What You Should Do to Have a Viable (and Legal) Internship Program

© Lucian Milasan - Fotolia.com
© Lucian Milasan - Fotolia.com

With unpaid internship lawsuits popping up left and right, it’s a controversial time for both interns and intern employers everywhere. In fact, many are even sounding the death knell for internships altogether.

One internship program choosing to shut down rather than shape up is magazine publishing powerhouse Condé Nast.

To the shock of many, last month it became the first prestigious internship program to publicly close its doors to interns. The axe fell after the company lost a class-action lawsuit filed by two former interns claiming to have been paid less than $1 per hour during their time with the company.

It would be an understatement to say that killing your internship program in light of bad press is a mistake. Aspiring magazine journalists and students everywhere just lost their chance to gain valuable industry experience and connections as Condé Nast interns.

Condé Nast was using an extensive amount of unpaid interns but not maximizing the value it was getting from its internship program. Learn from Condé Nast’s brutal mistake of cutting out an invaluable recruiting, hiring, and business opportunity by following these tips for what this intern employer should have done instead:

Don’t cut, do an audit

Kissing your internship program goodbye isn’t the most effective strategy.

First, seek out ways to improve your internship program before throwing in the towel altogether. Determine what value-adding projects you can provide to interns, as well as how many full-time employees you plan to hire for the upcoming year. By doing this, you can discover how many valuable interns your company really needs.

Yes, interns can be highly valuable if you create an internship program that not only harnesses their talents, but also values them as potential employees. Research shows paid interns are better for your business — they perform higher quality work and have a higher chance of converting to full-time employees.

Turn the focus to education

Your No. 1 goal for your interns should be giving them an unmatched educational experience.

Forget the plethora of administrative duties and errands — it’s time to refocus. This means providing immersive projects, real-world experience, skills training, and mentorship opportunities.

Give your interns something valuable to add to their portfolio, or challenge them by letting them take the reins on a project. Data shows students care most about getting real world experience and developing professional connections during an internship.

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Budget to pay all your interns

Going from an unpaid to paid internship program can seem challenging, but it all comes back to tapping into your resources.

You don’t have to offer the most competitive intern salaries in your field; you simply have to offer at least the minimum federal wage. If you can’t afford it, strongly consider alternatives, like telecommuting and remote work options, a food and travel stipend, free meals, or a gym membership.

Doing this will give your employer brand added value and trust.

Consider the case of HootSuite, which came under fire earlier this year for failing to pay its interns. To remedy the flood of viral backlash, the Vancouver-based company offered former interns back pay and reviewed its program to comply with the Employment Standards Act of British Columbia. Creating a budget to pay interns showcases a clear dedication to a well-planned, educational internship program that will make you stand out among other employers.

Make a business case for intern impact

Interns matter to companies of all sizes. If you’re not the CEO or hiring manager, work to build a case by highlighting the benefits of your internship program and present it to those in charge. Interns are essential to an organization’s growth by attracting talent at a low-cost, helping for succession planning, and reaching immediate project goals.

Your internship program is more valuable than you think. Don’t follow Condé Nast’s lead by closing the doors to valuable future employees.

Do you think Condé Nast damaged their employer brand by turning away interns?


3 Comments on “What You Should Do to Have a Viable (and Legal) Internship Program

  1. How have you seen firms handling the potential impact of ACA on internships? If interns will be expected to put in 30 hours of work or more they would be classified as eligible for receiving company sponsored health insurance benefits.

    1. Good question! Every single company I have spoken to on this subject (including both large Fortune 500s and small startups) do not offer nor plan to offer insurance to interns given that they are termed employees with a set end date. In addition most interns will be under the age of 26 so covered by parental health insurance by the ACA.

      Most companies use a clause similar to what we have in “Offer Letter Template” http://www.internmatch.com/guides/sample-internship-offer-letter to make the lack of this benefit clear to new intern hires.

      That said, the ACA does not have any intern specific language written into the bill, so this is still somewhat of a gray area. Given the common acceptance of the above policy by leading intern employers we support this approach. I do believe that if you have interns coming on board for longer than 6 months you should consider providing health insurance options as that is clearly pushing the boundaries of a termed employee. If anything becomes more clear or changes on this front we will write a new post describing new best practices. Thanks for asking!

      Nathan Parcells

      1. Thanks Nathan. My perspective is in line with the notion that interns have set end dates and thus should not be required to be provided benefits. Now I have to sell the idea.

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