When I started my internship at a local magazine, I was very excited. This was my first chance to work in a place like this. I was going to learn so much. I was going to be the best intern! Who cares if it’s unpaid? I would learn how to write, edit and conduct interviews. I would learn how articles go from an idea to a draft to print.
Well, it did not go quite like that.
In the beginning, I told myself that this feeling of exclusion came from the fact that most of the staff were already friends or family. The editor-in-chief was the director’s wife, and the rest of the staff was an indication of blatant nepotism. The staff wasn’t even big, with just about 30 people.
For the first few days, I waited for something to do. When I asked people if they needed help with anything, they told me to go back to my seat. After a few days, I was given a database of contacts and told to call each number and check if it was still valid. I suspect this was to keep me out of their way. I figured I’m the new kid and I’ve got to do the drag work to earn my keep.
The previous interns were taken along to help with articles and interviews. I wasn’t. Management intentionally kept me at a distance because they said, “We don’t do that anymore.” During this period of time, I only got to proofread three articles. I went and proposed ideas to my editor. Se told me to go ahead and write them, but never gave any guidance. Nobody in this place considered my work, nor did they tell me why, or how I could have done better. I still kept telling myself that this was a learning opportunity. It would be worth it.
Meanwhile, I saw two of the interns I worked with having their work modeled. One was a design intern and the other, an advertising intern. Unfortunately, it wasn’t a learning experience the way any internship should be. The staff gave off serious vibes of not wanting anyone around, knowing-it-all but having no interest in teaching anyone anything, and not liking anyone trying to get involved.
Weeks passed this way until one day the director called me into his office and told me to not come back anymore. Surprised, I asked if someone had a problem with me. Was there was someone I could apologize to, or if there was anything I could do. He refused to tell me anything, refused to give me a reason, or even listen to me. He just asked me to leave and not come back anymore.
When you lose a job it’s common to go down a spiral of self-doubt. Going over everything again and again and wondering, “Was it my fault? What could I have done something differently?”. I was no different. My mind went around in circles the week afterward. I switched from hating the place and everyone in it, to blaming myself for everything, despite not knowing what that “everything” was.
But this is where it’s healthy and important to realize the difference between a learning experience, and a workplace that isn’t worth your time. This experience taught me to be better at trusting my gut when I sensed toxicity. While some may offer well-meaning advice to stay strong through it, I realized it would have better served me to cut some losses and find a better fit. I took responsibility for not following my gut and leaving when I knew it was the right thing for me to do.
Here’s the moral of my story: know the difference between paying your dues and being taken advantage of. Being an intern, even an unpaid one, shouldn’t make you a doormat. So instead of letting someone else devalue you, walk out with confidence.
It’s important to realize that leaving a toxic workplace – whether it is your decision or your employer asks you to leave – does not mean you are incompetent or unsuccessful. It is a small hurdle that will lead you to something even better. What I went through in this experience has served me much better in years going forward, as I worked in various places and dealt with different groups of people and different kinds of bosses.
I know that a good boss, and a good workplace, is one that might bruise your ego, but still feeds your mind.