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How to Handle an Intern Who Crosses the Line


The story of Aran Khanna has garnered a lot of attention in recent weeks, as details have surfaced surrounding how and why he lost his prestigious Facebook internship: he created an app that took advantage of a flaw in Facebook’s messaging app, allowing him to scrape the location data of any given user (friends or not) and pinpoint their whereabouts within a meter. Though Facebook has known of the flaw for several years, it was Khanna’s app’s popularity that provoked them to patch it — and the events surrounding his internship have prompted a national debate about Facebook’s ability to handle our private data. So why fire him?

behind the line

(Photo Credit: bobiliciouslondon/Flickr)

Historically, there are plenty of instances where interns misbehave, and are reprimanded accordingly, but this didn’t seem to be one of those cases. From a PR perspective, he did embarrass the company, but he also helped them — and the story seems to mostly be negative for Facebook now not because of the flaw, but because of the firing. So how do you know when an intern has gone too far?

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Fact Check

The hard truth that we can learn from Khanna’s story is that it should always be case by case. You should review all the facts thoroughly before letting an intern go. While in some cases, those facts can be reviewed quite quickly, it’s not always safe to judge a book by its offensive cover.

Internships are a learning ground, and some interns have a lot more to learn than others. The best lesson they may ever get is learning the consequences of overstepping their bounds. Other times, a careless mistake can be devastating for their career.

Think Before You Act

Interns are humans just like the rest of us, but they are at the bottom of the totem pole. In that regard, there are two takeaways: for one, they need to be taught better, which means that firing often isn’t uncalled for. They should be taking their internship as one of the most serious opportunities of their life so far.

Secondly, there’s a lot of room for grace. If you’re making the call to fire an intern just for public visibility, consider how much attention the actual incident drew, and the how the story might change after they’re fired. How much better could the story have been if Facebook had promoted the intern that exposed a flaw?

For Interns: When In Doubt, Don’t

It shouldn’t have to be said, but when you’re working for someone, don’t post things on social media that would offend that employer. In the above Parade article, there are two stories in particular that stand out. In one case, three interns for a civil rights organization posted a video to their personal social media account in which they were making “rude gestures” towards the logo of one of the organization’s major corporate donors.

In another story, an intern who was operating her conservative congressman boss’s Twitter account re-tweeted something that completely went against the congressman’s views. The tweet was deleted and she was sent packing.

Interns are going to have opinions, even ones that contradict their boss’s sentiments. And while we should never penalize them for having such thoughts, posting them online in a way that disparages their boss and their work is absolutely grounds for firing. And no, your “personal” social media account is not safe. Once it’s online, it’s on there forever.

Tell Us What You Think

Have you had to fire an intern for acting out? Were you fired for something you don’t think was deserved? Tell us your story below in the comments or join the conversation on Twitter.

Peter Swanson
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