There are few topics I get on a soapbox for. And even fewer (potentially controversial) ones I share in social media. I tend to prefer to keep the peace -- it's just my style. But every once in a while I'm compelled to tip toe outside my comfort zone to advocate for something (or someone) I feel deserves the support. Such is today.

I posted this Tweet a few days ago after reading a help wanted ad (is that still what they're called?) for an intern who needed to have the knowledge and experience of a well-seasoned professional. Oh, and this person would be paid nothing in return for their "expertise". My Tweet went something like this:

"Pay your interns. It's the right thing to do."

So there is the belief, by some, that experience and/or class credit is payment enough to an intern. I get it, and I agree. Here is where this whole process can go sideways…

Some employers take advantage of interns as free labor rather than truly being an advocate of learning and professional development.

Not okay.

It's estimated that a million undergraduates take internships each year, 20% of which are unpaid with no academic credit. [Source: Intern Bridge]]. Under The Fair Labor Standards Act, and prompted by a Supreme Court case in 1947, interns must be paid the minimum wage and overtime for the services that they provide to for-profit private sector employers (although there are six exclusions). 

Here are five signs that you may be signing on for a hardship rather than an internship:

  1. It's unpaid. Now let's be clear -- if the give and take seems well-balanced, and in your gut you feel the opportunity is a win-win for you and the employer, go for it. If not, you might be able to find a paid opportunity with a company who respects (not only) what you have already learned, but what you need to learn.

  2. No credit? Big problem. If your goal is to earn college credit through an internship, then find an opportunity that will provide credit. If you find an opportunity with an employer who doesn't offer credit, ask them to contact the internship department at your school.

  3. Disorganization. If you walk away from an internship interview without clear direction as to what your role and responsibilities will be, it could get messy, especially if it's in an organization that doesn't have time to do some hand holding. It's not you, it's them. There will be others who will have their act together. Find them. Don't set yourself up for failure. 

  4. Time. If you are a student, you have a lot of other deadlines to meet. Make sure the employer is clear on the time commitment required for the role. And in return, you need to make sure you're honest with yourself about how much you can take on. 

  5. Coffee instead of collaboration. If you've already accepted an internship and find yourself (often) completing tasks that you won't be able put on a resume (like making coffee or running errands)…walk away. Although it's impossible to know this is the type of situation you could end up in, you can ask (in an interview) "What will I be able to list on my resume as accomplishments after I complete this internship?" It's a fair question. Also, be proactive (with your intern coordinator and your job supervisor) in making clear what your goals are — what do you want out of the experience?

Now, regardless of whether or not your employer is playing fairly, if you've accepted an internship you've accepted the responsibilities of a real job. With that said, here are ten tips on doing your part:

  1. Show up. On time. If you can't, let your employer know.

  2. Dress to impress. I'm not a fan of business attire myself, but if that's the dress code at your job site, better get out the iron and pantyhose. But don't iron your pantyhose.

  3. Mingle. Get to know the people you work with. Make friends outside of other interns who may be working with you. Those relationships may come in handy down the road.

  4. Ask for feedback. It's the best way to improve.

  5. Ask questions. It's the best way to get it right, the first time.

  6. Be flexible. Although your role as an intern shouldn't be Chief Office Barista, staying open to some of the less important tasks will give you deeper knowledge of the company and position yourself as someone who's willing to grow in your role.

  7. Master the talk/listen ratio. You'll have a lot of ideas -- that's one of the reasons you've been hired. But you're also on board as an intern to learn and soak up information.

  8. Stay in touch. If you consider your internship successful, stay connected to your supervisor and others who worked alongside you. Those relationships will be important as you move through your career. See #9.

  9. Link in! Somewhere along the way, connect to your supervisor and co-workers on LinkedIn. Don't be shy to ask them for a recommendation, too.

  10. Be grateful. Thank those who contributed to a successful learning experience -- your instructors, internship coordinator, supervisor and co-workers. They'll remember you for it.

Do you have any red flags, tips or experiences to share?

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