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7 Internship Disasters & How to Handle Them


Summer internship season is in full swing, and you’ve probably already settled into your rhythms at work and are feeling pretty comfortable about your performance, but that doesn’t mean you’re exempt from embarrassing office mishaps (although we wish you were!).  

Whether you’re the star intern (of course you are, you career-minded collegiette!) or you’re still trying to get on your feet, office disasters happen to everyone at one time or another. While there’s no doubt that an unexpected catastrophe can seriously throw off your workplace game, HC is here to make sure you know exactly how to handle that cringe-worthy moment and keep your office reputation intact.

1. Computer failure

There is nothing, nothing more terrifying than thinking you just lost the last three year’s worth of data on your computer. We’ve been there, collegiettes, we really have, and we feel for you. Unfortunately, the computer gods don’t always understand the critical importance of our Excel spreadsheets, and crashes do happen, so it’s important to know how to deal when they do.

First and foremost, back up your computer. Seriously, do not ignore this tip. You can use an internal backup service, like Time Machine for Macs, or an external hard drive. An external hard drive is a device that you plug into your computer to back up your data. Once you back it up, you should have all of your data stored on the physical device (slightly larger in size than an iPhone), and you can plug the hard drive into your computer to restore all your data if it crashes. Regardless of how you back your data up, make sure you’re backing up your computer at least once a week, if not more often.

Collegiettes, computers are fragile things. If you drop them, spill water on them or simply don’t take care of them, they’ll have a high chance of breaking. If one of these things happens to you while at work, don’t panic. Stay calm and do what you can to prevent the situation from getting any worse.

Aja, a sophomore at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, handled a terrifying tech-related situation perfectly when she spilled coffee all over her brand new laptop at her internship.

“Internally, I was panicking, but I didn’t want my first impression to be a bad one!” Aja says. “I grabbed some rice from a nearby grocery store, put my computer in a bag with the rice, then calmly asked my supervisor if I could take my laptop to a repair store. She was super nice about the situation and told me to take as long as I needed.”

If you don’t have access to rice or you can’t leave work to take your laptop to a repair shop, stay calm. Immediately remove any chargers or plugs from your computer and turn it off completely to avoid an electric charge interacting with the liquid. Clean up whatever you can, making sure to get in between keys on the keyboard (Q-tips are good for this) and underneath the computer so it’s not sitting in liquid. Use baby wipes to get rid of sticky residue from coffee.

Once the excess liquid has been removed, go to the bathroom or step outside and breathe in and out, call your mom if you need to and try to pull yourself together. As dramatic as it sounds, remind yourself that your life is not centered around your computer, and think of all the amazing, technology-inclined people out there who are going to help you recover your data.

Once you’ve calmed down, head back into the office, inform your supervisor of the incident and prop your computer open and turn it over to try and allow gravity to remove some of the liquid. Experts say it’s normal for a computer to take up to 48 hours to dry out completely after liquid damage, so don’t be panicked if it doesn’t turn on that night. Grab a notebook and pen (or use a computer at a local library) and do your best to keep up with your workload until it starts working again or you can take it to a repair shop.

If you can stay calm in the office, you’ll impress your office and keep your computer crash in perspective.

2. A nasty coworker

Are mean girls the worst or are mean girls the worst? We wish we could say that catty girls don’t exist outside of high school, but, unfortunately, they do. Maybe she’s ultracompetitive and determined to outshine you at every opportunity, or she’s eyeing the same office cutie and intentionally flirting in front of you, or maybe she’s just a good old-fashioned Regina George, the leader of the office clique. No matter who she is, it’s important to be able to stand up for yourself and not let her catty ways affect your performance on the job.

If she’s a gossiper, it’s best to steer clear of her. The whole idea of “kill her with kindness” is all well and good, but you shouldn’t feel like you have to be overly nice to someone who isn’t nice to you. Don’t retaliate by gossiping about her, but don’t be afraid to call her out if you overhear her talking about you—it’s your right to defend yourself in the workplace, especially if her attacks are genuinely offending you, becoming detrimental to your performance or making it difficult to concentrate at work.

“If you sense negativity or experience outright attacks and defensive behavior, try your best to approach the person directly about it—alone,” says Joan Snyder Kuhl, founder of Why Millennials Matter, a Gen-Y speaking and consulting company. Just make sure you’re being calm, composed and professional in your delivery. Say something along the lines of, “Is there something that I did to upset you? I would hate for there to be animosity between us. I know we’re both dedicated to this job and I want us to both be able to perform at our best.”

If that doesn’t work, talk to your supervisor about being relocated within your department or switching to a different project. Try something like, “I really love the project I’m working on, but I’ve always wanted to learn more about marketing and I think I could offer some valuable contributions to the department project.” No need to slam your coworker (you’re better than that!), but putting some distance between you and the office mean girl will allow you to focus and excel at work.

3. A wardrobe malfunction

It’s the morning of your big presentation, and you’re minding your own business, sipping your Starbucks venti iced caramel macchiato, when a woman on the street runs into you head-on. Before you know it, you’re left with an empty coffee cup and a massive stain. What’s a fashion-forward collegiette to do?

Well, for starters, break out those paper towels and get to work on damage control. Once you’ve cleaned up, assess the situation. Do you have time to run home and change before work? If so, run like the wind. If you don’t and your office requires a more professional look, consider borrowing a colleague’s sweater to disguise a stain or ducking into the nearest Ann Taylor to purchase a replacement dress or skirt. If you’re pressed for time and can’t, walk into the office with your head held high—it happens to everyone!

If clumsy mishaps are an unfortunately common occurrence for you, Kuhl recommends putting together an “emergency kit” for just such an occasion.

“I have an extra pair of black heels, lightweight walking shoes, Spanx, an umbrella, clear tape used for closing a blouse (if a button pops), hairspray, static guard, mouthwash/mints, etc.,” Kuhl says. “If you have room to fold a non-wrinkle blouse/sweater, then you are prepared for the inevitable coffee spill!”

If your wardrobe malfunction is more along the lines of see-through pants with patterned underwear or your skirt blowing up around an air vent and flashing the office, the best thing you can do is laugh it off. Stressing about your malfunction will only make it into a bigger deal, whereas if you act like it’s nothing, people will forget all about it by lunch—we promise!

4. Hooking up with a coworker … and regretting it

We know; there’s something super sexy about a man with ambition who’s interested in the same things you are (and the professional wardrobe doesn’t hurt, either). Most people will tell you to stay away, far away from an office romance, but sometimes a coworker hook-up just happens, completely unplanned.

Maybe you were all out at the bar last weekend, you had one too many Long Island Iced Teas and things got a little handsy at the end of the night. Now it’s Monday, and you have no idea who in the office knows about your hook-up or if people in the break room will gossip about you.

The first tip is an obvious one: Don’t tell anyone! The more people you tell, the more likely your gossip is to get back to your supervisor or your colleagues. If you’re worried he’ll be the one to blab, talk to him about it beforehand and make it clear in a friendly tone that you don’t want your hook-up to distract you from your work performance: “Hey, John, I know we had a little too much fun the other night—let’s keep this one on the DL so we can focus on the tasks at hand without worrying about petty office gossip!”

The alternative is completely ignoring your hook-up out of sheer awkwardness, which is definitely not the way to go (although it’s tempting!). Let him know that you’re mature and not embarrassed by what happened (even if you are) by acting as normally as possible. Being friendly but professional will let him know that things aren’t going to be awkward but will make it clear that your job comes first.

If word does get out, do your best to play it cool. Take responsibility for your actions and don’t deny it or be immature by talking about how bad he is at kissing to try to deflect some of the heat. Acknowledge that it was a mistake and a one-time deal, and stress how important your job is and that you’d never want to jeopardize it. Everyone slips up now and then; just make sure you’re clear about your priorities. 

5. Running (really) late

Sometimes that custom Beyoncé alarm tone just fails you … or you fail to set it. Either way, even the most organized and punctual collegiette will find herself running late from time to time.

While knowing you’re going to be late can strike panic into the heart of even the most pulled-together girl, it’s important to recognize that this happens to everyone, and your supervisor will most likely be understanding … at least, the first time. Your boss was once an intern or an entry-level employee, and he or she has most likely been in your shoes. Just don’t make a habit of showing up late!

Kuhl stresses office etiquette if you find yourself running late to work. “Own up to this mistake immediately. No excuses,” she says. “Text or email them to let them know your estimated time of arrival.”

When you finally plop your stuff down at your desk, it’s important to make up for lost time by really buckling down. Show your supervisor that you’re serious about your job and you regret being late by going the extra mile or staying later. Kuhl also suggests coming in “at least 15 minutes early the following day.” Ending the incident on a good note will make it much easier for the higher-ups to forgive your lateness!

6. Accidentally sending a personal email to the whole office

We’re not gonna lie—this one is rough. How you handle this sticky situation completely depends on the content of said email. Was it a quick note to your office BFF about what time you’re meeting up for drinks on Friday night? If so, chances are it will be easy to brush off. Fire off another brief email to the whole office apologizing for the mix-up by saying something like, “Whoops, sorry about that! I’ll definitely be sure to check (and re-check!) my email addresses next time!”

If the content of your email was a bit more, shall we say, personal, like you complaining about that super annoying girl from the marketing department, you need to do a bit more damage control. You really shouldn’t ever be sending emails through cyberspace regarding your issues with your workplace—it’s not professional and, frankly, it’s just not nice! Start by talking to your boss or supervisor in person and apologizing for the email, acknowledging that it was a mistake to send it.

At this point it might be a good idea to send another email to the office apologizing and, if it was a legitimate criticism of the company, asking to clarify your thoughts, as they were misrepresented but ultimately genuine. For instance, if you slammed your company for mishandling a big project, make amends by emphasizing that you really care about the success of your company and making suggestions about how to handle a similar project going forward.

There’s really no easy way to handle an email mistake, but handling an immature situation with professionalism and maturity can make things go a whole lot more smoothly.

7. Being reprimanded by your boss

No matter how stellar you are at your job, there will be the occasional assignment that you just don’t fully understand, and sometimes that means botching a project and letting your supervisor down. As terrifying as it can be, being reprimanded by a boss happens to everyone at some point during a career, and it can actually be constructive if you take the time to listen to what your supervisor is saying.

If you do end up getting the dreaded email from your boss asking to meet with you, stay calm. Acknowledging where you made a mistake will show your boss that you’ve been listening to his or her critiques and are taking responsibility for your actions. “Show your ability to take feedback—the good and the bad,” Kuhl says.

Once your boss knows that you’re receptive to criticism, it’s time to offer up solutions. This is something you should think about before meeting with your boss so you can demonstrate your commitment to the company and desire to make it right. “Show how strong and open you are to getting things right to succeed at the job,” Kuhl says. “If your boss is not clear in explaining what needs to be done on the assignment, then ask a couple of clarifying questions.”

The more quickly you can offer up solutions and follow through with them, the more likely your boss will see you as good under pressure. Everyone slips up, but not everyone can recover gracefully.

Knowing how to handle an office misstep is a must-have skill for any career-minded collegiette. Remember, everyone makes mistakes at work; it’s how you handle those mistakes that makes a difference!s

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