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Top 3 Rules Governing Unpaid Internships

Yes, it is possible to employ unpaid interns. However, the Department of Labor has some very strict criteria in place to ensure that your company isn’t profiting from unpaid labor. In fact, they are referred to as “trainees”.

Rule #1. The internship, even though it includes actual operation of the facilities of the employer, should be similar to what would be given in a vocational school or academic educational institution. – This basically means that your internship needs to be more like a classroom setting than a business setting. Yes, the interns can perform basic duties for your company, but they need to be focused on learning the craft that they would be studying in school (i.e. finance, TV production, photography) rather than working to make your business operations easier. This might include giving your interns projects that focus on the overall function of their department, highlighting the pros and cons of how things are done. You, as an employer, might learn something from their research, but that is not the point of the exercise.

Rule #2. The training should be for the benefit of the trainees. – An extension of the first rule, this means that your reason for employing these unpaid interns is to boost their career, rather than benefiting your company. Interns should be taught real-world skills about general employment in their field rather than anything specific to your company.

Rule # 3. The employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the intern, and on occasion the employer’s operations may actually be impeded. – This rule explains again that only the intern should really benefit from the program and that, occasionally, running the internship program might increase the employer’s workload rather than lighten it. Again, this rule is meant to deter those companies thinking an internship as a means for free labor.

With all these strict rules in place, it can cause the employer who was thinking about hiring unpaid interns reconsider their entire program. While the decision to pay interns should be at the discretion of employers, it’s imperative to remain mindful of the labor laws governing internships. This is simply because there are many liability concerns that stem from hiring unpaid interns. Especially, the underlying Public Relations vulnerability of brand image. With social media as a muse, coupled with rising legal scrutiny; employers are encouraged to closely monitor the development of their internship programs.

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