Recently, I read a Warren Buffett quote, "You only find out who is swimming naked when the tide goes out," in reference to the shady financial practices perpetrated by Wall Street.
The same is true with internships. When the economy turns for the worse, you find out which companies are ethical and which are not.
Unpaid internships are illegal unless they meet very specific criteria
. Any company who solicits unpaid interns is swimming naked in the human resources pool. [Ed.'s note: You can click on the link to see the criteria, or scroll down to the comments section where they are listed.
One way to stop these internships is to encourage students not to take unpaid jobs. But it’s much more complicated.
Universities are complicating the situation by posting unpaid internships next to paid ones, which implies a tacit endorsement of the practices. To make matters worse, professors and programs at the college level emphasize the importance of internships in getting a job upon graduation.
I'll admit that as a hiring manager, I am usually more impressed by a student who has managed an internship or two on top of his or her academic duties.
Probably the most important thing to point out is that the students who need these internships are the least likely
to rat on their potential employers. They're so desperate to get the experience that they will shell out a lot of money to live near the internship and work for free. The down economy is making the proverbial tide go out and stay out.
What's the answer to cracking down on these illegal unpaid internships? Here are a few suggestions?
1. Speak out.
When you see an unpaid internship offered that doesn't meet the specific criteria, call the U.S. Labor Department and report it. States have federal DOL offices. Here is the contact info
2. Forbid your child
from working at an unpaid internship that does not meet the Labor Department's specific criteria.
3. Call local colleges and universities
and ask them what their policy is on posting or tacitly encouraging unpaid internships. Follow up with the university administration with a letter that contains the rules for internships
4. If your child has worked an unpaid internship, you may be able to collect back pay, even if they agreed to work for free. Contact a labor law attorney
to see if you have a claim.
5. Tell people you know
that internships that don't benefit the intern are most likely illegal.
Companies who play by the rules should be the most concerned. Big, for-profit companies who offer unpaid internships that don't meet the federal criteria are cheating the young people that they employee. It's wrong. And I'm speaking out.
Claire Celsi is president of Public Relations Project, a PR and social media consulting firm in Des Moines, Iowa. A version of this story first appeared on the author’s blog Public Relations Princess.