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Should internships be paid or unpaid? Why you should pay your interns

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Unpaid internships are a contentious topic, but here at Give A Grad A Go, we’re loud and proud of the fact that we’re categorically against unpaid internships.

This is why we only ever advertise placements that pay at least the minimum wage.

The majority of arguments against unpaid internships in the press revolve around the fact that it is morally wrong to expect people to work for free, or that unpaid internships work against social mobility, by excluding grads whose parents can’t afford to support them through weeks or even months of unpaid work.

While we agree with these arguments wholeheartedly, it’s easy to  see why unpaid interns might be an attractive and lucrative prospect for an employer (who wouldn’t want a free pair of hands for their business, right?).

However, the truth is that unpaid internships can be damaging to the businesses who offer them – this article will outline some of the key reasons why.

Why should you pay your interns? ?

1. You increase your talent pool with paid internships

Advertising unpaid internships can stop you finding hidden gems, restricting your talent pool in two counterproductive ways.

Only the candidates who have means of supporting themselves (usually in the form of generous,well-offparents can afford to take a lengthy unpaid internship.

This means that by advertising an unpaid position, you systematically filter out all those that simply don’t have the funds to pay their way during that time.

What’s more, many of these grads will have had to support themselves through uni (balancing their studying with busting their guts in a café/bar/shop) – these may actually be the most organised tenacious, hungry and hard-working candidates.

The best candidates will go for paid internships/entry level jobs, because they can.

While it might seem that the UK is overflowing with great graduates, the ones who are the cream of the crop (ie. the ones you really want) will always be in demand- they are in the position of power and can afford to be picky.

By taking out a) the grafters and b) the best of the best, you’re shooting yourself in the foot, right from the off.


2. Higher-quality interns will save you time

Interviewing, inducting, training and managing an intern – whether you choose to pay them or not – takes up your precious time, which in turn means it’s costing you money.

Why waste your time (and money) on someone who will lack loyalty to your company (and why should they be loyal if you’re not paying them?), is liable to take off and leave you in the lurch at any point that they get a better offer (i.e. actual payment for their troubles), rather than investing in someone who is going to be committed and could become an integral part of your company.

Unpaid interns may start all bright eyed and bushy tailed- but give it a month or so and, rest assured, their enthusiasm will be waning and you won’t be able to retain staff for very long.

Chances are they’ll be working half-heartedly, turning up a little late and leaving a little early, applying for every paid position under the sun in their spare time and will leave as soon as soon as they half- decent paid position – and who can blame them?


3. You avoid breaking the law by paying interns

Unpaid internships are against the law- if your interns have set hours, set tasks and responsibilities, do valuable work and you’re a private company, they’re qualified as a ‘worker’ under minimum wage law.

HMRC launched a crackdown on unpaid internships in 2018, sending over 550 warning letters to companies, after David Cameron had previously announced plans to increase the fine for underpaying an employee from £5,000 to £20,000.

As well as being fined by the government, you can be stung with hefty bills from interns themselves.

In fact, unpaid interns can claim their wages up to six years after the end of their internship, even if they agreed to work for free at the time.

Interns have fought (and won) legal cases against companies they previously interned for- with Arcadia (parent company of Topshop/Miss Selfridge/Dorothy Perkins) having to make retrospective payments to dozens of former interns, Sony being forced to pay almost £5,000 to a former intern and Alexander McQueen currently being sued for thousands of pounds worth of unpaid wages.


4. It’s a PR disaster not to pay interns

The tide is turning: unpaid internships are no longer being viewed as just a necessary step for getting a grad job.

Companies providing unpaid internships are increasingly being regarded in a negative light.

In 2017, a string of high profile jobs boards took a leaf out of the Give a Grad a Go book and vowed not to advertise unpaid roles, alongside a flurry of companies (inc. Harrods, Alexander McQueen, Tony Blair’s office, Miss Selfridge) being named and shamed in national newspapers, on social media and by our friends over at graduate fog, because of their unpaid internships.

Overall, unpaid internships can be incredibly detrimental to how your brand is viewed by the public, your clients and by your employees- you risk being named as arrogant or unethical.


5. It’s good for your team structure and atmosphere

Unpaid interns don’t make for a healthy business with happy employees.

There is a reason that businesses are built by paying members of staff- it works.

A conveyor belt of unpaid interns just isn’t a sustainable business model and comes with a whole host of problems:

  • 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?)
  • There can be no real accountability for an unpaid intern; if they don’t work to your standards, you can’t do anything about it.
  • An intern who is turning up late and putting in minimum effort makes for an unproductive office atmosphere and will lower team moral.

If you’re working as an intern, or thinking of applying to internships, read our blog on Internship Laws and find out your rights to fair pay and treatment.


Looking to hire graduates for your business? Then get in touch with us today!

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