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Workplace Fairness and Wages: The Ethical and Legal Implications of Unpaid Internships

January 28th, 2013 | Robby Slaughter

Robby SlaughterIf you asked me about the most significant issue in workplace fairness today, I wouldn’t cite any of the common answers. Although there are widespread issues such as corporate bullying, the wage gap between men and women, and a general lack of freedom among employees, there is one problem that is more widespread and more egregious than anything else. There is no aspect of the modern American workforce which is as unfair as the unpaid internship.

The Ethics of Payment

Work for pay is part of the social contract of modern life in a capitalist society. We all adhere to the same agreement: if you offer people a chance to contribute in a way that is valuable and if you define requirements around that work, they deserve to receive fair compensation for their efforts.

Our organizations really are that simple: if there’s defined work to be done, you get paid for that work. If you’re not receiving some kind of payment—such as volunteering—then there is no expectation that you will work at a particular time or place, or that the work will be completed according to certain parameters. Work equals wages. That’s the only way to make things fair.

The Apprenticeship and the Internship

Compensation doesn’t always mean cash. Sometimes, we pay people in-kind. We feed them. We provide housing stipends. We offer them credit or teach them something of value. In Europe, these programs are called apprenticeships. Individuals spend years working with a master craftsman to learn the trade. They often sign agreements to work for the employer full-time after their training is complete. And overseas, apprentices are paid for their efforts.

But the internship has become something different. For many, this is not a job training program. Instead of working on actual projects of value to the company, interns fetch lunches and clean closets. They make coffee and photocopy documents. They perform concierge work such as picking up dry-cleaning or delivering packages. Many interns aren’t doing much work related to the business. These internships are not apprenticeships.

Furthermore, perhaps one-half of all internships are unpaid. That means all of that grunt work is done simply for the chance to be near the people in the industry.

Requiring individuals to perform work—but refusing to pay them for their work—is wrong.

Unpaid Internships: Often Illegal

In the United States, unpaid internships are often (if not usually) illegal. The Department of Labor defines six criteria for interns that do not receive cash compensation:

  1. The internship, even though it includes actual operation of the facilities of the employer, is similar to training which would be given in an educational environment;
  2. The internship experience is for the benefit of the intern;
  3. The intern does not displace regular employees, but works under close supervision of existing staff;
  4. The employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the intern; and on occasion its operations may actually be impeded;
  5. The intern is not necessarily entitled to a job at the conclusion of the internship; and
  6. The employer and the intern understand that the intern is not entitled to wages for the time spent in the internship.

It’s extremely difficult to design an internship experience that meets all six of these requirements. Consider the first item. Most workplaces are nothing like schools. Do interns attend classroom-style instructional sessions? Do they have assignments which are graded? Do they receive individualized feedback? Do they study academic curriculum and report on their newfound knowledge and perspective?

Furthermore, the fourth point is nearly impossible to meet. For an internship to comply with this statement, the intern cannot conduct effort that the employer can consider valuable. That means an intern cannot produce a work product that will be purchased by a customer. They cannot write articles for the company newsletter or the blog. They are prohibited from substantial contributions in sales presentations or marketing efforts.

Ultimately:  any work that an unpaid intern completes must be graded and then discarded. If you put an intern’s efforts to use in promoting your company, creating your products, or delivering your services—then that intern must be paid.

Hampering the Economy

The unpaid intern is not only an issue of workplace fairness, but also has a tremendous impact on our economy. When people perform work for free, they limit the growth of business by devaluing productivity. The more interns complete unpaid work—and the more that employers recruit unpaid interns—the less true economic activity is possible.

In simple terms: if people are working for free, why invest money in paying for work?

Therefore, the right thing to do for the country as well as for the people in your lives is to pay your interns. And if you can’t afford to pay them, that probably means you don’t have the resources to treat them like students and invest in their education.

Do the right thing. Pay your interns. Or, send them somewhere that they can earn a living wage.

About the Author: Robby Slaughter is with a business consulting firm based in the Midwest. He is the author of several books and hundreds of published articles.

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2 Responses to “Workplace Fairness and Wages: The Ethical and Legal Implications of Unpaid Internships”

  1. David Yamada Says:

    Delighted to see more commentary on this (until recently) neglected topic.

    Finally we’re starting to see lawsuits and other initiatives challenging this exploitative and illegal practice. Here’s a sampling:
    http://newworkplace.wordpress.com/2012/05/07/a-movement-emerges-will-unpaid-internships-disappear/

    David Yamada
    Professor of Law and Director, New Workplace Institute
    Suffolk University Law School, Boston

  2. Susan Emdee Says:

    Mr. Slaughter has good insights on the abuses of internships and unpaid internships, especially. It is especially annoying, disheartening, and misrepresentative to be told in a job-related degree program that an internship is a potential entry into the career, to wokr very hard to get what seems from all outside appearances to be a good internship, to get the internship, to give your all, and to discover that the employer thinks the intern is mostly a go-fer and not to get exposed to some of the professional-related tasks that could make a bit of difference on an application for a professional position. Professional jobs in many fields now require one to several years’ experience as a professional or near-professional in the field. Few pre- or near-professional jobs in the same fields exist. So, how is a talented, dedicated, knowledgeable, capable, and highly motivated individual supposed to get a professional job in the person’s chosen field? Networking is good, but a long-term strategy that has the hopeful professional paying a number of out-of-poclet expenses, such as pricey memberships to professional associations, perhaps going to professional conferences at the person’s own expense, and more. At the same time, there really is no guarantee that heightened visibility and being a member–even an active member–of a professional association or two at the local, state, or regional level will lead to an actual job where the needed experience to enter the field will be gained. Yes, there is always hope. Remember that comment in a recent foreign film? The “hopeful” person ended up giving up.

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