • Bra straps and underwear should not be visible when you are fully dressed,
  • Leggings should only be worn under a tunic or top layer that extends to mid-thigh.
  • Strapless or spaghetti-strap tops should only be worn with a top layer over them.

You might find that ridiculously over the top, but you need to assume that interns (and some more experienced employees) will have no idea what is and is not appropriate.

Spelling it out makes it straightforward for everyone and removes discomfort from managers and HR. You don’t have to struggle with why their outfit is inappropriate; just point to the bullet point on the list.

Punctuality and breaks

Interns should understand the importance of punctuality, as school classes start at specific times, but office environments can feel different. Meetings with coworkers or clients can feel like get-togethers for group projects, but it’s not the same. It falls under the office etiquette.

Be specific about what you expect. If you need our interns to show up at 8:30, say so clearly and speak with someone the first time they arrive at 8:40. This may seem overly nitpicky, but the goal of an internship is to train people how to act in an office.

If your office is more casual about start times, that’s great! Just let your intern know precisely what you expect. And don’t demand that your intern be there at 8:30 when you aren’t going to stroll in until 9:45. If there is a reason for the difference in start times, also make that clear.

Breaks can be a weird concept for people in their first job. If they worked in food services or retail, they undoubtedly had breaks assigned by a shift leader and strictly timed. But white-collar breaks can be much more casual. Can your interns wander to the kitchen for coffee or a glass of water anytime? Probably. Do you want them to spend half the day there? Probably not.

What about lunch? How long is it? Do people generally eat at their desks, pack lunches, or go out? Remember that your interns probably can’t afford to eat out daily, so let them know where they can store their lunches and whether eating at their desks is acceptable.

What should they call people?

When I was in college, we called all the professors “Doctor” or “Professor.” Grad students who taught undergraduate classes were referred to by their first names. When I moved to graduate school, the professors introduced themselves to us by their first names.

I struggled with using their first names throughout grad school because it just seemed wrong to me.

It doesn’t matter what your standard is–just tell the interns. “We call everyone by their first name except for the CEO, whom we call Ms. Smith.”  Or, “Please call clients Mr. or Ms. Last Name until they ask you to use their first names.” 

Just make it very, very clear. That way, there is no awkwardness.

They know what to expect. Different cultures and different schools use very different naming standards. Don’t assume they will know your company practices. 

The first few days and weeks at a new job are stressful for seasoned professionals, triple that for interns.

Be incredibly clear about expectations and correct them promptly and politely. If you can do this, intern season will be great for you and your interns.

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