Why Unpaid Interns Don't Equal Free Work

Last Updated Jul 20, 2011 6:56 AM EDT

Earlier in the week, we posted an interview with YouTern CEO Mark Babbitt, who had some strong words for young people who don't take responsibility for the quality of their internships. But as much as interns need to stop complaining and start hustling, companies also have a key role to play in determining the quality of their internships, according to a recent post on the American Express OPEN Forum blog.

Taking on the same issue from the employers' perspective, Barry Moltz reminds small and medium-sized businesses that might be tempted to sign on an unpaid summer intern in a bid to get some free labor that, even if you're not paying your intern, there are other, less obvious costs to hiring one. He explains:

For the small business owner, free is not really free. To make the intern productive, planning and training need to be invested into the process. Many companies welcome the intern on their first day without any preparation. This leads to unproductive interns and employees looking for something for them to do. The free labor ends up costing the company a lot of employee productivity.
Moltz goes on to list eight steps companies need to take to ensure that not only is their intern getting something out of the experience, but they're not distracting other employees or turning out work that's not up to snuff. Some are obvious and include setting goals for the internship and providing adequate training, but other points are more subtle and may not have occurred to you before, including the ideas of utilizing your intern to train managers or as social media evangelists:
Get others in the company involved with the intern. It is beneficial for the intern to work with a variety of people as mentors to understand different styles. It can also be educational to have different employees manage the intern as a practice for them.

Conduct an exit interview. The intern's satisfaction with their experience is just as important as the company's results. With social media, the intern can be a future evangelist for the company or a detractor.

Also, as we've covered here on BNET before, with the government taking some small steps to tighten up the rules on internships, it's obviously also key to determine whether your proposed internship program is legal before getting started. A surprising number aren't.

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(Image courtesy of Flickr user Mr.Thomas, CC 2.0)
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    Jessica lives in London where she works as a freelance writer with interests in green business and tech, management, and marketing.