Ethics in PR: Six questions to consider when offered an unpaid internship

September is Ethics Month for the PR community. To celebrate, I wanted to touch on a major topic affecting public relations students and employers today: unpaid internships.

Unpaid internships received a lot of buzz this summer after two unpaid production interns that worked on the movie “Black Swan” sued 20th Century Fox for giving them the workload similar to the that of their salaried full-time coworkers. Sure enough, they won.

Read more details of the ruling from The Atlantic Wire.

Are unpaid internships lawful?

The Fair Labor Standards Act released six criteria employers must follow in order to offer lawful unpaid internships. In summary;

  •  Lawful unpaid internships should not advance the employer’s company financially nor should interns fill the role of a salaried employee.
  •  Lawful unpaid internships must be oriented for the benefit of the intern, with direct supervision and an educational environment.
  •  Lawful unpaid internships must not entitle interns to a job after completion.
  • Lawful unpaid internships must be offered with honesty, disclosing upfront that the position is unpaid.

Expanding on the criteria above, a notable point is that the internship must be beneficial for the intern. This is very important because the overall benefit of accepting internships is to learn and grow as a future professional.

As you weigh your options, consider asking employers about opportunities to expand your professional network, add to your portfolio or participate in training or a mentoring program while
interning with a company. If none of these opportunities are available, it might be best to keep looking.

Are unpaid internships ethical?

As the maxim goes, just because something is lawful, does not always mean it’s ethical.

A survey by the Public Relations Consultants Association found that out of about 150 new public relations professionals, approximately 23 percent held an internship with no pay and only 28 percent of the professionals in the research group were paid at or above minimum wage. The others were either paid a stipend or had some expenses covered by the employer.

Among many concerns expressed in response to this data, researchers found that diversity was compromised. The reality of the situation is that economically challenged applicants had to turn down the opportunity because they could not afford accepting an unpaid internship. In addition, graduates lacking internship experience have lower chances of receiving a job in a competitive market, which is often difficult for students of lower income families. Paid internships are much less prevalent, according to data from the survey, making it difficult for students to gain experience. These issues have called to question the ethics of unpaid internships.

The Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) issued a Professional Standards Advisory in February 2011 about the ethical use of interns. This document makes a case for interns and adds perspective for employers who may not understand that course credit is often costly for the student, as well as travel expenses such as gasoline and car maintenance.

Lastly, the document specifically names code provisions and professional values in the PRSA Member Code of Ethics that are often overlooked in decisions involving unpaid internships.

Is an unpaid internship for you?

There will be unpaid internships as long as students are willing to accept them. However, sometimes taking an unpaid internship is worth it in the long run.

First of all, no matter what your pay is at an internship, recognize and value the time and/or money the company invests in you as an intern. However, as you pursue opportunities, don’t sell yourself short by accepting an opportunity that will not ultimately help you succeed and accomplish your goals in public relations. It might take time, but develop a keen eye for opportunities that will shape your future.

If you’re ever offered an unpaid internship you’d hate to turn down, ask yourself these questions:

  1. Does this internship abide by the Fair Labor Standards Act?
  2. Will this internship give you opportunities to add to your resume and portfolio?
  3. Can you get the same opportunities elsewhere? (Note: volunteering at a nonprofit organization or helping with the communications tasks at your part time job can be great alternatives)
  4.   Is this internship feasible for your budget?
  5.  Is there a way you can divide your time between a part time job and your internship?
  6. Are you motivated to do well at this internship despite the fact you won’t be receiving a paycheck?

PR Daily recently published an article about the things employers should expect from an unpaid intern. Overall the article ensures that unpaid interns will undoubtedly slack off at work and anything more shouldn’t be expected. Unpaid internships are often challenging, but if you accept an unpaid position and are aware of what you signed up for from the start (which you should, by law), there is nothing more detrimental for your career than performing poorly on the job. The world of public relations is interconnected and the chance you’ll be known as a slacker — at least in the area — is likely. If you don’t think you’ll be able to work with integrity at an unpaid internship, don’t accept one.

It all boils down to one simple question: does the benefit outweigh the cost?

As a Millennial, I’ve heard my fair share of accusations about entitlement of my generation. Yes, work is work, but it’s important to remember that we were never owed an internship and any opportunities we take should be received with gratefulness.

Whether you’re paid or not, internships cost companies money, and if you develop a keen eye for selecting lawful and ethical internships and the employer holds up their end, you will benefit greatly in the long run.

 What do you think about unpaid internships? Comment in the box below.

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