Poisoning the Internship Well (2012 Jun)

by Barry A. Liebling

Among recent college graduates unpaid internships have become extremely popular. According to Time magazine in 2008 from 16% to 25% of all graduates had some experience being interns for no pay. Certainly unpaid internships are not appropriate for all companies or for all students, but for a sizable number of institutions and individuals internships are mutually beneficial.

For companies internships can be a method of recruiting excellent employees. By exposing interns to its work environment and showing them how things are done the company gets reliable information about the interns’ work habits, capabilities, and character. In essence the company is test driving potential colleagues before inviting them into the firm. And reciprocally, the interns are getting inside information about the company.

Even if the internship does not lead to employment the company can benefit if the intern is left with a positive impression. When former interns describe their experience as educational, worthwhile, and something they are glad they did the reputation of the company is enhanced.

Of course, interns always have the expectation that their experience will be worthwhile. Most of them want it to transition into full-time employment. But when an internship does not result in a job offer it can still be a valuable skill booster and resume builder that makes it easier to obtain a job with a different company.

Not all internships work out as they should. Sometimes the fault lies with the company – especially when it does not clearly explain exactly what benefits it intends to deliver and what the intern is expected to do in return. There are many stories of companies that are accused of not living up to their part of the bargain. Interns have complained that they are assigned menial, trivial tasks – such as getting coffee for employees – that are not educational and seem to be unrelated to what they would be doing if they were hired by the firm.

There are instances where the intern is the source of a relationship failure. Among the large pool of interns a few will inevitably be unsuitable for the job. Their performance will be poor due to some combination of low motivation, poor skills, or inappropriate attitude.

When things go wrong how should the problem be remedied? Companies can take a hard look at what the objectives of their internship programs are and rethink how best to meet them. For example, they can refine their selection procedure for recruiting interns and make certain that all interns are given a clear and accurate account of what they are expected to do and what the company will be doing in return. Potential interns should explicitly be told, “if this is not acceptable to you do not join us.”

When interns are not pleased with their experience what can they do? First, they might scold themselves for not performing due diligence before accepting an internship. In this age of high speed internet and ubiquitous social media they can get the word out fast that a particular company has let them down. If a large number of peers chime in with their own specific examples of being maltreated the company’s reputation will suffer, and more important, potential interns will be warned not to apply.

Some interns who were not satisfied have resorted to legal maneuvers. According to Time magazine a small number of bitter, disgruntled interns are suing – both individually and as part of class action suits – companies that took them on as unpaid interns. The essence of their argument is that the companies offered them an unpaid internship which is inherently exploitive and unfair.

Note well that these former interns although young are all college-educated adults. When they agreed to affiliate with the company for no pay they knew exactly what the financial arrangement would be. They might have a legitimate complaint if the company promised an educational opportunity and then failed to provide it. But they certainly cannot maintain that they are entitled to money when they explicitly agreed to forsake it.

According to Time magazine very few interns are involved in legal actions against companies because they are afraid of retaliation. An alternative explanation is that the number of interns involved in legal action is small because most interns are on balance pleased with their experience.

Apparently the malcontents are motivated more by spite – a yearning to get even with the company that tormented them – than by a desire for money since the amount of “back pay” they are asking for is only a few thousand dollars.

If some of this litigation succeeds it could signal the demise of unpaid internships. Company management will conclude that it is risky to invite unpaid interns into the firm since there is a good chance it will backfire and result in financial penalties and bad publicity. The prudent policy will be to get out of the internship program entirely.

Time magazine reports that several former interns fear that their legal actions will turn off potential employers and make it even harder for them to get a job in their chosen field. Employers might be reluctant to hire anyone who has a record of accepting an invitation from a firm, going back on the agreement, and then launching an attack. The interns have a point.

*** See other entries at AlertMindPublishing.com in “Monthly Columns.” ***

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