May 19, 2023 • By Dennis Beaver

Dennis BeaverEvery spring American businesses start their search for talent – potential new hires – by offering students summer internships.

Some are unpaid and observational. Others, hybrid – at first observational and if everyone agrees, it becomes a paid internship. Many are like real, paid jobs.

Often, faculty who have established trusting relationships with hiring managers, select students suitable for a particular position or company who are accepted sight unseen.

However, a personal statement is generally required that responds to a company’s specific questions about a student’s employment desires and life goals.

But what happens if a personal statement is submitted that, in the eyes of management, was just plain insulting?

“It was that poorly written,” as “Gene” described in an email. He sent me a copy and I agree.

His company operates meat processing facilities, which “require a certain kind of person to feel comfortable working here,” he says. “So, we cover your travel plus room and board for two weeks – on an unpaid basis – allowing a chance to see the reality of our business. If you are positive towards the job and we all get along, then you will become a paid summer intern.”

Offer of Internship Revoked

Upon receiving the personal statement, Gene immediately notified the professor the internship offer was revoked. This occurred within three days of the student being notified that he had been selected.

“I said the student’s essay failed to answer the questions, and had no paragraphs. It was a solid page of words in a tiny font size, impossible to read without a magnifying glass, and filled with rambling thoughts.”

Attorney’s Letter is Delivered

“The next day we received a letter from attorney ‘Jeff,’ whose law firm represents the student’s father, saying that we were in breach of contract and would be sued unless a financial settlement was reached.”

“Mr. Beaver, I read you in Kiplinger and thought this is a good story. Do I have anything to worry about?”

I learned that “Jeff” is a newly minted lawyer working in a large law firm, no doubt doing as told to keep his boss happy, regardless of any merit.

More often than you would think, clients intentionally fail to tell the whole story to their attorney, embarrassed or afraid that if they do, the lawyer won’t help them.

What Contract Did Gene Breach?

I phoned Jeff and said that I was looking into this interesting withdrawn internship matter. Would he explain for me how Gene could be in breach of contract?

“By revoking the offer – and you have seen the student’s personal statement, I assume – how was the young man harmed?”

… “Well, no I haven’t seen, uh, what personal statement?”

“The one that a 6th grade elementary school kid could have done better,” I replied with a congenial laugh, and emailed it to him at once.

… “Wow! I never saw this. It’s horrible! Our client’s son never told us about it. But there could still be a breach of an employment contract.”

“Jeff, maybe I am a bit dense, but where is the contract? The first two weeks were not paid and all expenses were entirely on the employer’s dime. The student knew within three days – plenty of time to seek other summer employment. So, he never had anything to lose in the first place. How was he harmed financially?”

I went on to note that going back to the first-year course at law school in Contracts, this is simply a revocable offer of a gift. And unless you rely on the offer to your detriment – doing something like buying a non-refundable airline ticket – there’s no basis to sue the person making the offer for damages.

Jeff thanked me for taking the time to talk and said, “I have to admit forgetting all about those gift cases.”

We ended our conversation on a positive note. Jeff promised to verify what I told him and get back to my reader. He did, sending a letter advising they were no longer pursing the matter.

University Students Can’t Write

The underlying issues in our story are a cancer in the American educational system. Just Google “Why Can’t American University Students Write?” and you’ll find dozens of articles.

Lyle Sussman, professor emeritus, College of Business, at the University of Louisville, writes:

“In my 42 -year career teaching undergraduate and MBA students I noticed a significant decline in the skills of: grammar, punctuation, vocabulary, appropriate level of formal/informal style/tone and failure to understand and relate to audience/reader. It seems as if students have little idea what a paragraph is.”