Making unpaid internships functional not exploitative

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Tougher economic times and higher unemployment have resulted in the increased use of unpaid internships. While such internships can work out well for both the intern and the employer, it is possible for the system to be subject to abuse.

In the US – where there is legislation intended to protect interns –the long simmering debate over the issue has started to boil over after several former interns took court action against a number of high-profile former employers. All of the intern plaintiffs claimed they were effectively relied upon to do entry-level work without being paid wages or benefits.

Their cases have prompted heated debate on whether internships are really just unpaid work by new graduates or the long-term unemployed who are desperate for work. In New Zealand the use of interns is far less regulated than it is overseas and such questions are also relevant as reports of interns being expected to work for lengthy periods without pay, or recompense, are growing in number.

Interns are not defined under New Zealand’s Employment Relations Act, so regulation of their treatment effectively depends on whether an intern fits the ERA’s definition of what an employee is, Mark Smith from the Ministry of Business Innovation & Employment said. Under the ERA, an employee is defined as someone employed to do any work for hire or reward under a contract of service. This definition includes homeworkers and casual or part-time workers, but not independent contractors or volunteers who are not “rewarded” for work performed as a volunteer, he said.

If someone, such as a volunteer, is not defined as an employee under the ERA, that means the rights and protections covered in the legislation do not apply to them, according to a lawyer HRM Online consulted. Instead it would be the nature of the agreement they entered into with the company they were interning for that would regulate their treatment. However an intern could complain about an issue such as discrimination or a breach of privacy under other legislation, like the Human Rights Act, she added. There would also be a duty of care obligation [on the part of an employer] under the Health & Safety in Employment Act.

However, US-based HR trainer Karla Palmer said that the way interns were treated during an internship could save companies from having to sink unnecessary money into graduate recruitment. “Why not make the most out of your company’s intern­ship pro­gram and use it as an oppor­tu­nity to find your next star?” she asked.

For HR pros wanting to make effective and ethical use of interns, here are some tips:

Reach out early

Pro­fes­sional sports teams are well-known for scout­ing high school stu­dents – for good reason: They want to secure the next Richie McCaw or Shaun Johnson before the competition. It should be the same for HR, but too often it isn’t. Even if they don’t intend to hire them right away, sports teams make themselves aware of future poten­tial.

So, if an enthusiastic stu­dent has an inter­est in the type of busi­ness you run, why not have them intern to learn about what goes on in the com­pany? Reach­ing out early provides the oppor­tu­nity to develop interns and to work out how to best utilize them as an employee when they graduate.

Cul­ti­vate relationships

Build­ing rela­tion­ships with your interns will make them feel vested in the com­pany. Make an effort to speak with interns and lis­ten to what they have to say. Ask for their ideas on the work that’s being done. Assign them real tasks, and give them the chance to work on projects that excite them, to see what they are capa­ble of. The more put into an intern, the bet­ter suited they will be for employment.

When the intern­ship ends, interns will remem­ber how they were treated and they will tell their friends. If an intern has a bad expe­ri­ence and comments on it – that equals negative PR. More­over, many uni­ver­si­ties ask for feed­back after an intern­ship. Neg­a­tive intern­ship pro­grams can make a com­pany look unpro­fes­sional. The best grad­u­ates want to work for the best com­pa­nies, so a bad rep­u­ta­tion can seri­ously hurt a company’s recruit­ing efforts.

Build a solid intern­ship program

An intern­ship pro­gram that teaches interns vital career-related skills will be far more suc­cess­ful and enrich­ing for every­one involved. Con­sider the intern­ship as a train­ing period. Treat and train the intern like you would a new hire. Give them the tools they need to become an asset to your company. Try intro­duc­ing interns to dif­fer­ent facets of the busi­ness.

Not only does this help enrich the intern’s expe­ri­ence, but it also demonstrates how ver­sa­tile the intern’s skill set is. The intern should leave the expe­ri­ence with new abil­i­ties and a larger net­work, while the employer should end up with a strong poten­tial can­di­date that is well-versed on the com­pany. Hav­ing some­one do your pesky admin tasks might be nice, but cultivating a new star is even nicer.


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