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Getting internships right

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The subject of internships has hit the headlines over recent months – and not always for the right reasons.  Firms have been criticised for exploiting interns by expecting them to work long hours for no pay.  There’s also been much debate about social mobility, with concerns that internships are only open to the privileged few from well-off families, who can use their connections to secure placements in high profile firms.

Managed well, internships can be a win-win situation.  The individual (usually a graduate looking to get on the career ladder in a particular profession) gets meaningful work experience and a chance to build their knowledge and skills.  The business gets a new, usually enthusiastic member of staff, albeit for a short time, who brings fresh eyes and can help the business develop new insights.

If interns are brought in without proper thought and guidance, however, it can badly misfire.  Costly mistakes are made, productivity in the team dips and a disgruntled intern, who feels they have been unfairly treated, can cause long-term damage to the corporate reputation.

So how do you decide if internships will work for your business – and what do you need to do to make sure it’s a positive experience for both parties?

Assess your readiness

Think carefully about whether you want an intern, or are really just looking for an extra pair of hands.  If you are willing to help an intern develop their skills and can provide them with interesting and varied work in their area of interest, it’s a model that could work well for you.  If you just need someone to do data entry and make the tea, however, you might be better looking for a permanent member of staff who can pick those duties up on an ongoing basis.  Make sure if you are thinking of taking an intern on, that you have the ability to support them, ideally by providing a dedicated person to mentor them, supervise their work and deal with any issues.  Larger organisations typically have the infrastructure to support this, but it can be more challenging in a small-to-medium-sized business where people are already stretched.

Be clear about the law

The CIPD’s guidance on the issue of whether interns should be compensated is clear.  “Paying interns is not only the right thing to do, but it also helps to widen access to internships more generally and increases the pool of talent that employers can draw from”, says its employers guide.  Put plainly, if you pay people, they will feel valued and are more likely to show commitment to the role while they are with you, and to go the extra mile for the business when needed.  From a legal perspective, if someone is undertaking ‘work’ for your business, has a list of duties and is working set hours, they count as a ‘worker’ and are entitled to the National Minimum Wage – even if there is no written contract in place.

Recruit with care

An intern may only be joining your business for a short time, but you need to pay as much care and attention to recruiting them as you would to taking on a permanent member of staff.  Advertise the position widely so that you have access to the widest possible pool of candidates.  Look at how people’s existing skills and qualifications can be put to good use in the business and what they would need to learn before they can become useful.  Be aware that people putting themselves forward for internships may have limited interview experience, so may not come across as polished and professional straight away.  This may be an occasion when you need to recruit for attitude and potential, rather than finding someone who is the ‘finished article’.

Get off to a good start

If someone is only going to be with you on an interim basis, you need to make sure they get off to a flying start.  Organise a comprehensive induction programme that covers business background, key people and health and safety information.  Make sure interns are absolutely clear about what their duties will be, what’s expected of them, who they will be reporting to and who they can go to if they have issues or questions.  If you bring someone in with the vague idea of them ‘helping out’, you are effectively setting them up for failure.  They need clear objectives and regular check-ins to assess how they are getting on.  It’s also important to recognise that if you are bringing in a graduate or young person, this could be their first experience of working life and they will need support in understanding ‘the way things are done around here’.

Manage expectations – and end well

Be absolutely clear from the outset about how long the internship you are offering will last – and if there is any realistic prospect of it turning into a permanent role.  Clarify what level of training—formal or informal—your intern can expect and how their progress will be monitored and supported.  A review at the end of an internship is a great way to help people think about what they have learnt and what their next steps are; and for the business to assess how useful the placement has been and what it might do differently next time.

The CIPD has a voluntary code of practice for running internships as well as a handy checklist for employers. Visit for details.

If you’re looking to hire HR talent or searching for your next move in HR please contact Wade Macdonald today.


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