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Spotlight on Ethics: The Ethical Use of Interns

Ah, summer! Many people will be taking time off to go on vacation, enjoy the weather and spend time with family and friends. While we all need and deserve time off, it can be difficult to cover things at the office. With all of our PRSSA chapter schools, hiring interns can be an easy and inexpensive – perhaps free? – way to keep things moving at the office.

As you prepare to hire interns, there are a few questions to ask yourself to make sure you’re using interns in an ethical way.

What should I pay my interns?

Compensation can be in the form of an hourly wage, class credit or a combination or both. While an unpaid internship sounds like a great solution when budgets are tight, getting something of value for free – the intern’s work – raises ethical questions. A few points to help determine compensation:

  • Are the interns replacing a regular employee? If an intern is doing work that you would pay another employee to do, they should be compensated.
  • Are you billing clients for the interns’ work? PRSA’s Board of Ethical and Practical Standards (BEPS) advises that interns should be paid if they are performing real, billable work.
  • Does your company have a policy? Some organizations have policies around if and how much interns are paid.

In addition to the ethical issues, there also are legal considerations when determining the compensation for interns. The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) requires for-profit employers to pay employees for their work. In some cases, interns are considered employees. The FLSA uses the primary beneficiary test to determine if an intern is an employee – if an intern is the primary beneficiary of the internship, they aren’t considered an employee under the FLSA and you aren’t required to pay them. This U.S. Department Labor Fact Sheet offers more information, but check with your Human Resources Department or legal counsel for guidance.

What kind of work should I assign to my interns?

The first thing to remember is that the student is the primary beneficiary of the internship experience. While you benefit from the work your intern completes, the benefit to the student should guide your decision-making. You should be assigning your interns real-world, portfolio-building work that allows them to develop skills that will prepare them for that first job – not grunt work that no one else wants to do.

While you should be assigning your interns “real work,” it’s important to remember that they are students first. The deadlines you give them should be flexible enough to still allow the student time to complete an important school assignment or study for an exam.

How should I supervise my interns?

Supervising interns isn’t that different than supervising regular employees. The same processes apply, including setting goals, holding regular meetings to touch base on progress and offering ongoing coaching and feedback. You may need to spend more time offering an explanation about the work and your expectations, as well as helping your interns connect their work with the company’s objectives. This extra time spent is critical to helping interns gain real-world experience that they can learn from and apply.

If your interns are completing the internship for class credit, be sure you understand what documentation is needed for them to earn that credit.

Do employee policies apply to my interns?

A good rule of thumb is that, if you are paying your intern, all the same policies that apply to regular employees apply to interns. If you aren’t paying your intern, only broad policies that encompass non-employees such as contractors, vendors and visitors apply. This includes workplace violence and sexual harassment policies. Regardless of whether or not you pay them, it’s recommended that you have your intern complete the same orientation process as a regular employee – this ensures they receive the same information about policies and procedures, and it gives them a glimpse into what to expect when they start their first full-time PR job. Just be sure to point out any policies that don’t apply to them as interns so there’s no confusion.

An important note: Interns are young and may have little to no experience in the workplace. It may be difficult for them to identify and report inappropriate behavior due to their inexperience, or fears that they will be labeled as a complainer early in their career. It’s critical your interns know they have the same protections as regular employees. Be sure they are aware of your company’s policies, and who they can raise an issue to without fear of reprisal.

Quick Quiz

  1. You are a sole practitioner and have five clients. You contact the local university’s public relations department and agree to hire two interns over the summer. While the internships are unpaid, the students will get credit. Is this practice unethical?
  2. The answer is no, the practice is not unethical as long as the interns are working under close supervision, doing more than menial clerical work and aren’t displacing a regular employee. If you are charging a client for the work they are doing, then they should be paid.

Thinking through these ethical considerations can help ensure the internship experience is beneficial to everyone. If you have questions about the ethical use of interns, feel free to reach out to me.

Kerry Francis, APR is the Ethics Officer for PRSA Central Ohio. You can reach Kerry at [email protected].

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