An Employer’s Guide to Internships

If you know a young person or someone who has been young in the past 10 years, you’ve probably heard an internship horror story. If not, a simple internet search should fix that…or just keep reading, because you’re about to meet one.

career fair

A student inquires into an internship position with IBM at a career fair thrown by a university.

Hi. My name is Sierra Schellenberg. I’m 22 years old, and I just graduated college. I’ve had an internship every semester and summer as an upperclassman, and most of them have been pretty close to useless. Though competition’s tough in this division, probably my worst internship was my last one at a news blog. My average work tasks there included stealing pictures from Google, finding news stories for the other writers to blog about, and blogging my own stories. I would have gladly put up with the more inane tasks if I’d gotten any sort of guidance for my writing, but this wasn’t the case. My articles were scantily edited (my early portfolio is riddled with errors) and forget any sort of help with style. They’d often ask me to write about topics I had absolutely no claim to expertise in, such as the 10 best places to get margaritas in the city (I’d never had a margarita in my life at that point) or a critical analysis of the city’s budget plan (my degree is in philosophy). Sometimes they’d straight up forget to post my articles—which actually wasn’t that bad when compared to my previous internship, where a staff writer would post articles I’d written under her name. When I told my supervisor I was getting nothing out of my time there, he consented to give me some technical training, which lasted 10 minutes.

You might be wondering why I submitted to such a terrible situation. Easy: every paid writing position I looked at requiring at least two years experience in the field. My ex-employers aren’t alone in taking advantage of the current job market and cultural climate to exploit young workers, as a simple internet search will tell you.

Employers often hire interns to work for little or no pay, often asking them to perform menial tasks that don’t contribute anything new or relevant to their skillset. And interns often comply, all in the name of a good reference, networking opportunities, or exposure, even when the experience forces them to go into debt or a 40 hour plus work week.

While I’ve since moved on to a much better environment (shout out to Green America!), I’ve been hoping to write more about the toxic culture of internships. So when my editor proposed doing a follow-up series to a piece on worker exploitation here in America, intern exploitation came immediately to mind. While not quite as vile as some of the working conditions imposed upon immigrants, internships are nonetheless a sector of the American workforce where exploitation runs rampant.

Here are some ways you as an employer can go above and beyond the legal minimum for ensuring a fair workplace for interns.

NOTE: While I do reiterate the law here, this post should not replace legal counsel!

 (1)   Comply with the legal minimum

In terms of treating your interns, the obvious place to start is with the legal minimum , which is actually pretty fair to interns (not that you can tell from the way many interns are treated.)  According to the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), to legally qualify as an “internship” and thus be exempt from paying minimum wage and overtime, a position must comply with all of the following criteria:

  1. An internship must be similar to training that would be given in an educational environment.
  2. The purpose of the internship must be to benefit of the intern and NOT the employer.  “[I]f the interns are engaged in the operations of the employer or are performing productive work (for example, filing, performing other clerical work, or assisting customers), then the fact that they may be receiving some benefits in the form of a new skill or improved work habits will not exclude them from the FLSA’s minimum wage and overtime requirements because the employer benefits from the interns’ work.”
  3. An intern cannot be used as a replacement for regular employees, but instead works under close supervision of existing staff. “If the intern receives the same level of supervision as the employer’s regular workforce, this would suggest an employment relationship, rather than training.”
  1. The employer may not derive an immediate advantage from the intern. In fact, occasionally interns may impede operations.
  1. Lastly, interns must be made aware from the outset of the internship that they are not entitled to wages for the time spent in the internship.
  1. While the internship “should be for a fixed duration established prior to the outset of the internship, the intern is not necessarily entitled to a paying job after the end of the internship.”

Not only is it a simple matter of decency, but you also put yourself in a precarious legal situation if you can’t meet these six criteria. On June 11 of this year, two unpaid production interns sued their previous employer, Fox Searchlight Pictures (NWS), in a New York federal district court for wages they believed they were owed for their work on the 2010 movie Black Swan. The two interns had performed basic secretarial tasks for their internship such as taking out the trash, answering phones, and making coffee runs. According to the judge, “Searchlight received the benefits of their unpaid work, which otherwise would have required paid employees” (criteria #3) and therefore owed the pair compensation for their work. There are currently another 15 lawsuits put forth by former interns pending.

Note: Nonprofits are the exempt from these standards. However, while nonprofits can technically still call a position an internship without adhering to the six FLSA criteria, it’s misleading and unfair to call it anything other than a “volunteer” position if you can’t provide any sort of training.

2.      Make sure you have the time to spare to educate and train your interns before you hire them.

It should be obvious that if you don’t have the time or available staff to educate your interns, you have no business in hiring them. Legally speaking, offering your interns just networking, exposure, or a recommendation without any sort of training or education won’t cut it. You may need to come early, stay late, or work through your lunch break to make up for the time lost to training. If your employees are going to be the ones training the intern, be prepared to pay some overtime as their schedules will likely be interrupted (or internrrupted, ahaha) .

If you don’t have time to train your interns, then you are basically offering a volunteer position. If you’re a for-profit and feel tempted to advertise it as a volunteer position instead, know that it is legally frowned upon for a for-profit company to utilize volunteer labor. If a for-profit company “permit[s] or suffer[s]” any sort of work from an individual, they are considered an employee and are owed wages, even if they initially agreed to work for free.


3.      Ask applicants what they want to accomplish before you hire them, and be honest at that point about whether or not you can help them achieve those goals.

Even if you can’t help prospective interns with their stated career goals, be sure to elaborate on any other ways in which your internship can teach them something. They may simply not be aware of everything they need to learn to succeed in your field. (After all, if they knew everything already, they would probably have a real job that pays.)

If you can help your interns with their goals, it’s a great idea to follow up throughout the internship period to make sure they are getting everything done that they want to get done.


 4.      Try to connect your interns with other people or resources in the field.

Helping your intern make personal connections is an obvious place to start. Introducing your interns to other people in the field is a great way to help them find work in case a position doesn’t open up at your company or they’re not well-suited for one that does.

In addition, if there is something common or trending in your field that you can’t help your interns learn, try to connect them with someone who can teach it to them. Having out-of-office professionals come to speak to your interns is a great way to expose them to different skills. Maybe even return the favor by coming to speak to your peers’ interns.


 5.      When you ask an intern to do anything above and beyond the job description, offer some sort of compensation.

As someone who worked as an intern all four years of college, I can tell you it’s hard to say no as an intern. While it shouldn’t be the only thing you offer your interns, a good recommendation is often very important to your interns, so they may be afraid falling out of your good graces. Keep this in mind when you ask for a favor.

One way to avoid exploitation is to offer compensation for tasks that aren’t part of an educational experience. Our editor-in-chief, Tracy Fernandez Rysavy, was once asked as an intern to clean out dust and bat guano from three rooms and then paint them. “And I DID IT,” she writes, “because I was young and didn’t think could tell my boss where he could put his bat guano.” She was not compensated for her services.

Free food or coffee should do the trick for relatively small tasks, while monetary compensation may be best for more intensive jobs (such as cleaning out bat guano). An extra-long lunch or permission to leave early or come in late one day should be the bare minimum. After all, legally, interns should be supplemental and not instrumental to your company.

6.      Make sure you put care into writing their recommendation and are expedient in sending it off when asked.

While it shouldn’t be the only thing you offer your intern, recommendations can be one of the most valuable benefits an intern receives from an internship. It’s a great idea to slowly build your intern’s rec during their time there. Write down an intern’s  accomplishments or traits soon after they exhibit themselves so as not to forget them. You could even create a formal recommendation letter that you can both give to the intern to hand out when needed and to use yourself as a reference point when contacted by a prospective employer.

However, there’s no shame in asking your interns before they leave to summarize what they think they did well in their time at your organization. This way, you can have their recommendation locked and loaded when your soon-to-be-former intern needs it.

Finally, send out that recommendation immediately when asked. If you wait too long to send it out, your ex-intern could end up losing out on an opportunity. Ask your outgoing interns to let you know in the subject line of an email what they are asking for and when exactly they need it to help you better prioritize. Have them send a test email from their outside email to make sure their request won’t go directly to your spam folder.

—Sierra Schellenberg, Green American Editorial Fellow


  1. This is exactly what I was looking for. Thanks for sharing this great article! That is very interesting Smile I love reading and I am always searching for informative information like this

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