Ah, summer! The time of year when enterprising college students take a break from academia and venture tepidly into the real world. Not the MTV reality show version (though some do). I’m talking about internships – free, grunt work labor in the hopes of making connections and gaining a little bit of experience along the way.
Unpaid interns present interesting opportunities and potential challenges for companies when not incentivized in any way other than pure learning (or “opportunity” as we call it). On the one hand, you’ve got someone who’s expressed a strong enough desire to learn a trade or craft that they are willing to work for free. On the other hand, you have someone who will very likely put just about any other priority ahead of you when push comes to shove. And there’s not much you can do about that except end the relationship. After all, they’re not really obligated to you other than by a verbal agreement (and maybe some course credit).
If you’re going to bring in an intern, I strongly believe that certain things have to be done in much the same way as hiring someone into the company.
Honestly Assess Your Needs for Help
Free labor is enticing. But even free labor when you don’t need it can actually take more from you than what you actually get in return in just time spent trying to create things for the person to do. Nothing feels worse than thinking you have enough work for someone only to have them sitting around staring at you and begging for something – anything – to do. People want to feel valued.
Even doing grunt work that needs to be done provides some sense of value to an intern. Most know that’s what they’ll be doing and they’re okay with it so long as they can see how it contributes to something bigger than themselves. People can tell when you’re just throwing something at them to shut them up. There was a study done some time ago that paid people to dig a ditch the first half of the day then fill it in during the second half. At the end of the day, they told the participants that if they to show up the next day, their pay would be doubled. Almost half didn’t return. It wasn’t the digging that was the problem. It was that the work had no meaning.
If you can’t honestly look at your week or project load and think, I could easily give this person an amount of needed work that is 1.5x-2x the hours she’ll be here, I would strongly reevaluate the need for her. After all, you may just underestimate her ability to do the work faster than you because that will be all she is doing.
Clearly Define the Intern’s Responsibilities
Nothing is worse than showing up ready to work and not knowing what you should be doing. Saying, “You’ll be an intern over here,” doesn’t cut it. Business owners are busy people and most hate training people for more than a couple hours. After that, they seem to think the person should just dive in and “figure it out.” Unfortunately, it’s not their business. They don’t know it like you do and they don’t know what they have authorization to do.
Clearly defining the position’s responsibilities will inform and empower both parties. The manager/owner will know what the person needs to be trained to do and the intern will know exactly what they should be doing if they find themselves thrown into the mix sooner than planned.
Also keep in mind that they’re not getting paid. As a result, they’re often going to want to focus more on the “fun stuff” they may not be ready for. In their mind, that’s the reason for doing this. Clear boundaries let them know what they need to do before they get to be a part of what they want to do. So make sure both things are spelled out for them in some sort of position document.
Clearly Define “Success” for the Intern
Again, people want to be valued and they want to be a contributing member of your team. So after you let them know what to do, let them know how you’ll be evaluating their performance. Tell them what success looks like for this position.
Is it a certain number of newsletters sent? Is it a certain number of client contacts? Is it a certain number of new ideas each day? What should their attitude be? What should their availability be? What are the boundaries? What can’t they do?
Clearly stating all of this stuff up-front in the position document will clearly set expectations for both parties and empower each side to hold the other accountable for the relationship.
Prepare Yourself to Train
What? You don’t want to train them? We’ve already established that they won’t just “figure it out.” So that means you’re going to have to train them on what the position will require along with what you’ll be measuring success on. Thankfully, you have a list that you created in the previous steps!
Spend some time documenting the processes involved in the work they’ll be doing. Make sure you have a plan for which things you’ll be covering on which days. Chances are, you won’t train them on everything in a single sitting or even a single day. Map out a game plan for how the training will progress. Do certain things build on others? Then make sure those happen sequentially.
Also – and this is important – make sure you tell them why they are doing what you’re asking. This goes back to meaning. Help them understand how they’re helping the company, your clients/customers, or even just you. If they see that they are providing value, they’re more likely to appreciate the opportunity to work for free.
Set a Limit on the Program
When someone offers their services to you for free because they want to learn, that’s great. But you also need to be respectful of their need to provide for their family – or future family if they’re single.
Place very clear time boundaries on the program (yes, this is a program you’re creating):
- How many hours will be expected of them?
- Can they take time off?
- What will their schedule be?
- How many days/weeks/months will the program run? (This keeps them from feeling like they’re part of a program rather than being “used” indefinitely.)
- What happens if they don’t show up on a day they’re scheduled?
Think through all the potential boundaries and add this information to the position document. Think of the position document as a “non-legal” document that tries to cut down on the number of surprises and frustrations experienced by both parties.
Consider Offering a Reward to the Intern
If you do just these four things, you will very likely reap a lot from the relationship. Many unpaid internship programs offer some sort of incentive or bonus at the end of the program to the interns based on their performance. I would recommend you do the same. Treat people how you would want to be treated.
- A part-time or full-time, paid position (again, only if you have at least the above in place for that position)
- A financial bonus of some sort (you can be saving for this in advance if you know it’s coming)
- A referral to a partner company or a recommendation they can use to land a job in the industry
- A night on the town for them and their significant other (or a friend)
- A weekend away
- A gift certificate to their favorite store
Always remember to treat this much like hiring a person on salary. Be professional and deliberate about it. Even though they are unpaid, that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t receive something of value in the deal. Keep it clear and honest and you’ll both win out in the end.