How do I handle an antagonistic internship supervisor?
June 15, 2016 4:59 PM   Subscribe

I may be sensitive, but it is my fourth day of my internship and I already want to give up. I also have cried in the car twice. This has to be my worst internship experience yet. Am I just being a little too sensitive or not? I'm not sure whether to ask for help or suck it up. Please help.

Not going to say what my (hopefully future) profession is, but this internship is a required step in order to get certain credentials. We have different focuses, it takes about two years, I also am in graduate school, and what not. This internship rotation is my last one, and it is clinical focused. I knew from the get-go, I do not want to work in the clinical field. I know where I want to work, it's a different area, but I want to put my best effort in this one, even if I don't particularly think I'll be a good fit.

My last clinical related class was in undergrad, about 2.5-3 years ago. We get a very short refresher course, and then are expected to learn more during the internship. I did my best to prepare, but I guess I did not prepare enough. I came in afraid of clinicals and it seems that I was right to be because my supervisor is really making me nervous.

On day one, it began with quizzing. Constant quizzing on material from my undergrad classes. I thought, OK, that's alright. I told him honestly that I didn't know the answers to all of the questions he was asking, but I would get back to him, refresh more, etc. If I could answer it, I tried. Then started in the bad comments.

"You shouldn't be in this field if you can't recall x and x"
"The other interns remembered this better."
"You're so young to be so dumb."

And so forth. If I ask him a question, he gets defensive or seems angry that I'm asking. If I try to very politely correct him or question him on one of his answers, I get cut off and dismissed. One comment about how my hair was "weird" (I have naturally very curly/kinky hair.) I'm not a very strong person, so I cried (not in front of him) but I was just so disheartened. I've never had an issue with any other supervisor at my internships before. I've gotten along, I've done hard work, I've gotten good recommendations! What am I doing wrong?? Maybe I'm not smart enough to remember everything, but I know I do have strengths in connecting with patients and communication and creativity. I am re-memorizing and refreshing on this area that I have not touched on a while, but I am still getting mentally beat down and disappointing him left and right when I can't get a question correct. I'm almost to the end of my graduation, but this guy is getting to my head and I'm questioning whether I'm good enough. The only bright spot I've had with him was his one comment that I was good with talking with patients. I know that I'm not alone though, the other workers told me that he's made other interns cry. (But they said this jovially, I'm guessing they all like him enough that this isn't a problem.)

I don't know what to do. I could contact my program director, but I think it may be pointless. I have to be kind and respectful regardless, and I don't think we're allowed to speak up because the supervisors are precious commodities. Plus, I'm afraid she'll think I'm not tough enough to handle this.

So how do I handle this? Or do I just grin and bear it for the next three months? Any advice or sensitivity slaps in the face would be appreciated.
posted by socky bottoms to Work & Money (27 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
And just to make it clear, I'm ok with being asked questions. It's a good way to learn (albeit nervously) and make me realize where my weak spots are. I guess I'm just bothered by the mean responses if I get it wrong (and sometimes, even if I get it right!)
posted by socky bottoms at 5:03 PM on June 15, 2016

Consider this my "slap on the face": It's ok to cry, it's not ok to call your intern dumb, the most valuable opinion of yourself is your own, and it's ok to speak up.
posted by aniola at 5:07 PM on June 15, 2016 [18 favorites]

Tell your program supervisor. It's ok to be tough, but not ok to be insulting.
posted by advicepig at 5:20 PM on June 15, 2016 [34 favorites]

Seriously, tell your program supervisor, or whomever is appropriate for reporting bullying, because that's what this is. They very well may be trying to stop the hazing/bullying that is so common in professions with a hierarchical training system. Even if they can't fix this for you right now, knowing that they hear you and it's not ok could be helpful.

You still might have to grin and bear it afterwards, and for that you might find it useful to get other sources of support you trust - people who are in a place to evaluate your abilities and evaluate you positively. Or test scores, or whatever you do unambiguously well on evaluation wise.

This abuse of young people by the established is perpetuated by people who think it makes the young people stronger (they probably think it made them stronger, when they were the trainees). It's not true, and you shouldn't have to take it. Especially the hair comment, that's seriously out of line (wtf, dude?)

Ah, also, imposter syndrome. Bullying of this sort can seriously exacerbate it. You belong there; you wouldn't be this far into the program and still there if you didn't.
posted by nat at 5:46 PM on June 15, 2016 [10 favorites]


That was all I needed to see to know that this guy is a jackass. There's no possible reason that that would be an ok thing to say to a student (or anyone, really, but especially a student) no matter how good or bad they are at their job. The fact that he's so out of line with that comment makes me pretty sure that he's the problem, not you.
posted by MsMolly at 6:02 PM on June 15, 2016 [33 favorites]

This is a health profession, right? Definitely tell the supervisor about incidents where he belittles you (specific words) and when he microaggresses on your appearance ("weird" hair). Preceptors are not in such short supply that these two specific issues can be overlooked. (I work in a library that trains health professionals, and the faculty would address any issues like this immediately).
posted by holyrood at 6:04 PM on June 15, 2016 [1 favorite]

Definitely talk to your program supervisor or internship coordinator about this because this supervisor's behaviour is incredibly inappropriate. If you can't motivate yourself to do it because of how you are being treated, do it to prevent another poor student from being assigned this supervisor in the future, because this supervisor is a jerk.

I pushed myself through a month-long internship (different field) with a supervisor who felt my content knowledge was not up to par and that alone was enough to make me crash and burn spectacularly by the end. I can only imagine how much stress you must be feeling. You deserve better. There are other options. Talk to your point of contact at your institution to see what your options are. It's better to delay your graduation for a little bit and keep that spark of hope alive.
posted by buteo at 6:09 PM on June 15, 2016

Ugh, 3 months of this? Definitely get help. Some people get off on belittling others when they are in a position of authority. Tell your program director, giving specific examples of what he said. Focus on his actions, not your reactions, in case your program director tends to discount emotions. Try to get angry instead of upset -- the problem isn't that you're incompetent, it's that he is a massive jerk who would probably be proud that he's making you cry in the car. Ideally you could get out of this internship, but if that's not possible, at least keep reminding yourself it's only 3 months, and maybe read some of the resources out there on what to do if you're being bullied.
posted by chickenmagazine at 6:10 PM on June 15, 2016

Yeah, this sounds off. Being tough is one thing, but belittling you ("dumb") and commenting on your appearance? That's out of line. Don't try to rationalize the inappropriate behavior. This guy is a jackass, and don't let him get to you. Take the good (being tough) and leave the rest of the crap. Keep your chin up; you sound like a reasonable and kind person.
posted by uncannyslacks at 6:19 PM on June 15, 2016 [3 favorites]

Just throwing this out there: are you a minority? Is it possible he is discriminating against you? That hair comment, man...

Regardless of his motivation, I agree with everybody above: document that shit and get it in front of the right person. He is an asshole.
posted by jessca84 at 6:39 PM on June 15, 2016 [11 favorites]

Document. Document. Document. I can't stress this highly enough.

You will likely be asked to substantiate these incidents; any sort of documentation you can provide will bolster your case: dates, times, locations.

Like everyone here, I am sorry that you are undergoing this trial. But you have options, and you can ensure that this doesn't happen to anyone else with this particular asshole. Keep a pocket notebook, get a voice recorder app for your smartphone -- do any or all of these things: But take notes, and take lots of notes, and write them down as soon as you possibly can.

Once you start doing this you will find it easier to recollect specifics: What prompted these inappropriate behaviours? I'm absolutely _not_ trying to justify this abuse:

I'm saying you want to catch this POS in the act, and context absolutely matters.

If you have anyone else present during these encounters, get them to witness your notes wherever possible -- but only if you feel confident they will back you up.

You'll also get better at observing minute details that stand out the more you do this. I used to work as a student customs officer in Canada in my undergrad days, and part of our necessarily limited training was learning how to

a) observe
b) document
c) report

Believe me, once you start, it will snowball. And you will find that rigorous documenting of what happens will be helpful to your growth as a professional in any number of contexts in the future.

It will be hard, but try to detach as much as possible. Yes, note asshole A's reactions and your own, but you want to provide as much observational detail as you can: you're building a case as to why this shithead should be removed from the internship program.

I wish you the very best of luck. Please don't worry. This shitty situation is not your fault, it's his. Just make sure he digs himself deeper, and your problem will resolve itself sooner than you think. In your favour.
posted by northtwilight at 6:49 PM on June 15, 2016 [4 favorites]

Also, don't respond in kind -- you don't sound like the type, but you want him to do all the shitty legwork, not you.

You'll win this.
posted by northtwilight at 6:51 PM on June 15, 2016

Yeah the hair thing is a classic microagression and absolutely not okay. Calling an intern dumb is also not okay. Tell your program supervisor now. Three more months of this will be miserable.

In my last job I had a bullying supervisor who also engaged in microagressions in the beginning. I let it go for too long because I thought I was overreacting. She eventually escalated to yelling, public humiliation, and outright racism. I wish I had documented her comments earlier because by the time it got to that point there was no saving me in that job. When I finally spoke up she retaliated by firing me. I talked to a lawyer and got a settlement out of it but it was ugly and drawn-out and should never have gotten to that point. Trust your instincts and speak up now, don't wait until you've been so ground down that you believe the awful things you're being told about yourself, like I did. You are not being oversensitive at all.
posted by thereemix at 6:55 PM on June 15, 2016 [4 favorites]

My last preceptorship of my degree program (also health profession) started with a preceptor from hell. I could not concentrate due to her massive spewing of "helpful" information that was completely biased with her personal ideologies and expectations. Some things she said were downright offensive, even though they were not directed at me... well, except that she did say something about my performance on the first day or so - about how I would have to be "a lot faster" and take on a full load almost immediately - when it was my understanding that I would only need to be able to take on one, maybe two, patients in this high acuity area, and that would only be necessary by the end of my three months - as expected for completion of my clinical requirements. She had her agenda, whereas students have their own learning needs - and she didn't understand that.

I requested a different preceptor within the first week of clinical - in a different area - due to her offensiveness, and my clinical supervisor/instructor made it happen. I just explained quite clearly that I had to be responsible for my own health and wellness, and I knew that I would not have done well emotionally or spiritually in that circumstance. I also mentioned that I would not be learning anything if I was constantly being berated, or listening to her berate the work or the lifestyle choices of others - I would only be trying to maintain my sanity. I hope your supervisor/instructor will be as understanding and helpful! ~On a side, I was also terrified to request this - my instructor had been whispered to be the toughest, no-nonsense, b**ch who had failed people for less.
posted by itsflyable at 7:33 PM on June 15, 2016 [1 favorite]

"You're so young to be so dumb."

Yeah, this is not going to get any better, and will likely get worse. Complain and document.
posted by xammerboy at 7:38 PM on June 15, 2016 [1 favorite]

Escalate, escalate escalate. Use the words workplace bullying and harrassment, use concrete examples, highlight that you think there is a risk here to the program.

Also, one of the first things they will ask you is if you told the person to stop. So just tell them, once, get it on record.

Do this for you, but also do it for the hundreds of other interns this bastard has and will terrorise. People are fired for less.
posted by smoke at 8:02 PM on June 15, 2016 [2 favorites]

Find someone else who has had him, and have a sense of humor about it. Also complain. But if you need this to graduate and you can't get out of it, try to find the humor in this clear asshole's clear asshole-ish-ness. You will end up tougher if you learn to treat him like the joke that he clearly is.

And don't correct him. If you aren't completely up on everything, you might not actually be right, and either way, it doesn't benefit you at all. And don't ask him questions, either. Avoid him as much as you can, get through this, and move on.
posted by internet fraud detective squad, station number 9 at 8:06 PM on June 15, 2016 [1 favorite]

@jessca84, I am a minority... I'm half black and Asian so definitely minority. I'm the only person of color in the office. The whole office makes remarks that can be taken as a "huh...what do you mean by that?" But I don't know, I try not to get into it.

I think you all have convinced me to talk to my director. I'm nervous, just afraid she will think I'm making a big deal out of it, but I'll do it.

To the last poster, you say don't ask him questions and avoid him. Oh man I've been wanting to do this since day 1, but my first few weeks is shadowing him so I'm with him for 8 hours, besides bathroom breaks. I feel the need to keep up conversation and ask him questions just to break the silence. Of course, he never seems interested in what I'm saying, but whatever. He gives me an evaluation at the end, so I'm afraid stonewalling him will hurt me. Would it be appropriate just to kindly respond to what he says and just not talk besides that? I'm sure I won't be seen as the fun intern but...
posted by socky bottoms at 8:27 PM on June 15, 2016 [1 favorite]

His behavior sounds like bullying and you should speak to your program director. Since you don't want a job in this specific field anyhow, can they tailor an internship for you that will be more in line with your careers goals? If not, at least one that fosters learning and growth rather than ruining your self-esteem. For the sake of your mental health, I'd do whatever it takes to get a new internship. This is your education and you deserve better.
posted by emd3737 at 8:53 PM on June 15, 2016

Hey socky bottoms - to address the issue about how to tell your program supervisor: This article may help: Eight Tactics for Explaining Workplace Abuse to Decision-Makers . Skip to page 8 to get to the strategies.

And hmm, just to put this in context - I am so sorry this is happening to you; I just want to give you the biggest hug - but I work in a clinical setting at a top tier facility, where I have handed this article out to student clinicians of color so often, you'd think I was getting a cut from proceeds.

But in general, it sounds like you're being bullied and specifically, you're being pimped.

Deciding to escalate workplace bullying is a personal decision. You get to decide if you want to say something, and if you don't, nobody has the right to judge you. They don't know your story or your situation, about whether the right tactic is to grin and bear it, or if doing so means you endure something sucky and then get failed, at which time it's too late to say anything. I know that several people are encouraging you to talk to the program director - but they are assuming that the program director doesn't already know. Assuming all of these conversations aren't happening in private, other staff, more senior to you in the organization might be a witness to, and be choosing to, ignore his bad behavior towards you. This might implicitly suggest to you that you won't get the relief that you seek from your program director. That might give anyone pause before choosing to escalate. The point is - you're the one with the vibe there, so regardless of our advice, you get to decide.

But like a good clinician, get your data before you make your final decision. Your data is to google the name of your institution and bullying and see if their HR has a workplace policy on workplace bullying, to observe how he treats other people (does he make super inappropriate comments to anyone else? Who?) and how other interns handle their situation (if there are others). For example, do other students get the 'you shouldn't be here if you don't know X' curtly say, "then I'll do better", or do they stay silent because they've decided that this jerk isn't worth their time?

Secondly, focus on evidence in your conversation: On X day, this person commented negatively about my appearance. Specifically, he said my hair was 'weird'. On Y day, he made the comment, "You're so young to be so dumb." I haven't had much experience dealing professionally with behavior, (but it seems to meet this organization's definition of workplace bullying), so I'm wondering how you think I should handle it.

You can't control your program director's action - you can only work on telling your truth as calmly and as clearly as possible, and ask for help. I know you're afraid, and you don't think you're strong, but you're not weak because you cry when someone tries to hurt you. If someone pricks you, you bleed. It doesn't make you weak - it makes you human. And having that core of goodness and emotional intelligence will help you in whatever your chosen career is.

If you don't decide to tell - still seek out a mentor during your three months. Someone who can give you perspective and help you navigate this very difficult situation. Aligning yourself with someone else in the organization, even someone like your program director, may give this person pause.

Good luck - what ever you decide to do; you can do it!
posted by It's a Parasox at 9:45 PM on June 15, 2016 [4 favorites]

Would it be appropriate just to kindly respond to what he says and just not talk besides that? I'm sure I won't be seen as the fun intern but...

Yup, that is what I would suggest, unless you are asking a question that

1) you genuinely need the answer for, and
2) need to get the answer from him specifically instead of looking it up.

If you are asking questions or correcting him in an effort to make him like you, you are barking up the wrong tree. It obviously annoys him and it doesn't benefit you, so don't do it. If, on the other hand, you genuinely need an answer from him, ask away, and if he doesn't like it it's too bad for him. But you really should try to avoid asking him questions or disagreeing with him if the goal is to make him like you or think that you are smart. If he can tell that you are doing that it is probably driving some of his annoyance.

His ability to recognize that you are good with patients points to him perhaps being more of a hardass (who expresses it inappropriately) than someone who is genuinely unfair, so I have some hope that your evals will end up okay after all of this. I would focus on studying, and study about twice as hard as you have been, and if possible let him see you studying. It strikes me that he will respect that much more than repeated attempts to make him like you by wasting his time. (I am not saying you are purposefully doing this or that he's accurate, but that is how people like this tend to see friendly conversation.)

If, after all of this, you aren't "good enough" you will find out from your program directors. I doubt that's the case, and I bet you will pass, and this asshole will be out of your life forever.

(Also, if your evals matter, that is a strong point in favor of reporting this behavior.)
posted by internet fraud detective squad, station number 9 at 11:00 PM on June 15, 2016 [1 favorite]

And let me just say -- I'm sorry if I seem kind of harsh, but in my experience, dwelling on why this kind of asshole isn't fair or needs to like you will keep you from learning the larger lesson. You are asking to be licensed as a clinical practitioner. That is about 100x more serious than whether this guy likes you or not. You should be spending about 0 time on thinking about whether or not he thinks you are smart, and about a LOT of time thinking about how you can improve your knowledge base so that it is up to the standard required for you to reasonably and responsibly practice your profession.

I recently had a professor like this, and I have to say that it was not worth it, but he did have one good point -- which was that we are not asking to be loved. We are asking to get a stamp of approval from the government so that we can do a very responsible job. Whether or not we like the people we are learning from (or vice versa) or is very, very much beside the point.

(Of course it is hard to learn if you are upset and anxious, so being a jerk is counterproductive, but to the extent that you can get something positive out of this -- I think that you should try.)
posted by internet fraud detective squad, station number 9 at 11:19 PM on June 15, 2016 [1 favorite]

Great advice upthread about documenting and telling a supervisor.

But this is a most EXCELLENT opportunity to learn how to work alongside people who suck. Throughout life, you will almost always have at least one co-worker/manager/boss/staff person who is just the absolute worst. Every workplace has a village idiot.

Reframe this in your head as a teachable moment. Accept that this person is a giant dickhead and begin cultivating strategies to work with this kind of person.

Whenever they say something particularly stupid, be grateful and breathe deeply and think of some calming puppies or frolicking baby goats and say to yourself, "Thank you for another opportunity to get better at my work. Thank you for giving me this chance to be patient and kind. Thank you for giving me this moment to keep getting better."

This may not be an area where you want to work in the future but if you re-frame your thinking, this could be the most valuable internship you ever do.
posted by yes I said yes I will Yes at 3:11 AM on June 16, 2016 [2 favorites]

Looking at the two schools of thought people have shared here, why not both?

Document every personal remark--anything not related to your content knowledge or skill development--like calling you dumb, making inappropriate comments about your hair, etc. Once you have a list, set a meeting with your internship supervisor to discuss. As a woman of color, you're in TWO protected classes employment-wise and if this guy is doing it to you, he's probably doing it to others and his HR department (if competent) will realize he's a liability and take action if/when your internship coordinator reports.

While you're documenting, do your best to not let this guy get under your skin. Very, very difficult for some of us to do (myself included), but it's true, he won't be the last supervisor or coworker you have who is wildly inappropriate. I've had some success with dealing with insulting/hurtful comments from others by imagining what sequence of events lead this person to lash out like that.

Best of luck.
posted by smirkette at 6:25 AM on June 16, 2016 [2 favorites]

It's not you, it's not you, it's not you. I'm a program coordinator, and I think your program director (if they are a good one) would want to know about this. Make sure you mention it in any evaluations you do of the instructor. Don't be afraid to mention that one of his comments came across as racist. Eventually it will reach someone who can do something about it. There is some serious trouble a program can get into by allowing instructors to act like this but I think a lot of the time people are too afraid to speak up and no one in power ever knows what's going on.
posted by Brain Sturgeon at 9:25 AM on June 16, 2016

Just saw your update.

It's very telling that he is treating the only minority in the program this way. Look, it's hard to "catch" racist douches unless they're dumb enough to be direct-- although commenting on your hair is almost as direct as calling you a name, honestly.

I understand why you feel uncomfortable, ugh! Just please remember HE is the one who made things uncomfortable, NOT YOU. You are awesome.

When you report him, you don't have to mention race specifically. Just present a documented list of the things he said. They're inappropriate no matter what his motivation -- but HR will read between the lines and freak right out if they're competent at their job. Discrimination puts the organization in legal hot water. Like, boiling.
posted by jessca84 at 9:40 AM on June 16, 2016 [2 favorites]

I would use my phone in my pocket to record his voice and then edit a montage of his personal insults and comments. This may not be legal, I would do it anyway. Another way to do it is to log every personal or mean comment he makes ("wrong answer" is ok, "you're not as smart as X" is not ok, appearance comments (even some "compliments") are not ok). You could email these comments to yourself, just to keep a log. Once you have a list of 5 or so (i.e., you could do it right now), go above his head and tell his boss. If you have a choice of bosses, pick the once who seems most compassionate. You are not being too sensitive, you're being bullied. I'm sorry it's happening to you, you do not deserve it.
posted by pseudostrabismus at 7:52 AM on June 17, 2016

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