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Internships: To Pay or Not to Pay?

Unpaid internships are rapidly falling out of favor for a long list of reasons, starting with the legal hassles that begin as soon as this “educational opportunity” starts to look suspiciously like “unpaid labor”. In an ideal, meaningful, and functional unpaid internship, the intern and the employer both gain value from the experience: While the intern leaves with a few months of deep immersion in the company and exposure to a specific career field, the employer walks away with a sense of altruism and a positive reputation in the mind of the intern and the larger community. The employer devotes time and energy to teaching the young trainee about the business, and in return, the company gains a talented potential employee, a sense of goodwill, and nothing else.

After an unpaid internship, a legitimate company does NOT gain a few months of filed documents, a proposal written, dozens of customers served, a site inspected, or a warehouse stocked for free. Collecting free labor from those too young, too desperate for work, or too inexperienced to stand up for themselves is unethical and reputation damaging, even when it’s technically legal. So as an employer, how can you tell the difference? How do you know when you’re crossing the line? Keep these guidelines in mind.

1. The relationship should be guided the intern. Find out what she wants to learn, what departments of the company she’d like to see, and where she’d like to take her career in the future. Then shape her experience around these needs, and work to provide her with the specific mentoring and exposure she requests. If you can’t dedicate some significant time and energy to shaping her education and answering her questions, you aren’t ready to offer an unpaid internship.

2. An unpaid intern who isn’t officially trained or certified should not be expected to contribute to company productivity. In fact, this intern can and should be expected to get in the way and slow things down. Again, if you aren’t prepared to pull working employees away from their tasks in order to show her the ropes and elevate her experience, you aren’t ready to have an intern in the workplace.

3. The intern may or may not be hired as a full time employee after the internship period comes to an end. Any unpaid work she completes should not be contingent on this kind of contractual arrangement unless the arrangement is completed in writing, reviewed by a legal team, and signed by both parties.

4. Unpaid interns should be treated with respect at all times. Any relationship that begins to resemble paid employment drifts close to the edge of acceptability. Interns should never be belittled, harshly criticized, or ordered to complete tasks they would rather decline. If in doubt, err on the side of forbearance and diplomacy. Remember, the intern’s goal is to gain experience and marketable skills, not to contribute to the company.

For more on how to structure your unpaid internships, arrange a consultation with the staffing and employment experts at PSU.