Ultimate Capitol Hill Internship Guide: 6 Rules for Success
Posted at 2:24 p.m. on July 13, 2014
Looking for a Hill internship? Trying to parlay your current internship into a full-time staffer position? Got interns you’re managing?
Roll Call’s “Ultimate Capitol Hill Internship Guide,” written by former eight-year Hill staffer and current Hill Navigator columnist Rebecca Gale, levels with you about what you need to know to ace your Capitol Hill internship.
Below is Part 1 of that guide: “Best Intern Ever: 6 Rules for Success”
Hill Navigator knows that interns are busy. Six rules, surely that can be easy enough to remember.
1. Stay professional:
Every year, Roll Call’s Heard on the Hill writes up anecdotes of intern tomfoolery. While there may be egregious exceptions, more often these gaffes are due to inexperience and a lack of basic understanding of what it means to work in a professional setting.
Things to remember:
- Treat every office visitor as a VIP, even if they are just your average Joe from Cincinnati.
- Treat everything connected to the office — email, phone, personal space, midday breaks — as sacrosanct.
- Don’t put anything in email you don’t want to see printed in Roll Call.
- Learn the office dress code (see No. 3) and err on the conservative side of following it.
- Brush up on your manners. Yes, it’s arcane, but it works wonders. Hold the door for the person behind you, say thank you, kindly ask if you can put a person on hold before slamming the phone down. Such things can go a long way toward showing you’re a capable team member, hopefully one the office wants to keep around.
2. Check your opinions at the door.
You may be majoring in political science, or have read everything Thomas Friedman ever wrote, but your personal opinions are usually best left unsaid. Sure, you can echo your enthusiasm for a cause your boss is championing, or include your admiration in your thank-you notes to the hard-working legislative staff, but you’re there to help advance your boss’ current agenda, not help him or her craft a new one.
If you’re curious about a particular topic— say Affordable Care Act regulations are a particular passion of yours— get to know the legislative assistant covering the issue, and ask for reading recommendations or even a few minutes of their time for coffee. View your internship as a time to take in information, not spew out opinions.
And when you do air your opinions— even if they are just about how fantastic that office Keurig is— be smart about your surroundings. Those metro cars are tiny, voices travel. If you insist on talking about work in a public place, refrain from mentioning the boss’ name or any other identifying details, lest you want to read about them in Roll Call.
“I am about to start an internship in an office with which my own political beliefs do not exactly align. That isn’t to say I disagree with every policy stance, but there are definitely disparities. Is it common to see staffers and interns whose views aren’t in lock step with the platform of their respective party, and how do I prevent my dissenting views from ever becoming problematic?”
I have good news for you: No matter where you work — unless it’s your name on the door — you’re going to disagree with at least some of your boss’ political beliefs.
The political spectrum doesn’t run just left to right. There are a host of complicated, intricate issues that require up-or-down votes. Sometimes bosses vote for or support things that we wish they didn’t, but such is life on Capitol Hill. The goal is to find someone to work for whom you respect as a person and can stand behind, even on issues you wish they would vote on another way.
And even better news for you: There is an easy fix for making sure this does not become problematic. It’s called staying quiet. I know it’s tempting to voice your opinion in a congressional office, just as it’s tempting to yell at the TV when C-SPAN is on. But unless you are directly asked about a particular issue (and you may have to wait until you’re a legislative assistant to get your opinion heard), your job is to support your boss, represent him or her well and learn all you can.
But take heart: Congress is not static. Opinions evolve, votes switch and, believe it or not, staffers change their minds, too. By using your internship experience to better understand the issues and your boss’ positions, you might surprise yourself.
Even if you walk away unchanged on your positions, you will have learned more about the opposing viewpoint. And best of all, you will have practiced being the consummate staffer who does not let his or her personal beliefs cloud professional judgment.
3. Learn, memorize, internalize and follow the office dress code.
Ignore the smirks on staffers’ faces, Hill Navigator knows that this isn’t the no-brainer that experienced hands assume it is. Dress codes are not always as obvious or natural as it would seem, especially because many interns are in college and do not have extensive work-appropriate wardrobes. The yoga pants and sweatshirt combo might be fine for Econ 301, but Capitol Hill has a “sun’s out-suit’s out” mentality.
The dress code matters.
It may mean spending some money on button-down shirts, slacks, office-appropriate skirts and shoes that do not have “flop” in the name. Don’t want to walk around in those four-inch heels all day? A pair of closed-toed flats can work wonders. And even if the rest of the office is wearing jeans in August, doesn’t mean you should. Don’t assume: ask.
“I will be starting a Hill internship soon and I wanted to know what I should expect to wear on a regular day. Will it be a suit 5 days a week?”
Nothing says Capitol Hill like young people in suits. Speaker John A. Boehner’s announced policy for the 113th Congress states that staffers must be in “appropriate business attire” on the House floor, so this ups the ante on how staffers dress on a daily basis. Most offices have dress codes and will happily answer your questions about what to wear. Some stellar offices even have intern handbooks that address this directly. But just in case you aren’t sure or are reluctant to ask, here are some general guidelines that can help get you off to a good start.
- Wear a suit the first day of work. Even if it’s recess. Or Friday. Or hot outside. Your first day sets the tone of your internship, and a suit shows you’re taking it seriously.
- Wear a suit (or jacket and tie, or blazer/slacks/skirt for ladies) every day Congress is in session.
- Dress up every day the boss is in town. Most offices have a relaxed dress code when Congress is out of session, but if the boss is there, take the extra time to dress in business clothing.
- Follow the office’s lead. Don’t be the first one to wear jeans or break out into casual Friday polo shirts unless you see your co-workers doing the same thing. And by co-workers, I don’t mean other interns. Take the cues from the higher-ups in the office.
- Cover up. Keep the short skirts and deep v-neck shirts at home. If you aren’t sure whether it’s office appropriate, it probably isn’t.
- Stay away from jeans, sneakers, T-shirts and yoga pants. No matter how casual Fridays get, you’re better off in khakis or dress pants than something more comfortable. Wait for the weekends to wear whatever you want. Or wait until your internship is over.
4. Ask this question: What is the office’s social media policy?
Social media: so fun, so ubiquitous and yet, it can be so detrimental to careers everywhere. Right after asking the dress code, request a copy of the office social media policy. And then — like the dress code — err on the conservative side of following it.
“One of the great fears of senior managers in Congress is waking up one day and finding a junior staffer or intern has thrust the office into a crisis because of some silly posting on social media,” said Brad Fitch, president of the Congressional Management Foundation, a nonpartisan nonprofit dedicated to helping Congress.
Even privacy settings can’t always protect you if you’re posting items while you are at work, or including details — however inane — about your job. Remember that many members of Congress face re-election every two years, races that often cost millions of dollars, and opposition researchers are always looking for material, especially in an election year.
If your office does not have a social media policy, here are a handful of rules Hill Navigator recommends:
- Avoid social media during work hours — even on your phone.
- Do not mention your official duties in any capacity without receiving explicit permission.
- Ask first, post later. If your office allows you to post a photo of you and the senator mugging it up, then by all means make it your profile pic. Some offices do encourage such things, but make sure such encouragement is spelled out. Don’t infer anything, even if you think, “Well, no one checks Instagram,” or your settings are private. Someone checks everything. Screengrabs can be taken, and the Internet is forever.
- Reason cannot trump the stubborn nature of luddites. If you’re working in one of the offices wary of social media in general, accept the decision then follow your co-workers’ lead. Don’t use this as an opportunity to show social media’s proliferation into the 21st century, unless, of course, they specifically ask. Then you can put your Facebook skills to good use.
5. Have meaningful— and realistic— expectations.
Setting achievable goals is one of the best ways to have a positive internship experience, but expecting that you will write legislation, staff the senator or field press calls is setting yourself up for disappointment.
“Interns should understand they’re being tested early on,” Fitch said. “[They] won’t get any valuable work or experience if they don’t do the little stuff right. The smart ones excel at the grunt work and graduate up from ‘boring’ to ‘mildly interesting.’”
Hill Navigator would argue that even the mundane task of making coffee in a congressional office can be interesting; many offices have chatty back rooms. If you find yourself in one of those, you can pick up everything from legislative procedure to after-hours gossip while you’re acing your tasks at the copy machine.
And if your expectations include a paying job at the end of the term, you have all the more reason to excel at the small stuff, as many staff assistants pick up the grunt work once the interns have departed.
6. Have humility, in large doses.
This particular piece of advice is courtesy of many current and former Hill staffers: do good work, but don’t tell us all about it. You don’t need to hang that marked-up constituent letter at your cube, or brag about how you’re the only one who can navigate Cannon’s fifth floor.
Every Hill office knows which interns are competent. In the frenetic, fast-paced world of Capitol Hill, people who get things done are easy to spot. You may not see it, but it might as well be tattooed on your forehead. Just make sure you’ve got some appropriate business clothes to match your go-get-‘em attitude.
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