How about unpaid internships for new managers?

In the face of a burgeoning social and legal movement challenging the widespread practice of unpaid internships, we continue to hear similar defenses of free labor:

  • “Unpaid internships are a great way to gain experience”
  • “It’s a terrific way to get a foot in the door”
  • “This is how we identify the best people to hire later on”
  • “You’ll get awesome networking opportunities”

Okay, let’s take these defenses of unpaid work and extend them up the organizational chart. In other words, if the unpaid internship system works so well for developing entry-level workers, why not apply the underlying logic and practice to budding managers and CEOs as well?

Let’s say, for example, that a company is weighing the hire of a very promising candidate for a mid-level manager position, but that individual has only modest experience in the field and has never held that level of managerial responsibility. Well, under the logic applied to defending unpaid internships at the entry level, why not ask that promising candidate to work for free in an “executive internship” for six months? Even if she doesn’t get an offer of full-time employment, she’ll still have received great experience and networking contacts!

Perhaps that candidate will balk at the prospect of working for free, citing the need to pay for food, housing, kids, and other extravagances. Just tell her, hey, what are you whining about?! You can always scrounge up some money from family and friends, dip into savings, or take a paying gig on the side! And didn’t you hear us on the great experience and networking opportunities?! If you want, we can even arrange for you to get COLLEGE CREDIT that you can apply to your next degree, so long as you’re willing to pay tuition!!!

It would be the same “win-win” cited by defenders of unpaid internships at the entry level, right?! And given the potential harm wrought by bad managers, the higher stakes would seem to justify this approach, yes?!

Reality check

I’ve raised this silly (but logical) suggestion to make my point: Work is work, and it should be compensated, regardless of where it lands on the org chart. Furthermore, anyone who advances to a position with new responsibilities, demands, and challenges is going to be learning — and sometimes receiving formal training — in order to do the job right.

A new manager, even an inexperienced one who will do some serious on-the-job learning, expects to get paid, and rightly so. But we’ve reached the point where in the eyes of some, simply slapping the label of “intern” on entry-level work removes any obligation to render even the minimum wage in return.

It’s time to change this frame.


For readers interested in the legal and policy implications of unpaid internships, I’ve written two law review articles that may be downloaded without charge:

The Legal and Social Movement Against Unpaid InternshipsNortheastern University Law Journal (forthcoming, 2014)

The Employment Law Rights of Student Interns – Connecticut Law Review (2002)

2 responses

  1. Here’s something even more evil:

    Downtown Joe: Harvard students look to apply lessons in Las Vegas

    “So what’s their idea?

    Gould summed it up as a plan to improve the experience of apprentice workers — and to make it such a valued experience that apprentices will pay for the opportunity. More details will come out at tomorrow’s public forum.”

    Brought to you by the Tony Hsieh cult.

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