Every year, millions of fresh-faced young people leave school and head for spots in international corporations, government offices, non-profits, and small businesses. What they experience changes their lives forever—as well as their perspectives on work.
These individuals (and some of them are more young at heart than young in years) are on the front lines of what defines the culture of a workplace. A company is an organization which generates revenue by providing value to customers created through paid employees.
So where do unpaid interns fit in?
If you’re following the law, an unpaid internship program must meet several criteria, including that the experience must resemble training, the intern does not displace employees, and that the employer must not derive any “immediate advantage from the from the activities of the intern; and on occasion its operations may actually be impeded.”
So what does this have to do with workplace culture?
A story in in The Atlantic explains:
“A major U.S. court has ruled that zero dollars for legitimate work does not a legal unpaid internship make. “Considering the totality of the circumstances,” reads the ruling from federal judge William Pauley, the plaintiffs, Eric Glatt and Alexander Footman, “were classified improperly as unpaid interns and are ’employees’ covered by” the the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) as well as New York’s labor laws. The judge added: “They worked as paid employees work, providing an immediate advantage to their employer and performing low-level tasks not requiring specialized training.”
Why do some companies choose not to pay some of their team members who are making legitimate contributions? Because they can get away with it. An internship at a major employer is seen as so valuable on a resume, individuals are willing to work for free even if they don’t receive any of the benefits described in the Fair Labor Standards Act.
And while illegally unpaid interns make up only a small percentage of the total workforce, the fact that they are widespread indicates something profound about corporate culture: if companies can get away with paying interns nothing to do valuable work, do managers perceive that they are getting away with underpaying all employees for all work?
Here’s what most workplaces are missing: respect. Like the old adage that suggests if a person’s true character is revealed by how they treat waitstaff, how companies treat interns likely reveals how they would treat everyone if they could.
If your company or non-profit has unpaid interns that do real work, take the place of other employees, and receive no real benefit other being able to say they worked for you, then you may be in violation of Federal law. But more importantly, the basic culture of work should be one of mutual respect. To create engaged, productive, and passionate employees, make sure they are paid what they are worth in salary, training, or opportunities to learn.
Note: A handful of companies (such as our friends at the Indianapolis marketing firm Roundpeg) do have great internship programs based on respecting and developing team members. For more information on internships in Indiana, visit Indiana INTERNnet.