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What to do when your internship stinks

Dear Evil HR Lady,

I'm a college student interning in the HR department at the corporate office of a medium-sized company with a tiny HR department. I was offered two unpaid internships and accepted this one because I was told that they would offer me real experience with hiring practices, policy writing, etc., and very little clerical work. I'm not really sure where the disconnect happened but since I started all I have done is filing. My supervisor is frequently busy and complains that she is given more work than she can handle, but she doesn't utilize me. She frequently gives me what she thinks is a day's worth of work, and when I complete it in half the time she says how amazing I am and lets me go early.

I'm not intending this to sound like a giant complaint. I understand the importance of something that looks good on a resume. It's just that I'm a full-time college student with another job and these hours spent at the internship are very precious to me, and I want to make the most of them. Moreover, I worry that a future employer will see this internship on a resume and assume that I have experience beyond putting pieces of paper into different folders and stapling things. Is there something that I can say to my supervisor that won't come out sounding ungrateful?

Just what, exactly, are you supposed to be grateful for? The unpaid labor that isn't helping you learn anything? (After all, you learned how to alphabetize sometime before the age of 8, and so I'm guessing this isn't helping your skills at all.) You're thinking about this the wrong way. Your supervisor should be grateful for you.

That's right. You are doing her a favor, and she should be kissing your feet. Especially since you haven't reported her to the Department of Labor for violating the law, which as an HR manager she should know about. See, unpaid internships are only legal in certain tightly defined situations, and your internship fails to meet these qualifications. Any for profit-company must meet all of the following six qualifications to legally have unpaid interns:

1. The internship, even though it includes actual operation of the facilities of the employer, is similar to training which would be given in an educational environment
2. The internship experience is for the benefit of the intern
3. The intern does not displace regular employees, but works under close supervision of existing staff
4. The employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the intern; and on occasion its operations may actually be impeded
5. The intern is not necessarily entitled to a job at the conclusion of the internship
6. The employer and the intern understand that the intern is not entitled to wages for the time spent in the internship

The only qualifications your internship meets are No. 5 and 6, as you aren't guaranteed a job and you both understand that you're not being paid.

In short, your internship is illegal. The filing is for the company's benefit, not yours. You aren't learning anything that will advance your knowledge or a future career. You're doing work that displaces someone else -- that is, the filing has to be done and if you weren't there, someone else would be doing it -- and your boss is certainly deriving an immediate advantage from your activities.

Isn't this fun? Not even out of college and already violating labor law! If you were working in marketing or something, I'd say your manager was just clueless. But an HR manager should know this. Sadly, however, she is probably also clueless. And from what you've said, also she is also a bad manger in general. 

Still, you need the internship on your resume. Just having the title on your resume is a boost for future job applications. So one option is to just shut your mouth and proceed. But as you've said, you're really busy and if you're not learning anything it's not worth your time. So it's time for a chat with your manager.

First, explain that you expected you'd be able to learn something about human resource, which is why you accepted the internship. Additionally, politely note that doing tasks like filing -- which you are fully willing to do (because, let's face it, a little sucking up never hurt anybody) -- are technically violations of the law because it's of benefit only to the company and not to you, which is a legal requirement for an unpaid internship.

Also ask to be included in three or four specific work activities. Don't just say, "I want you to teach me about HR!" Say: "I would like to sit in on the interviews you conduct with new candidates. When you have a business partner meeting to discuss strategy, I'd like to sit in. I'd like to be the first person to review resumes and give you my ideas about who I think is a strong candidate. When you conduct a workplace investigation, I'd like to help with that. Can you teach me to take a witness statement?"

If your manager resists, that's your signal that this is not the right place for you. In your shoes, I'd quit. I know that you then won't be able to put this on your resume, but since resumes should be about accomplishments and you aren't accomplishing anything, this is not something to be too concerned with. If this internship is coordinated through a campus office, you can approach them and ask them for assistance as well.

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