Paid or not, interns should be given a fair deal at work

Young people may not be in a financial position to treat an unpaid internship like a full-time job, so a clear role description and flexibility are essential, writes Gill Taylor

Providing a reference at the end of an internship can help a young person take the next step in their career, writes Gill Taylor
Providing a reference at the end of an internship can help a young person take the next step in their career, writes Gill Taylor

What is the legal and best practice position for internships? I have to declare an interest here. I have a 21-year-old about to graduate who would like to work in the not-for-profit sector, so she might well be looking for an internship.

We need young people who are prepared to take on the insecurity of working in our sector and to lend us their skills and talents. As a life-long supporter of and worker in the sector, I never expected at the start to have a career in it. I graduated during the recession of 1982, started work as a volunteer and was lucky enough to be able to support myself on the dole for a year while I gained the skills and experience necessary to securing that all-important first job.

The social security deal is, of course, different now, and there are many hoops to jump through to get benefits. Bear in mind that, unless they have a private income, your unpaid interns or volunteers might have constraints on their time.

There are two options. The first is a paid internship, which is in effect the same as a short-term employment contract, with all the employment rights of a normal contract. You must pay the young person the minimum wage and, I hope, the living wage. He or she will also be entitled to receive paid holidays, protection from discrimination and a limit on working time.

The second option is to treat the person as a volunteer, with the same rights that any of your volunteers would receive. Time is given freely and as a gift, and you reimburse genuine out-of-pocket expenses for lunch and travel. You must give your volunteer intern the option to be flexible, to refuse tasks and to choose when to work. You should record the volunteer agreement as you would with any volunteer, using terms such as "agreement", "role" and "suggested hours", rather than employment contract terms such as "contract", "salary", "pay" and "job".

Volunteering England (now part of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations) wrote a very helpful information sheet on internships in 2009. It suggested that a volunteer internship should be defined as "a time-limited volunteer placement that allows a person to gain practical experience by undertaking an activity that involves spending time, unpaid, doing something that aims to benefit the environment, individuals or groups other than or in addition to close relatives".

In both cases, good practice is to have a clear role description and an idea of how you will support and train your intern to gain valuable skills and experience. The internship should be planned and structured with good supervision and shadowing opportunities. Another aspect of good practice is to offer a strong and positive reference at the end of the placement, which will help the intern to get paid work as a next step in their career.

Gill Taylor is a sector HR consultant

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