Recruit Interns Without Breaking the Law

By Joe Taylor Jr. | Posted February 20, 2013

Television host Charlie Rose, the publishers of Harper's Bazaar and the producers of the film Black Swan all fell into legal trouble over the use of unpaid interns in their businesses. Although generations of professionals used internships to get their feet in the door of competitive businesses, new worker protection rules have many companies rethinking the practice. If you're thinking about bringing an unpaid intern into your small business, here's what you need to know.

4 Rules for Hiring Interns Legally

1. Interns must learn on the job, not replace paid workers

Small business owners often turn to unpaid interns for the kinds of tasks they expect young people to handle well. Social media management, website development, and assorted errands often end up at the top of interns' job descriptions. However, as recent lawsuits have shown, your internship program can only recruit unpaid workers if you're offering the kind of real career development that students would receive at a college, university or vocational school.

2. A good internship could make your business a little less efficient

Instead of thinking about your internship program as a source of extra labor, think of it as an opportunity to give back to your community and to your industry. While your intern's tasks may include some entry-level work assignments, much of your intern's time should include shadowing experienced staff. In return for pulling you away from your usual routine, your intern may offer you some fresh perspectives on your company's strengths and opportunities.

3. Interns shouldn't automatically earn paid jobs

Regulators have cracked down on employers who use unpaid internship programs to winnow down a large pool of candidates for a single, paid position. There's no law that says you can't hire a former intern. In fact, internships help you predict how a candidate will perform once they're on the job. However, implying that you only hire former interns can violate state and federal employment regulations.

4. Everyone should agree to ground rules in advance

In most cases, your interns should use their experience to earn course credit from their college or university. Most schools assign an internship advisor to oversee each student's work experience. Coordinate your program's timeline and deliverables to ensure that your interns can earn the maximum credit for their experience. Along the way, set a clear work schedule and other expectations for a successful internship. Use your interns' advisor as a resource to ensure you're offering a fair, enjoyable and legal work experience.


With clarity around what students gain from participating in your internship program, you can still take advantage of extra help from unpaid interns. They, meanwhile, benefit from a meaningful career experience that may solidify your role as a leader in your industry.

Joe Taylor Jr. has covered personal finance and business for more than two decades. His work has been featured on NPR, CNBC, Financial Times Television, Fox Business, and ABC News. He recently completed a personal finance book entitled The Rogue Guide to Credit Cards; (Rogue Guide Books, 2012).

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