Hannah Stacey

Five Things You Can’t Expect from an Unpaid Intern

By: Hannah Stacey | May 16, 2013 | 
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Five Things You Can't Expect from an Unpaid InternAhh, the PR internship.

That much-maligned rite of passage for anyone hoping to make their way in the communications world.

It’s a bit like that inevitable bin-dunking you get on your first day of junior school (just me, then?) or learning to drive: Painful and a bit degrading at the same time.

But hopefully you emerge from the whole sorry mess a better, more enlightened person (or, alternatively, a snivelling shadow of your former self).

Those bewildering weeks spent shackled to the photocopier, the tea-making, the media-list compiling, the general skivvying – and without being paid – that’s all a massive favor, isn’t it?

No, not on the intern’s part, silly! It’s an act of kindness from PR agencies, giving career-thirsty twentysomethings extremely valuable lessons in the workings of the illustrious communications industry (and hot beverage-making too, of course).

If anything, these interns should be paying PR agencies for such an enlightening induction into public relations, right?

Wrong.

My cheeky’ness aside, unpaid internships can potentially be harmful to your business. At the very least, you’re probably not going to get the very best. And they could prove detrimental to your business.

Unpaid Interns Can’t Do it All

Here are five things you can’t expect from an unpaid intern.

  1. That they get out of bed on time. We aren’t all morning people. It takes a wildly irritating alarm clock and the comforting reassurance that Starbucks will be open to deal me out a triple shot latte to get me out of bed on time each morning – and I love my job. If you’re not paying someone to get to work on time every day, chances are they won’t. And while punctuality may seem a bit nit-picky, rocking through the office door at 9:15 just isn’t cool – it massively de-motivates everyone in the team. Hitting the ground running at 9 o’clock sharp is crucial if you want to maintain a professional working environment.
  2. That they give it their all. Okay, so your new intern might start out all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, but anyone who seriously expects them to arrive with a smile on their face, ready to bust a gut every morning when they’re not getting a dime in return, probably needs their head examining. If you’re not offering your intern money or job stability for their efforts, you can’t really get shirty when they dedicate some of their working hours to finding someone else who will. Or to Whatsapping their mates, or playing Candy Crush. When you’re paying your interns, it’s not an unreasonable expectation they’ll put a decent amount of effort in. The result? You’ve got someone who’s genuinely adding value to your business rather than sitting twiddling their thumbs. Go you!
  3. That they’re going to be a team player. Your intern might be as altruistic as Robin Hood, but working day-in day-out with people who are getting paid when they’re not earning a cent isn’t really going to make them feel like part of the team, is it? No matter how much they smile and laugh when you give them another media list to compile, chances are on the inside they’re resenting you something rotten. When everyone’s hard work is being recognized and remunerated fairly, it’s more likely they’ll feel more team-spirited and you’ll be free of office bad vibes.
  4. That they’ll hit the ground running. Having an ‘extra pair of hands’ around the office it might be, but an intern is another person to manage (this is particularly true if they haven’t been through the company’s full selection process). I think I’ve banged on enough about how paying your interns will encourage them to work harder for you. It’s inevitable any intern will cost you dear in management time – why not invest this time in someone who is bringing actual value to your business rather than someone who doesn’t feel like they owe you anything?
  5. That they’ll be the best of the best. Unpaid internships make the whole PR industry silly and elitist. Sorry, but they do. Effectively they say “You can only work for me if you (or your parents) are willing to fork out for food.” Which is nearly as absurd as saying “You can only work for me if your surname begins with Q and your dad’s called Nigel.” You’re shooting yourself and your business in the foot because – as we all know –  being rich or influential doesn’t make one good at managing public reputation. Justin Bieber is walking proof of this. Give your interns enough to live off and you’re likely to attract the talented ones, not the ones whose mummy and daddy own a stately home in the countryside and will let them crash at their city center penthouse rent-free.

So hopefully I’ve hammered home my point here. Not paying your interns is tempting, for sure, but it’ll ultimately damage your business and prevent you from finding those hidden gems who could prove to be your best next hire.

What are your thoughts? Are you pro or con paid internships?

About Hannah Stacey


Hannah is an account manager at integrated B2B marketing agency TopLine Communications. She really likes social media, small business, and pictures of angry cats. Baked beans, action films and inexplicably warm chairs? Not so much.

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30 Comments on "Five Things You Can’t Expect from an Unpaid Intern"

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TopherJRyan
3 years 1 month ago
Hi Hannah! I’m pro paid internships. The talent and happiness are good arguments. There’s a phrase I try to carry around with me everywhere that goes like this: “People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.” – Simon Sinek, How great leaders inspire action If you’re interning for a company that won’t give a few Shekels for your time and talent, it says a lot about the company and its values. The Millenials — although I think this demographic is too broad — want openness and fairness. The opportunity to learn first-hand from someone great doesn’t… Read more »
PattiRoseKnight1
PattiRoseKnight1
3 years 1 month ago

Once in awhile you can find that stellar future employee as an unpaid intern but it will most likely be a rare find.  I’m reminded of the saying “you get what you pay for”.

Helen M. Ryan
Helen M. Ryan
3 years 1 month ago
I have hired quite a few interns for “virtual” positions in marketing, social media, and even editing. Of about eight interns, only one actually did any work, and it was very minor at that. Most of them sounded very excited at the beginning, were gung ho, but actually didn’t start a single project. Now, it probably has a lot to do with the fact that they were working remotely and I couldn’t be “all over them” physically, but still. I wasn’t expecting much. I was more than willing to train them to give them real life skills and projects to… Read more »
bradmarley
3 years 1 month ago

Pardon my ignorance, but is this written tongue-in-cheek? We just brought in two unpaid interns for the summer, and I sort of expect them to be a team player and give it their all. What’s the point if they don’t?
When I bring in an unpaid intern (who is working for college credit, mind you) I expect them to work as if they are paid.

ginidietrich
3 years 1 month ago

bradmarley My opinion on this is college credit IS a paid internship. In my experience, lots of organizations require senior students (or new college graduates) do an internship for free. Mostly in the agency world. It’s so bad in some states, it’s gone to the legal system.

dwaynealicie
3 years 1 month ago

ginidietrich bradmarley The thing that surprised me about internships for college credit is that the student still has to pay for the credits earned, at least at my school. Hannah jokes about it above, but … students do end up paying for the experience. Of course, A-game is required at all times, though … there are no good excuses for not delivering once you’ve entered into a contract.

bradmarley
3 years 1 month ago

ginidietrich Ah, okay. Then we agree on the college credit-as-paid internship. I’m not too up to speed on colleges requiring students to participate in free internships for no credit.

OmniaHegazy
OmniaHegazy
3 years 1 month ago

bradmarleyginidietrichginidietrich bradmarley
College credit internships are the worst. In my school, we had to pay $1000 per credit (times 2 or 4), just to work for free. Unjust.

jennifer_crane
jennifer_crane
3 years 1 month ago

bradmarley ginidietrich I actually had to do a couple non-credit unpaid internships. They were the worst. And what made it so bad was that clients were billed for my work – and I received no compensation.

hanstacey
hanstacey
3 years 1 month ago

bradmarley Not tongue-in-cheek at all, I’m afraid Brad! 
Admittedly I’m talking more about internships that aren’t for college credit, but why should they work hard for you if they’re not being paid? We can get all dewy-eyed about ‘love of the job’ but when it comes down to it, people can’t work hard if they can’t afford to eat or are dead on their feet because they’ve had to get a night job to fund themselves while they’re interning.

bradmarley
3 years 1 month ago

hanstacey Thanks for clearing it up. I agree with you for the most part, but if you agree to participate in an internship, you should act professional at all times, even if you’re not getting anything in return (besides experience.)

stevenmcoyle
3 years 1 month ago

As someone who has two unpaid internships, I agree that interns should be paid. Always. I always did my very best during my internships, but I know of several fellow students who didn’t. I think it also should be noted that you must treat your intern as an employee, not an intern. Too often, PR interns are only given tedious work no one else wants. Once an intern feels like they aren’t gaining anything, you’ll run into these problems listed above.

ginidietrich
3 years 1 month ago

I love this! Thank you for writing it. We used to have a really robust intern program. We’d hire four new college graduates and pay them. They’d each compete for one full-time job. It worked extraordinarily well…until the last group we had decided they weren’t going to compete with one another and presented the end-of-the-internship project together. Little jerks! But I’d add one more thing to your list: When you pay your interns, they’re less likely to go to your competitors and give away all your secrets. You’ll learn that lesson the hard way.

stevenmcoyle
3 years 1 month ago

ginidietrich That’s hilarious. Did you still hire one?

ginidietrich
3 years 1 month ago

stevenmcoyle We hired all four of them. The little brats.

hanstacey
hanstacey
3 years 1 month ago

ginidietrich stevenmcoyle A novel idea! And a very good point about them abandoning you for competitors.

belllindsay
3 years 1 month ago
I’m going to be the old curmudgeon here and say that I think unpaid internships are ok. {ducks} I would say they build character, but then I’d sound just like my dad. 😉 But seriously, if it’s part of your program, part of your schooling, and you’re not treated like garbage, then why not? You don’t get paid to go to school? You’re learning, paying your dues, as it were. I volunteered for months and months at a local TV station a hundred thousand years ago (while holding down a full time job) because I wanted the chance to prove… Read more »
suzemuse
suzemuse
3 years 1 month ago
While I don’t agree with lengthy unpaid internships (like, 6 months or a year), I am okay with shorter terms. Algonquin college where I work does unpaid 4-6 week “work placements” and my company brings students on every year. Two of the people who now work for us were at one time unpaid work placement students that we hired directly after they completed their term. We hired them because they had some skills, a great attitude, took the work seriously and worked hard. What I disagree most with in this article is the attitude that if you’re not getting paid,… Read more »
hanstacey
hanstacey
3 years 1 month ago
suzemuse What I dislike is that it’s now considered industry ‘norm’ that you’ll have to slog your way through several unpaid internships before you land your first job – regardless of how good your attitude is, or how skilled you are. I’ve heard of whole agencies that are functioning pretty much entirely off the backs of a slow stream of interns – this can’t be good for the industry! Unpaid internships are also highly discriminatory. Take me as an example – I graduated with a degree from a respectable university here in the UK and was desperate to land myself a… Read more »
suzemuse
suzemuse
3 years 1 month ago
hanstacey I do see your point that in some industries and schools, the system seems to be working against students rather than for them. Does it need an adjustment? Probably. But this is not the case everywhere and there are plenty of examples of unpaid internships that do result in good experiences for students and employers.  Where I take issue is your statements around expectations of unpaid interns – just because you’re not being paid is no reason to slack off, show up late, and not care about doing a good job. That ultimately is only going to hinder your chances… Read more »
Joshua Wilner/A Writer Writes

Indentured servitude comes to mind.

dbvickery
3 years 1 month ago

I strongly favor paid internships. I was very happy when we did it for the first time a couple of years ago. Brought in 5 interns for paid internships…ended up hiring 4 of them full-time. I REALLY want to do more “growing our own” versus trying to pick up rockstars that are either mercenary or present other hurdles to full-time employment.
I want to always “start local” with our candidate search, and only expand that search after we’ve exhausted the local alternatives. However, competent talent in some of our disciplines can be tough to find.

RebeccaTodd
3 years 1 month ago

Very well written! Not exactly the same thing, but my three praacticums while I was doing my Education degree taught me more than the book learnin part. But once I had my education, I needed to make money-sadly mortgages don’t pay themselves. I agree with G-paying creates more loyalty. We do pay our interns at my current job.

Gini Dietrich
Gini Dietrich
3 years 1 month ago

We had an intern once who called in sick because the elevator in her building broke. She lived in a skyrise so we thought it was OK. Turns out, she lived on the third floor.

KateFinley
3 years 1 month ago

@Gini Dietrich Um, that’s hilarious.

ginidietrich
3 years 1 month ago

KateFinley I was not very amused.

jelenawoehr
3 years 1 month ago
Thank you for writing this! It gave me a good Friday morning chuckle. I’ve been raving against unpaid internships for quite a while now, because the bottom line is that an internship is either paid and legal, or unpaid and illegal. Nobody, but NOBODY, is actually using unpaid interns as the federal guidelines require, e.g., in a way primarily of benefit to the intern, not to the company. If you aren’t allowed to receive direct benefits from the intern’s work, why have an intern? I was just discussing this recently — the McJobs of the world in food service and… Read more »
Jelena Woehr
Jelena Woehr
3 years 1 month ago

In my first office, we had an “intern” who was older than the department head (25 and 23, respectively). Fortunately, she was paid, but it made for a little bit of awkwardness… as did the CEO’s habit of asking me to get him Starbucks because I was the youngest in the office… though that worked out fine once he started adding “and get yourself one too.” I have my price, and it can be paid in caffeine.

KateFinley
3 years 1 month ago

There are still unpaid internships? I thought we did away with those! Getting out of bed on time … that’s a big one!

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