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Can You Run a Sustainable Company with Unpaid Interns?

Posted by Lynn Miller on Sun, Apr 03, 2011

As spring approaches, and intern hiring season kicks into high gear, there’s a debate raging in companies throughout the U.S. To pay or not to pay – that is the question.

Unpaid internships – for college credit  – are a longstanding tradition in this country. But somewhere, somehow, the college credits disappeared from many internship agreements, and cold hard cash never took its place.

Businesses desperately trying to grow in these tough times have found a ready and willing crop of students and recent college grads, begging to work – unpaid.

And in the “sustainability sector,” it’s a perfect storm. The struggling “new green economy,” and a surge of interest among college students  in anything smacking of social enterprise, sustainability, green business, and corporate social responsibility led to a situation where it became commonplace for green businesses to openly advertise unpaid internships.  It was a win-win, or so we thought. I’ll admit, the first internship position I posted was unpaid as well.

Few of us thought anything of it. Demand was so great that some firms began charging for internships, or auctioning them off at charity events, as The Wall Street Journal reported.

But in February, the Public Relations Society of America took a stand on the issue, with the release of a Professional Standards Advisory on the Ethical Use of Interns.  The advisory recaps the Department of Labor’s six guidelines for determining whether an employer must pay interns for their work, provides examples of improper practices, and best practice recommendations.

Here’s a recap of US labor guidelines:

  1. The internship, even though it includes actual operations of the employer’s facilities, is similar to that which would be given in an educational environment;
  2. The internship is for the benefit of the intern.
  3. The intern does not displace a regular employee, but works under the close supervision of existing staff;
  4. The employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the intern, and on occasion, its  operations may be impeded.
  5. The intern is not necessarily entitled to a job at the conclusion of the internship.
  6. The employer and the intern understand that the intern is not entitled to wages for the time spent in the internship.

Only if all six criteria are met can an internship at a for-profit company be classified as unpaid. Non-profit organizations are exempt from these rules, and most offer only unpaid internships.

Take a look at the “green biz” and “sustainable” internships advertised online and in your community.  I’ve been surprised by the number of “CSR” specialist agencies, big name green and sustainable conference brands, and other “green” businesses that are still advertising unpaid internships. Perhaps like me, they didn’t know any better.

But now you know. So tell me. Will you be paying your interns this summer? Or not?

– Lynn

Tags: CSR: Corporate Social Responsibility