Unpaid internships

Something that irks me in my work at the moment is confusion about internships and the assumption certain employers (or managers) have that just by calling something an ‘internship’ you can get someone to work for you for free.

Minimum wage rules in countries such as UK and US mean that work should be paid. An internship is only unpaid if it is for a structured educational experience or training, emphatically not work that you should actually be paying someone to do. Minimum wage applies when an employment relationship exists so employers should be aware of what constitutes an employment relationship – and it’s not just about whether the individual has signed an employment contract.

Workers themselves appear to be similarly unaware of these regulations, and maybe this is why so many unpaid internships blatantly abound. The US Department of Labour has criteria for what can constitute an internship that is unpaid, for example, it should be for the benefit of the intern, it should be a similar type of training as what is given in an educational environment, the intern is not entitled to a job at the end of it etc.

Reasons to enforce these regulations are quite obvious: work should pay, and young workers looking for experience in a difficult job market should not be exploited. Also, the use of interns should not displace paid employees. However, a lot of organisations in particular industries seem to rely on the use of interns to get work done (a look at the vacancy pages of certain smaller NGOs or organisations in creative industries will show you that).

But certain high-profile cases have been in the news recently around their mis-use of interns, so maybe the tide is turning, e.g. Sheryl Sandberg was criticised for advertising for an unpaid intern, and Alexander McQueen’s office came under fire from the president of University of Arts London (for which Alexander McQueen is an alumnus) for advertising a 6 to 11-month long unpaid internship for which they later apologised.

What can be done about this? I would argue that it’s for HR professionals to challenge managers’ incorrect assumptions and educate their organisations on the difference between a paid work placement, and an unpaid internship. Several organisations offer guidelines on work experience and internships, such as Creative Skillset and CIPD in the UK.

It hasn’t always been the case that internships should be paid, as Lucy Kellaway points out in her work on the history of the office. See also Herbert Pocket’s attempts to find work in Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations. But our minimum wage regulations are an important part of current employment legislation, and we need to work hard to uphold them.

We don’t need to eliminate unpaid internships entirely as they do provide important professional opportunities for young people starting out in work, gaining experience of different working environments and industries. But ultimately work should pay.


No Hostage to Email

Or post-holiday inbox clearing

So I’ve just returned from over 2 weeks’ holiday to the dread and trepidation of a bloated email inbox. We’ve all been there, but how do you manage dealing with several days or weeks’ worth of emails all in one go? Here a few options:

1. The return-to-work slow clearout slog

Or spending an entire day deleting or reading messages. Good for making it look like you’re working whilst jetlagged, and also great for those who like to feel busy by not doing very much (cue competitive boasting about the number of unread messages received). But this is both mind-numbingly tedious and also quite depressing as you come to the realisation that most of what you deal with each day is useless rubbish, and the sheer amount of emails you are helplessly copied into for no reason whatsoever.

2. Scan for important emails before you get in

A previous colleague of mine used to log into her work email on the last evening of her holiday to read through emails to know what would be waiting for her once she got into the office. This is ideal for those who like to walk in the door and immediately get stuck into what really matters, but the downside is both a waste of your last evening of freedom before you get back into a work state of mind, and it also smacks of an inability to fully switch off during your time off.

3. Delete the lot and start again

This is a wonderful solution from a previous work acquaintance who deletes her entire inbox on the morning she arrives back into the office. She does this in the assurance that if anything was actually that important it would either have been dealt with during her absence anyway, or she is sure to be contacted again about what’s left. The other stuff she just ignores. She also writes in her out-of-office auto-reply that any emails received during her absence will be automatically deleted in order to manage expectations.

Now I’d probably get fired if I took option 3 in my current job – it might not go down well at my company, and also a few emails I receive concern personal or confidential matters and those individuals may not appreciate my auto-reply to say I’m not going to read their messages. But I do feel it’s important to get email practice in check. A bloated inbox after a holiday is a way of looking at your work life in macro-form, and a great incentive to make some resolutions over what to focus on and cut down on the wastes of time.

Do not pride yourself on the number of emails you receive each day: a bloated inbox is a sign of distraction, not productivity. Instead, take the opportunity to get back some control, and here are a few tips for doing that:

  1. Unsubscribe from marketing emails before deleting them to reduce the amount coming in
  2. Colour-code items you regularly want to receive (e.g. from your spouse, from website subscriptions) so you know those are not from work contacts and you can deal with them differently
  3. Learn to ignore. Do not respond to everything addressed to you, only what you really need to. If you choose not to engage you won’t encourage more email traffic.
  4. Similarly, send less emails. Use other communication channels as much as possible instead.
  5. Keep your email checking to set times of the day and turn off the alerts so you can focus on other things.
  6. If you can, clear your inbox at the end of the day or week and start afresh the next day.

I’m still working on that last one, but the thought of slogging through another pile of several hundred useless unread items after my next holiday is spurring me on…

Any other tips out there?

Childless women work harder?

A colleague returned from maternity leave this week, and when asked on her first morning back if she was missing her baby she replied an unequivocal: ‘no’. Other working parents could probably concur with this feeling, and appreciate getting back to work or simply just the chance to interact with other adults. Work can be a respite for working parents and carers who want some structure and routine or a change from the demands of home, or a chance to get back to the careers they were building before they had kids.

It’s interesting then that a survey from Red magazine (I haven’t seen the original survey, just this write up from Management Today), says that ‘4 out of 10’ childless women feel they work harder than working mums, and resent providing cover for their colleagues’ holidays and flexible working.

Co-workers without dependents resenting providing cover for their child-bearing colleagues is nothing new, and I’ve seen resentment boil over into outright hostility in places I have worked in the past. But I do feel it’s time we appreciated that diversity in the workplace requires some effort on all our parts to be flexible and to get along.

Different people in the workplace have different needs. Equality initiatives are there to give everyone an equal opportunity, not simply to make sure that everyone is treated exactly the same. And if you don’t really know what your co-worker is struggling with outside the workplace, do you have to make their life inside work miserable as well by seething with quiet resentment?

All workers could do well to realise that there may come a time when they themselves would want to be on the receiving end of the ‘easier ride’ as they perceive it and stop comparing themselves with others (which is a surefire way to make yourself unhappy). Caring for aging parents is fast becoming as much of a pressure on workers as raising a young family, and that’s something that can affect workers a lot more suddenly than planning for a family.

Part of the solution could be the right for all workers to request flexible working as the UK government will introduce in 2014.

That will be a rude awakening for employers who have shied away from dealing with requests until now or confined them only to working parents. But will it stop the comparing and inter-workplace resentment?

Managing talent – how do you stop Bale or Suarez from leaving?

It’s becoming a perennial problem in football: the agonising and seemingly endless speculation before the football season begins as football journalists grasp at anything to create a stir and grab headlines, however spurious.

But what can the contract negotiations of Bale, Suarez et al tell us about retaining talent? That it’s better to let star talent leave if they want to go rather than force them to stay and endure tantrums or a drop in performance? Why would a star performer hold themselves back to remain in a club or an organisation rather than move on to bigger and better things? How do you retain your game-changers when the rest of the organisation is still catching up and you’re a while away from making a breakthrough as a company?

To a certain extent it seems that football clubs can be held hostage by their star talent. And there are some who argue that this focus on star talent is a distraction from what makes football clubs truly great, which is homegrown talent. Is there a lesson for business in here?

Businesses are warned that when economic recovery comes we will struggle to hold onto our talent, and that with recovery will also come a ‘turnover spike’ in labour markets. Retention is going to be one of the biggest issues organisations face in the next five years as growth returns and labour markets pick up. We should look at our employees and proactively engage them in the organisation to prevent them becoming a flight risk.

I recently read a Forbes article which addressed the problem of why talent leaves, and the writer Erika Andersen boiled the reasons down to:

Top talent leave an organization when they’re badly managed and the organization is confusing and uninspiring.

It’s the management and organisational structure, mission and culture that need fixing if you’re going to hold on to your star performers.

To this we can add top footballing talent leave when the best come knocking with an open cheque book? Maybe there’s not a lot we can do about that?