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Stop! Don't hire that intern

(MoneyWatch) Whether your organization is big or small, interns can have a huge impact on your business. Young, temporary staff can energize your team, bringing new ideas and concepts. But if you're simply viewing interns as free labor, you could be in for a rude awakening because of recent federal laws. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, unpaid interns need to be learning professional skills, and they can't replace paid employees (For more  information, take a look at the government's Wage and Hour Division fact-sheet.)

Legal issues aside, there are other reasons why you shouldn't automatically be staffing up with interns this summer:

You don't have the resources to mentor them. Interns are there to learn, and they need a designated teacher (or more than one). "To be fair, you should not bring on a summer intern unless you are prepared to provide him or her with a valuable learning experience and devoted attention by a caring, interested mentor," says Bonnie Kerrigan Snyder, author of "The New College Reality: Make College Work For Your Career." She notes that this can cost time and money -- if your company isn't prepared to spend both, it shouldn't take an intern on.

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You don't have room for them. Aside from a mentor, interns also need a place to work, just like paid employees. "Do you have a place for the interns to sit and computer/phone/equipment for them to use? It can be incredibly uncomfortable for interns to arrive and have nowhere to go," says career coach Christine Bolzan. And working in a broom closet doesn't exactly lend itself to a conducive learning environment.

There isn't substantive work they can do. Legally and ethically, interns aren't just summer workers. If they aren't learning, they aren't interning -- they're just free labor. "You shouldn't use them as extra pairs of hands doing administrative work, stocking [shelves], or other hourly-level work unless it is for a short exposure time to understand exactly what the hourly employee actually does," says management professor John Millikin of Arizona State University's W.P. Carey School of Business.

Your company is experiencing significant change. The interning period may be a chance for the company and intern to evaluate each other for future opportunities. "However, if your company was just acquired, or the entire management team changed, or you're in the midst of extreme cost-cutting and layoffs to fend off bankruptcy, your interns may take one look at the culture of chaos and despair around them and run for the hills -- taking your 'Excellent Place to Work' reputation with them," says Elizabeth Hewitt-Gibson, an instructor with the University of California-San Diego Extension school's Career Transition & Development for Professionals program.

So before you hire an intern, think about what they will do and how you will help them learn from it. Failing to think before hiring can potentially leave you open to lawsuits like the ones currently plaguing Charlie Rose and media company Hearst. Even if you don't face legal problems, trying to mentor an intern without the right resources can be a time and money drain on your organization that benefits no one.

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons User Tom Ventura

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