Internships · Hiring

Ethical use of interns: Should I just go for it?


November 25th, 2013

I'm a solo entrepreneur who has avoided hiring anyone by outsourcing a number of functions. I have a friend in a related field who has two unpaid interns and a third who earns minimum wage. 

I definitely need some help but I've hesitated to even consider interns. I feel some guilt about having people help build my  business when they're not getting much other than experience. I remember Susan Sandberg's org receiving a lot of criticism for its use of interns that was considered unethical. 

But I know that internships benefit students and recent grads a lot. Perhaps I should just embrace the system as it is. Do any FD folks have some thoughts? 

Blake Garrett Founder and CEO at Aceable

November 25th, 2013

I personally believe in paying people for work. Now, I also have bootstrapped and understand sometimes there's not a lot of money around and they are getting a lot in experience. The compromise I've found is fixed fee jobs that if broken down to a time vs. task completion ration might not equate to min. wage but it's up to them to get it done fast and efficiently. For example, 10, 500 word blog posts for 100 bucks. Just my two cents.

Warren Cardinal Web Designer | SEO Consultant | Founder

November 25th, 2013

There are rules about unpaid interns.  Most are illegal.

Will Glasson Assistant County Attorney, Multnomah County

November 25th, 2013

First, THIS ISN'T LEGAL ADVICE. No attorney-client relationship is established from this, etc. (Had to get that out of the way.)

I second Warren's recommendation to proceed with caution. Essentially, you can't use unpaid interns or externs for much commercially productive work. See the DOL's rules on this. The DOL provided the most guidance to law firms in a recent letter. That said, the letter can be interpreted to apply to your circumstances as well. Note: you don't want to be on the cutting edge, using interns in merely arguably permissible ways. 

Alison Lewis CEO/Creative Director

November 25th, 2013

I went through this with a young lady and she was great. Personality and commitment was a good fit, but her skill level wasn't where it needed to be. She had a want to be higher in the company than she was fit to be (often this happens with inexperienced workers). She demanded shares in order to stay on and then left when things got tough. Better clarity from me and a compensation up front would have helped. 

Make sure you communicate clearly that this person is an intern and let them know what they need to do if they want to be more than an intern at a later time. As Mike states above a dynamic equity fund is a great idea. However, many interns don't know what that is and so again communication is key. 

It is easy to misalign expectations with someone who has never worked before. My advice is go for it, but be prepared to be direct at the beginning and set really clear boundaries. 

Leena MBA Content & Publication Manager at NetApp

November 25th, 2013

I've interned a lot, and as someone who's been there, it's up to the students to make the most of their experience. But I'm so glad that this subject has gotten highlighted in recent years, because there is so much abuse in the system.

If you are going to hire unpaid interns, make sure you go through a school. They will give you the legal guidelines and set it up so that the student at least gets credit. Go through your local b-school or computer science college or whatever it is you need.

These days an internship is a hand holding experience where you must provide something of value to students other than "hey, work for me and gain experience!" Most internships I did involved extremely mundane office duties; I was lucky if I got to sit in on important/creative meetings. The onus was COMPLETELY on me to remember important names in the Rolodex and then use that to my advantage to charm my way into a perm job. 

If you are going to provide something of value, you need to offer the following:

- Some sort of flat stipend to at least cover transportation expenses (accounting for both gas and mileage)
- Food. Free. Every day.
- Valuable insight into how your business works -- not just making them fetch coffee or do rote/routine things every day. You must be there as a mentor more than a boss!!!
- School credit !!!
- An apprenticeship type situation where the student can then start working for you part or full-time after, say, a semester.

My 2 cents.


ibrahim okuyucu Engineering Manager at Twitter

November 25th, 2013

I had free interns when I was doing my startup and I don't see the unethical part of it. Its a win-win and in case of Sheryl Sandberg its a little different. She is rich and I am not :) Sent from my iPhone


November 25th, 2013

Pay them something, not nothing.

Monica Borrell CEO and Founder at Cardsmith

November 25th, 2013

As others said, knowing the law is key. Once that is handled, the next step is ethics. The fact that you are thinking about ethics is good, and means that you will find some way to compensate interns even if it isn't monetary: e.g. applicable & marketable experience and/or college credit and/or a promise of equity as Mike suggests.  

Sharon Schanzer Client service consultant, graphic designer, WordPress developer

November 25th, 2013

Andy: As far as I know, it's completely illegal to hire unpaid interns (at least in NY), unless they are really, truly earning college credit. I'd avoid it personally, even though it's very tempting. S. +++ Sharon Schanzer Founder & Creative Director : RLDGROUP : where technology, creativity & strategy meet Founder : Helix : Coworking and connecting on the Upper West Side 646.595.0033 office 917.677.5827 mobile/sms

Paul Travis Multifaceted Online Executor: Product Marketing to Program Mgmt. to Business Development

November 25th, 2013

Warren posted at the same time I did.  Know the six considerations and be able to address them.

I think it's time the Fed start differentiating between publicly held corporations and small business...