At a women’s business organization meeting a few months back, I was appalled at the advice given by the speaker to help small business owners grow their business through using interns, “They’re free and can lessen your load.” She was not positioning “hiring” interns as part of a mentoring program, only as a way to save money as you grow your business. This sickened me. I will admit, when I’m training part time or project staff to work with programs and tasks they’ve never done before, I don’t pay them as much because of my instructional time, reviewing time and their slowness as they learn new processes. But, I PAY THEM, more than minimum wage, always. I usually hire teen girls, young women, stay at home moms who want to become work from home moms. How are they to learn to value themselves and their work if we don’t tell them they are valuable by paying them?

[infobox]Thanks, Steve Duin for prompting this rant with your article:
Payback for unpaid interns. Comments are worth reading, too.[/infobox]

Volunteers give their time by choice to non-profit, political, and religious organizations. We won’t even get to the part where some CEOs of these same organization make more than their share while they profit due to the volunteers, student interns and special needs employees. I’m trying to differentiate between volunteering and interning.  An intern usually PAYS tuition for the privilege of earning CREDITS with an interning position in a company. They are gaining valuable experience specific to their major. They are not interning to increase your bottom line, take out the trash and to the crap jobs you barely ask your front office staff to do. I don’t know of many people majoring in janitorial services, or working to increase memory skills through keeping coffee orders straight, or learning cartography through picking up dry cleaning. If you are ready to grow your company, BUDGET for an entry level PAID position. How else will you retain someone you’ve bothered teaching your systems if you don’t respect them enough to pay them?

I pay my children the same I would pay an intern. I pay them the same many fast food restaurants pay their store managers. The catch, they have to do it my way until it is right. The task should only take a certain amount of time. If they refuse to follow instructions, they will not be paid until they complete it. If they present a better way to do it, I will consider it, sometimes modify the method required or turn down the alternative method. This is my option as the business owner. It is my obligation as the business owner to teach them HOW to present the idea respectfully and professionally, as well as accept with grace if the idea is rejected. I do the same for any teen I hire for periodic projects and tasks. 

If I am taking on an INTERN, I have obligations to spell out expectations, have them tell me their desires for the position, what they want to learn. We come to an agreement of how they can get this desired, specific experience. There are projects and tasks, follow up, and evaluations after to review the outcome. BOTH of us review the outcome and discuss how it could have been improved and what they were most proud of. There is also a follow up letter – good or bad – recapping the experience. I have about a 75% success rate. Once in awhile, the intern bites off more than they can chew. If these are tasks I will bill my clients for, I still pay the intern a reduced hourly or project fee. This is also negotiated beforehand with the stipulation that it must be completed with a positive result.

To “hire” an intern, hold their letters of recommendation hostage, abuse them with disrespect and other workplace nastiness is ethically wrong. If you are doing it to save money, get away with something, think again. Word will get out about how you run your business. Interns talk, just as disgruntled employees talk. Be honorable, model good mentoring and business practices. THIS is what you want an intern to learn. You want them to become positive forces in your industry because at some point in the future, you may be asking them for the business.

Sheryl Sandberg: Why we have far too few women leaders: