Just pay your interns.

Unpaid internships are legal(ish), have plenty of candidates, and on the surface, they’re free. Interns get valuable experience and companies get valuable labor. Everybody wins. But you shouldn’t have unpaid interns. You should pay your interns. It’s better for your interns, and it’s better for your company. Really.

Unpaid interns aren’t really free.

An unpaid internship isn’t supposed to be free labor. That’s illegal. There’s a catch with unpaid internships: a legal unpaid internship requires that the company gives more to the intern — in mentorship or training — than the intern gives to the company. Essentially, you’re supposed to be doing a service for your interns, not requesting service from them. The rule of thumb is that if an intern contributes to earning revenue, you need to pay them. Aside from being the law, it’s just fair. You probably already knew this.

But maybe your unpaid interns really are there to learn. That is a great deal for unpaid interns. Free training is great, and it’s so generous of you to offer it. However, interns might actually have to pay to do your unpaid internship. In order to validate an unpaid internship, students turn to receiving college credit for their unpaid internships, and credits aren’t free. Even if a full-time student has no cap on credits they can earn, if they’re doing the internship over the summer they may have to pay per credit. Basically, they’re paying for credits to protect your company from a potential lawsuit.

“But they’re getting great experience!”

Maybe they are, but paid employees get great experience, too. Experience isn’t a currency, even if the law treats it as one. From the intern’s perspective, it feels like a transaction because they receive experience in exchange for their labor. However, receiving experience doesn’t require your company to give up experience. When looking at the dynamic from the employer’s perspective, the distinction is clearer: The company receives labor, and gives nothing.

If your company does give meaningful experience — including training, mentorship, and access to business activities that can’t be learned in a classroom — then good job. You probably won’t be sued for back pay. But you should still pay them, and give them great experiences. You already offer employees with as many resources to grow as possible (if you aren’t, you have bigger problems than unpaid interns). It makes good business sense because more capable employees leads to better performance at work. When you give experience to an unpaid intern, you aren’t giving them anything you wouldn’t give a paid employee. Experience isn’t a substitute for a wage; professional development and a salary are complementary.

If you ask for nothing in return of your unpaid interns in exchange for this professional development, that’s great. You follow unpaid internship policy exactly. But it’s still weird that you call it an “internship” rather than a free training or professional development program.

“But they want to do it for free!”

I get it, there are a ton of students (and some alumni) who are willing to work at an unpaid internship. I worked at an unpaid internship. I know people who have been turned down from unpaid internships because too many people wanted to work for free. Yet interns’ willingness to work for free (begrudgingly or enthusiastically) doesn’t change that they should be paid.

You shouldn’t limit your potential intern pool to people who can afford to work for free. You’re cutting out a large group of people who — like you — need to pay for stuff. Like college, for example. And even if those people (i.e. most people) are willing to give your company some free time, how productive are they going to be if they’re also working a part time job and attending college? The choice among studying, working, extracurricular-ing and sleeping doesn’t need the addition of working for free to get a little more experience.

Also, if your unpaid internship really does offer awesome experience, you’re keeping that experience away from students from low-income families. Penny Loretto has written about this particular injustice, but it’s important to reiterate. When you’re hiring unpaid interns, your options are kids from wealthy families, or kids who are going to be overworked and can’t commit enough time or energy to help your company. If you will only hire people who have a lot of time to commit, be honest with yourself that you can only hire well-off students. If you’re cool with that, this won’t change your mind, but if you haven’t thought about it from that perspective, hopefully now you are.

“But I really can’t afford to pay them!”

Then what would you do if the possibility of unpaid labor disappeared? If your company’s profit depends on getting work for free, you have other problems to fix. Maybe your product is priced too low or your current employees are overpaid. Maybe your product isn’t a fit for the market and you need to find another source of revenue. Either way, having unpaid internships will only make your situation worse. You’ll have the possibility of a lawsuit hanging over your head, and your interns probably won’t be as productive as they would if they were paid.

“But I’m a startup! Sometimes I can’t even pay myself!”

Sure, maybe you need more people to work on your startup. But you need co-founders, not an unpaid intern. Especially as a startup, you need people totally committed to your mission. Perhaps that means people who are willing to work for free are committed to that goal, just like you. In that case, why not pay them the same way you pay yourself or other co-founders? On the other hand, maybe your unpaid intern sees that as a quick and easy way to put experience on their resume without the high selectivity and accountability required by larger companies. If you’re not paying them, you’re using them as a quick and easy way to get labor (or worse, just free promotion).

“But I’m a non-profit!”

That’s fine. You can call them volunteer interns. But to be nice, you should still help them with professional development.

“So what do I do?”

Give your interns deliberate mentorship, training and a wage. Even a minimum one. You like them and want them to succeed, so don’t take advantage of them. If they’re valuable to you and your company, they deserve to be paid. Really, you should pay them more than the minimum wage, but there’s ways to make up for a small wage: take them out to lunch, take some time from your day to give career advice. If your company produces something, give it to your interns for free or discounted. Have intern events for fun or professional development.

With interns, you get what you pay for.

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