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Got Unpaid Interns? 5 Do's and Don'ts for Employers

By Daniel Taylor, Esq. | Last updated on

When done right, having unpaid interns at your business can be a wonderful, mutually beneficial experience.

Done wrong, however, it could land you in court.

How can you be sure to stay on the positive (and legal) side of the internship experience? By making sure that you follow the rules. Here are five do's and don'ts for employers dealing with unpaid interns this summer:

    • DO make sure the internship is an educational experience. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, unpaid internships must be "similar to training which would given in an educational environment." How do you keep an internship educational? The easiest way is to work with a university or high school to make the internship part of an educational program. Otherwise, be sure to keep the intern's tasks varied and their experiences applicable to general work in the field and not just to your particular business.
    • DON'T displace an employee with an unpaid intern. Summer interns cannot be used in lieu of regular employees to staff your business. Any job that would normally be performed by a paid employee should not be assigned to an unpaid intern. Sure, an intern can shadow an employee performing regular tasks, but if an intern's work receives the same or similar supervision as that of a regular employee, this will likely be considered displacement of a paid employee.
    • Need legal advice on how your small business should operate? Consult with an experienced business attorney about your options.
    • DO make it clear that an internship will not necessarily lead to a paid position. The length of an unpaid internship should be fixed prior to an intern's first day. Unpaid internships should never be used as a trial period or as the prerequisite to being hired. Interns may be hired at the conclusion of their internship, but don't make any promises and don't treat an unpaid internship as an opportunity to train future employees.
    • DON'T have the intern perform menial tasks. The rule of thumb with unpaid interns is that the training you provide the intern doesn't necessarily benefit you as much as it benefits them. What does that mean? The intern should do more than mop the floor or get coffee.
    • DO have your interns sign a written agreement. Make sure to get the terms of the internship agreement in writing signed by the intern. This will ensure that the scope of the internship is clear to both parties, and can also be used to cover your bases in other ways, such as including a non-disparagement clause or a liability waiver.

    The days of unpaid interns as being an endless source of free labor during are over. But by following the rules, business owners can help today's interns become tomorrow's workforce. And that's something that benefits us all.

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