Hannah Stacey

Five Things You Can’t Expect from an Unpaid Intern

By: Hannah Stacey | May 16, 2013 | 

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?


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.

  • 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 have a price tag, but we all still need to eat and live on.

  • PattiRoseKnight1

    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

    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 work with. I sent the interns marketing/social media books, newsletters, links to great resources and then…nothing. It wasn’t the “free labor” I was after. I wanted enthusiasm and a willingness to learn, plus a fresh perspective. I love working with young people, and I love to teach and train. P.S. One intern, who actually came to interview in person, showed up in super short shorts (where the pockets hung below the short line) and flip flops with big clown bows on them. I’m not kidding.

  • 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.

    • 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.

      • 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.

      • 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

          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

          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

      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.

      • 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.)

  • 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.

  • 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.

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

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

        • hanstacey

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

  • 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 myself, and eventually get hired – both of which happened. I would never have treated that time as any less than the job I was getting paid for. It’s about respect, I think. We sacrifice and do all kinds of things in life that we don’t get paid for. That said, I’m able to see both sides, I loved this piece, and I know it’s a contentious issue for many! Great job! 😉

  • suzemuse

    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, then don’t give it your all, show up on time, or care about what you’re doing. Seriously? Do you want to have a shot at being successful in your career? Then dump that attitude immediately. Because if you go around with a sense of entitlement like that, you’ll be hard pressed to find any kind of meaningful paid work after college.
    Like Lindsay, I volunteered at a local cable station for months before landing my first paid job in TV. I was broke, but the experience I gained was invaluable. And when the producing job I wanted finally came open, it was literally handed to me.
    While I agree that companies should not take advantage as interns being “free labour”, there’s a mutual respect that needs to be shown – a give and take of providing skills and training in exchange for hard work and most importantly, a good attitude. Ditch the sense of entitlement. Just because you graduated from college doesn’t mean the world gets handed to you on a platter. Now the real work begins.

    • hanstacey

      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 job in PR. Then I ran a problem: if you want to get into PR here then you pretty much have to be in London. London also happens to be an incredibly expensive place to live. I couldn’t expect my parents to shell out £500+ rent a month plus living expenses while I worked 5 days a week unpaid (most internships here are full time).I was lucky enough to land an internship that paid enough for me to get by, but a lot of people aren’t so lucky. 
      This has given rise to a horribly elitist situation where you can only make your first steps into an industry if you a) win the lottery or b) have parents willing to fork out a load of money for your living expenses. Where’s the skill and talent in that?

      • suzemuse

        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 of finding meaningful employment down the road. Getting in at a good agency relies heavily on references and referrals – if you slack off at an unpaid placement, then you definitely won’t have that referral, I guarantee. 
        I have been there – I graduated from college in 1990 with a degree in TV production. That same year was the worst slump in recent history for that industry in Canada. I too was desperate for work, and the rejection letters just piled up. I thought I’d have to move to Toronto, which, like London, is far more expensive then where I live. I felt like I was out of options until I realized that I could work a job outside my industry and that would afford me the ability to be able to volunteer inside my industry to get experience. It was hard, I was broke most of the time, but I did it anyway and I was able to break in eventually. 
        I’m sorry, but with all due respect, graduating with a degree in any field is not the end – it’s the beginning. Work hard, build your network, even if that means not getting paid all the time and even if it means taking work on the side not in your field. Slog it out and the opportunities will come.

  • Indentured servitude comes to mind.

  • 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.

  • 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

    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.

  • 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 retail are often full up with people with decades of work experience who are changing careers and filling a gap after a layoff, while entry level “career jobs” have transformed into unpaid internships. So how exactly ARE young people who don’t have access to funding from wealthy parents supposed to both pay their bills and get a foot in the door in their career fields? Most recent grads I know who haven’t found career jobs yet would gladly work in their field for $10/hr, sometimes less. Are these companies sure it’s REALLY not worth $1600/month to have a full-time intern? In the PR field, that’s like… a handful of billable hours for one client. If having an intern isn’t worth what you earn from a few hours of work, you don’t need an intern. Fetch your own damn coffee.

  • Jelena Woehr

    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.

  • 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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