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Is Your Unpaid Internship Legal? How to Tell

May 6, 2011 Jennifer Williamson, Distance Columnist | 0 Comments

Businesses are looking to cut costs in many creative ways these days. One of the ways to reduce expenses is to fire necessary staff—and bring in unpaid interns to fill their roles. Many interns don’t realize this is illegal—they’re eager for any internship position that will add a line to their resume and possibly lead to a job after graduation. But companies shouldn’t be allowed to take your labor for free without giving you something back. Here are the signs of legal paid internships.

The training is similar to training you’d get at school

Even though it includes actual company operations, you should be getting training similar to what you would get at school. Unpaid internships are supposed to be an educational experience—theoretically, that’s the benefit you’re getting instead of pay. Pouring coffee and making photocopies don’t count as an educational experience.

The internship experience is for the benefit of the intern

The tasks you’re performing in your internship should clearly be for the purpose of educating you, not for the benefit of the company. If the company is making money from your activities, your internship may not be legal.

The intern does not displace regular employees

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You shouldn’t be doing work that regular employees would normally be expected to do. Some companies have tried to save money by replacing paid entry-level workers with unpaid interns, and technically that isn’t legal.

The employer derives no immediate advantage from the intern’s activities

You shouldn’t be doing work that’s fro the benefit of the employer—such as running their social networking campaign because you’re the youngest person in the office and you’re expected to be a social networking natural. With legal unpaid internships, the intern’s training is expected to actually impede the employer’s operations occasionally.

The intern isn’t necessarily entitled to a job when the internship is done

That isn’t to say you can’t be offered a job at the end of the program if the employer likes you and you want to stay. But if the internship program is designed to lead directly to a job, that’s illegal.

Interns must be closely supervised and mentored

You shouldn’t be left on your own. You should have a designated mentor or close supervisor who’s there to keep an eye on your work, train you, and help you develop your skills. If you’re given perfunctory training and then left alone to do your work, your internship may be breaking the rules.

Your employer and you understand that you don’t get paid

You shouldn’t enter the internship with the understanding that you might get wages—the employer should be clear at the outset about the nature of the agreement.

As an intern, you can do “real” work for the company—hands-on experience is a valuable part of any internship. But you need to be closely supervised, and theoretically you shouldn’t be producing a final product or something your employer will profit from. Your work should be for your own educational benefit, not the company’s.

Traditional and online colleges sometimes partner with companies to provide unpaid internships that count as college credit. This can lend credibility to an unpaid internship program—and help ensure that you’re getting a valuable educational experience, not just serving as free labor for a company looking to cut costs. When schools partner with companies this way, they often have input into the design of the internship program—so that it satisfies their requirements for college credit.

The Ethics Guy: Is an Unpaid Internship Ethical -


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