Human Resources News & Insights

Why hiring interns is more dangerous than ever — and how to stay safe

If you’re like a lot of employers, you’re deep into the process of trying to find those potentially stellar summer interns. Here are tips on finding the best ones — and risks you’ll need to look out for.

There are no two ways around it: It’s a dangerous time to be hiring interns, especially unpaid ones.

In January, American television interviewer Charlie Rose and his production company, Charlie Rose, Inc., agreed to pay up to $250,000 to settle a class-action lawsuit filed by a former intern who claimed she wasn’t paid for her work.

And last month, a former unpaid intern filed a similar class-action complaint against Elite Model Management Corp. — only this claim was for “at least $50 million.”

So it’s clear companies are still making mistakes when hiring interns and deciding how to classify them.

How can you stay out of trouble? HR pros would do well to study up on the Department of Labor’s six criteria for hiring unpaid interns that’s available on a recent fact sheet on their website.

But for an offhand, easy-to-remember guide, look no further than this two-step plan, courtesy of John E. Thompson from Fisher & Phillips LLP:

… Ask yourself this:  If there is a later [Fair Labor Standards Act] claim, will the circumstances clearly, provably, and readily show (i) that the relationship was for the purpose of providing education, instruction, and training that imparted significant, substantive, transferable knowledge of a broadly-applicable kind; and (ii) that what actually occurred was consistent with and carried out this purpose?

3 tips for a smooth intern experience

Now that you know what problems you can run into and what legal issues you face, here are some tips on hiring and managing interns, courtesy of Suzanne Lucas of Inc.:

  1. Seriously consider offering a paid internship. Yes, we just went over how to legally offer and maintain an unpaid internship, and in certain instances that’s all you’ll need.
    But Lucas makes a good point: Paying your interns will allow you to give them more tasks and better projects — a win-win situation.
  2. Give them meaningful work. Speaking of better projects, make sure you and your managers are on the same page about what an internship will entail. If it’s getting coffee for everyone and cleaning out filing cabinets, what use will that be for the person you’ve hired? Let your managers give interns a look at what you do and a chance to make some contributions, whether that’s sitting in on calls or meetings or writing up drafts of important proposals. At the same time …
  3. Not every task has to be amazing. Yes, you want to give your interns a taste of the real world. At the same time, there are things that need to get done that are boring. So yes, your managers should try to dole out interesting, challenging assignments as often as possible. Still, make it clear to your interns that there will be boring but necessary work from time to time.

Subscribe Today

Get the latest and greatest Human Resources news and insights delivered to your inbox.
'