5 things to say to bosses still using unpaid internsBECAUSE VIOLENCE DOESN’T SOLVE ANYTHING

If one thing makes us mad, it’s unpaid internships.

In fact, this website made its name by naming and shaming the big firms and famous people who exploit graduates who are so desperate for experience they’ll work for free, whilst excluding the (many more) graduates who can’t afford to do them at all.

Happily, most large companies have finally twigged that unpaid internships are not okay, and opted to pay their interns at least the minimum wage (#victorydance). However, some smaller employers are still digging their heels in. And so are many charities (apparently abusing a legal loophole designed to protect genuine volunteering — which most internships aren’t).

This means that we enlightened citizens can still find ourselves face to face with a dinosaur employer who has either missed the last six years of public outcry, or simply believes the rules don’t apply to them. 

So, if this happens to you (and you’re in a position to challenge them), what should you do? Swearing and violence may seem like tempting options, but there is an alternative that’s even more persuasive.



Cary Curtis, founder of graduate recruitment agency Give A Grad A Go, reckons it’s vital to use words bosses understand to convince them to change their ways. And, in fact, there are plenty of sound business reasons to reconsider their position on paying. Cary says:

“At GAGAGO, we’re loud and proud of the fact that we’re categorically against unpaid internships, which is why we’ve only ever advertised placements that pay at least the minimum wage.

“While we agree with all the moral arguments whole-heartedly, a point that’s rarely made is that unpaid internships can also be damaging to the businesses that offer them. Explaining that to an employer may be more powerful than ranting to them about doing the ‘right’ thing.”

Here are 5 things to say to the next boss you encounter who is still hiring unpaid interns…


“Employers should be aware that by making their internships unpaid, they’re drastically reducing the number of candidates who apply, filtering out all but those who have the means to support themselves (usually in the form of well-off, generous parents),” says Cary. What’s more, the group they’re excluding is likely to include some of the best talent. “Remind them that many of the grads who can’t afford to work for free will have had to support themselves through university too, perhaps balancing their studying with busting a gut in a café, bar or shop. So this group is likely to include some of the most organised, tenacious, hungry and hard-working candidates. But, if an employer doesn’t offer a wage for their internship, they’ll never meet them. Instead, these fantastic candidates will go to their competitors who are offering a salary.” Ouch!


“Employers who view unpaid internships as a cost-saving mechanism are wrong — so explain that not paying their young staff is a false economy,” says Cary. “Interviewing, inducting, training and managing an intern – whether the employer chooses to pay them or not – takes up the (paid) team’s precious time, which in turn means it’s costing the boss money. Why waste that investment on someone who will be off the minute they get a better (paid) offer? Paying your junior staff a fair wage is a much smarter strategy. You’ll be investing in someone who is going to be loyal and committed and could become an integral part of your company for years to come.”


It’s worth pointing out that just because the boss is okay with employing unpaid interns, that doesn’t mean the rest of their staff agree. “Thanks to campaign groups like Graduate Fog and Intern Aware, unpaid internships have become taboo, and most people now agree that ‘good’ businesses pay their interns,” says Cary. And even if the firm’s paid staff can live with the moral issue, may resent the presence of unpaid interns for other reasons. “For starters, it’s confusing for permanent members of staff. How can they delegate any work to someone their employer doesn’t even deem important enough to pay?” says Cary. “Then there’s the problem of keeping an unpaid intern motivated if their enthusiasm starts to wane. An intern who is turning up late and putting in minimum effort makes for an unproductive office atmosphere and will lower team morale. Plus, if their position is genuinely voluntary — they can work their own hours — this makes it hard for paid staff to rely on them, as they don’t know when they’ll be around. There can be no real accountability for an unpaid intern, which can make them a real challenge to manage. Again, remind the boss that this is ultimately all this costing them precious time and money.”

Beautiful Young Woman4) “YOU’RE RISKING A PR DISASTER”

Let us guess… The boss is convinced they’re “giving interns great experience”, insisting that “many of their current senior staff started out unpaid” or claiming they “can’t afford” to pay a wage? Politely remind them that TWITTER DOESN’T CARE. “”The tide is turning — companies providing unpaid internships are increasingly being regarded in a negative light and being named and shamed on Twitter,” says Cary. “Dozens of big brands and famous people have been caught in the eye of a social media storm. It can happen very suddenly, and on a slow news day the storm can take a surprisingly long time to move off,” says Cary. “Overall, unpaid internships can be damaging to a brand’s public image, its clients and its employees. Employers using unpaid interns risk being considered arrogant or unethical. Once the criticism starts, no amount of excuses or explanations can make it stop. In fact, employers who argue with those who challenge them on unpaid internships often end up stoking the fire.” Big companies often make the best Twitter targets, but countless small firms and charities have felt the heat too, if the details of the internship are particularly outrageous and the moral case is stark enough.


“It’s surprising — but not all employers realise that most unpaid internships are against the law,” says Cary. “So it’s worth explaining to them that if an intern has set hours, set tasks and responsibilities, do valuable work and it’s a private company, it’s likely they’ll be classed as a ‘worker’ under minimum wage law. As such, they must be paid (and — no — intern can’t waive their right to wages, even if they insist they’re happy to work for free).” If the boss still looks confident, you could also break the news that former interns can claim back pay up to six years after their internship is over (yes, really — and even if they agreed to work for free at the time). Worse still, if the employer is found to owe money, their firm will be listed on HMRC’s name and shame list, published periodically and covered by most media. “HMRC also has the power to fine employers, as well as forcing them to pay back pay,” says Cary. “In the most serious cases, this could be up to £20,000. When faced with all the facts, there are very few businesses — of any size — that would consider that to be a risk worth taking.”

5 things to say to bosses still using unpaid interns
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