Many interns faced with abuse on the job

‘They yelled at my face’

stageenquete: Foto: Shutterstock, bewerking DUB
Photo: Shutterstock, edited by DUB

Eva (this is a fictitious name, DUB's editors know her real name, Ed.) did an internship for a research group at UU. She wasn't very experienced with research before she started. Her internship supervisor made disparaging comments about that fact, acting like she was too slow to understand certain things or that she should have already known them. This made her feel more and more uncomfortable around her supervisor.

She had to conduct experiments independently, but her supervisor was hard to reach when she got stuck and had questions to ask. The supervisor often did not reply to her emails and phone calls, or only replied very late. Although the supervisor was supposed to check Eva's work, he would often let mistakes pass, which meant they were included in the work that followed. Afterwards, the supervisor admitted that he'd done that on purpose.

But that's not all. The supervisor shouted in Eva's face once, reducing her to tears. Eva complained about the incident but the situation hardly changed, leading her to seek her study advisor to ask for guidance. Together, they decided to end the internship prematurely.

For a while, Eva thought that her supervisor's behaviour had been her fault. That was until she contacted other students who were interning for the same research group and they told her they were going through the same experiences with the same internship supervisor. One of the students she got in touch with did not complete the internship either.

Inappropriate and abusive behaviours
Eva's story prompted DUB to survey UU students about how often they encounter inappropriate and abusive behaviours at their internships. In total, 210 students and graduates answered our questionnaire. They went through situations involving various forms of abuse.

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This is the third and final article about our survey of UU students' experiences. In part 1, we've shown that interns often feel like cheap labour. They are given too much work to do, too many responsibilities, and often have to work overtime. In part 2, DUB reveals that many students find the supervision they receive from the university to be mediocre. This third and final part is about interns who were subjected to inappropriate and abusive behaviours.

The students were asked about issues such as verbal aggression, intimidation, bullying, discrimination, sexism, racism, sexual abuse and physical aggression.

Our research shows that 39 percent of respondents found themselves in one of the situations mentioned above at least once during their internships. One in ten students felt unsafe on the job and 14 percent indicated that their boundaries were not respected.

Most respondents complained of bullying, intimidation and verbal aggression. Although only 2 percent of respondents said they were bullied at their internship, a third of them reported behaviours that would be characterised as bullying, such as humiliating comments, gossiping, ignoring someone, excluding someone, and belittling or making fun of someone. Of all students who participated in the survey, 18 percent felt excluded by colleagues, 17 percent felt ignored, 13 percent felt belittled, 8 percent were gossiped about and 6 percent felt laughed at. Over 50 percent of the students who experienced some form of bullying faced several of the situations mentioned above.

Many respondents shared details about the bullying they suffered, saying they were not invited to staff outings or not asked for lunch. Some teams were also perceived as very closed-minded, making it difficult for interns to intervene. International students cited a language barrier as the main reason they felt left out at their internships. Dutch colleagues insisted on speaking Dutch during meetings and breaks even though the student in question doesn't speak the language.

Intimidation and aggression
Intimidation is also rather common, with 15 percent of respondents reporting that they felt intimidated at their internships. 8 percent were even threatened with negative consequences.

Although the following cases do not necessarily indicate intimidation, students were also asked whether they felt pressured. A third of the students had this. A third also feared negative consequences.

Some of the students were victims of verbal aggression. About one in ten were snapped at and 6 percent were yelled at. These students said in the open question that they were snubbed if they made mistakes, which made them feel as though they were stupid or could not do anything right. Several students said they were yelled at. In some cases, yelling was a regular occurrence, happening several times a week.

Discrimination, racism and sexism were less frequent complaints. 6 percent of respondents witnessed sexist comments or jokes. One student heard racist comments and 3 percent felt discriminated against because of their sex, gender, sexual orientation or origin.

Students who were discriminated against said it happened because of their disability, gender, or the fact that they are transgender. Interns with different educational backgrounds felt discriminated against as well. Several respondents also said that colleagues made inappropriate jokes or sexist comments (about “hot women”, for example) or voiced racist and sexist views.

Sexual misconduct is rare, according to DUB's survey. Only 3 percent of respondents said they were subjected to comments of a sexual nature and 1 percent were confronted with sexually explicit gestures. None of the respondents were victims of sexual violence, but one student said they faced physical violence.

Code of conduct
UU's code of conduct describes undesirable behaviour as “any behaviour, action or failure to act that has negative physical, psychological or social consequences.” In our research, students were asked whether they were faced with behaviours considered undesirable at the place where they were interning. Our survey focused on their experiences, not how others might have perceived the same situations. 

To get an idea of how undesirable behaviour occurs at an internship, our survey also investigated whether or not students had to deal with multiple inappropriate situations, as well as how often it occurred. Did it happen just once or was the behaviour part of a structure? Was it a daily or weekly occurrence?

Students were presented with a total of 19 situations. 61 percent of respondents said that none of the situations listed happened at their internship. 14 percent of the students were faced with one of the situations, while 7 percent chose two situations. 12 percent of the students ended up in three to five situations and 6 percent ended up in six or more situations, which means they were interning at a place that was very unpleasant or unsafe.

In 16 percent of cases, the undesirable behaviours happened daily. One third of respondents said they had to deal with them weekly. 40 percent of cases occurred monthly or less often. Just under one in five cases were occasional. 

More than one in three students had an unpleasant or unsafe experience with the internship supervisor, the person with whom they had the most contact and who was also tasked with evaluating their performance. One in three respondents said the unpleasant experiences stemmed from other colleagues or another manager. In some cases, students had problems with the internship supervisor from the university or a fellow intern.

More than a third of students who ended up in an unpleasant or unsafe situation did not tell anyone at UU. Of those, a third did not think it was necessary. One in five students assumed that the university could do nothing for them. About one in ten were afraid of negative consequences, while others did not know that they could complain about it to UU. A small number of respondents did not dare to tell their stories or had no confidence in the university as an institution.

Confidential advisor
Most of the students who complained about the issues to UU turned to the internship supervisor or internship coordinator at the university. Not a single student who participated in the investigation went to the UU confidential counsellor.

Marian Joseph, one of the UU's confidential counsellors, only knows about a few cases of students complaining about their internships. “The most important thing is to sound the alarm, it doesn't matter to whom. Students can report issues to the internship supervisor at UU, the coordinator, or the education director. If they find this difficult to do, they can also go to a confidential counsellor, who will help them find ways to address the situation.”

The confidential counsellor believes that training could be useful. “Students do an internship as part of their course. Social safety also extends to educational components such as an internship. As an organisation, we may not be able to directly bring about changes in internships outside the university, but the programme can talk to the company or say we will no longer use that internship address.”

The survey
DUB's questionnaire was answered by 210 Utrecht University students and graduates, of whom 164 were women, 40 were men, 3 were non-binary, and 3 preferred not to state their gender. 21 percent of respondents study at the Faculty of Science, 3 percent at the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine, 26 percent at the Faculty of Humanities, 11 percent at the Faculty of Medicine, 6 percent at the Faculty of Geosciences, 7 percent at the Faculty of Law, Economics and Governance, 25 percent at the Faculty of Social Sciences, and 0.5 percent at University College Utrecht.

Together, they completed 298 internships, with a third completing more than one internship. A third of respondents did an internship at the university itself. Internships were mandatory as party of a Master's degree for half of the students who participated in the study. For 7 percent, the internship was mandatory at the Bachelor's level, while for 15 percent it was mandatory at both the Master's and Bachelor's levels. For the remaining students (27 percent), the internship was not a mandatory part of the curriculum.

As this sample is not representative, the survey results provide only an indication of what UU students go through at their internships. DUB also spoke with several people, including students, a confidential counsellor, a policy officer and internship supervisors at the university.

Were isolated3818%
Felt ignored3617%
Were belittled2813%
Were gossiped about178%
Were made fun of136%
Were bullied52%
Verbal aggression2612%
Were snapped at2411%
Were yelled at136%
Threatened with negative consequences168%
Felt intimidated3215%
Racism and sexism136%
Racist remarks10,5%
Sexist remarks136%
Discrimination due to sex or gender identity63%
Discrimination due to origin63%
Discrimination due to sexual orientation63%
Sexual abuse63%
Sexually suggestive gestures31,4%
Sexually suggestive comments62,9%
Sexual violence00%
Physical aggression10,5%