09/25/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Human Element: Is Your Internship Program Helping or Hurting?

Is your internship program delivering the benefits you expect?

This is the end of the internship season, the summer months when students have given up fun, travel and R&R for a summer work experience with your company and hopefully a job offer to follow. Is your company's internship program helping or hurting your ability to attract future talent and build a good reputation as an employer?

For some, internships are a disappointment. Unlucky students complain that their internships were a waste of time. "If I wasn't Xeroxing, or picking up my boss's dry cleaning, I was sitting on my hands trying to find something to do," they say.

For others, internships do exactly what students generally hope they'll do -- give a chance to learn, grow and show what they can accomplish if given a real task, the attention of a supervisor or mentor, and a feeling that they are part of the team. "This has been a great experience," they rave. "I learned a ton, was challenged, and had the privilege to get to know some outstanding people."

A strong internship program is a powerful tool for attracting top talent. It provides a basis for companies to build a strong relationship with schools or other talent pools, and offer the potential for significant cost savings in recruiting. Imagine the positive vibe on campus when students talk about the great summer they've had at X bank or Y company.

But internships can also be a reputational WMD. Imagine the negative impact of students talking about what a lousy experience they had interning at your company. Tough economic times or not, Gen Y's don't want to work in an organization that doesn't respect them. And, a poorly run internship program is fundamentally disrespectful.

At National City Corp (now part of PNC), where I was chief learning and talent officer before joining The RBL Group, we took a hard look at our internship program and it pointed out serious flaws. The program was too often used as a perk for executives and important clients, and therefore was hit or miss in effectiveness. Some groups such as the Audit department did a great job, while other departments forgot that the interns were there for more than a summer paycheck.

We changed the program to require any manager wanting an intern to write a one page plan including what the intern would do, who specifically would manage them, and how they would support the intern's development. This simple tool had two results. First, internship requests went down by half. And second, the interns consistently had a far better experience.

This might be a good time for your organization to lead an "after action review" of your internship program -- a structured review of what went right and how the program can be improved. Start with responses of your 2009 interns to the following questions:

1. What were your goals from this internship? How well were they met?
2. How would you describe your experience overall?
3. How variable is the experience of interns, and how broad is the range?
4. Are you more or less interested in working for this company as a result of your internship?
5. What were the positive aspects of the program? What do you think needs to change?
6. Would you recommend this organization as an employer?

Also consider the reactions of managers and intern "mentors" to another set of questions, such as:

1. How clear or well defined are the goals of the internship program?
2. How well has the program met its goals?
3. How well managed and organized?
4. How variable are interns' experiences, and how broad a range?
5. What do you see as the strengths of the internship program? What do you think needs to change?

Another way to ensure your internship program is a success it to model the best practices of companies like P&G, GE and Exxon Mobil, which have historically paid attention to their internship programs. In general, law, accounting and investment banking organizations tend to be masters of the art of good internships. Organizations like Internbridge even offer research and workshops on the design of good internship programs.

Also, remember that the career offices of universities have a vested interest in helping organizations to improve their internship programs. Call on them for help.

Finally, make sure to ask students for their ideas for improving the internship program before they leave. And let these students know what changes your company will make as a result. Remember, they are your potential ambassadors, or detractors, on campus.

Jon Younger is a Partner of The RBL Group, a strategic HR and leadership systems advisory firm. Jon leads the Strategic HR practice area and is also a Director of the RBL Institute. He is co-author, with Dave Ulrich and three other principals at The RBL Group, of HR Competencies (SHRM, 2007), HR Transformation (McGraw-Hill, July 2009).