How NOT to manage an internship programme

24 June 2015 -


As controversy rages over, we explore the background of the row and set out the things that bosses should avoid when taking on interns

Jermaine Haughton

(Additional reporting: Matt Packer)

A new website that enables parents to swap around their children’s internships has been slammed for potentially excluding underprivileged applicants from sought-after slots. Marketed as the “The New Old Boys’ Network”, enables each parent member to list an internship they have to offer, and the type of job they are seeking in return. To date, more than 700 offers of placements in 40 countries have been entered to the site – including stints at large corporations such as the BBC, ITV and HSBC.

Placements on offer overseas include some highly technical examples, such as working with an architect in Paris, an aviation engineer in Singapore and an IVF specialist in Israel.

The site’s founder Nick Simmons – who runs a Notting Hill design agency – claims that the platform aims to “kick the old boy network into touch and help democratise the process of securing valuable work experience”. He added: “This is not a zero-sum game, and myInternSwap is not cannibalising a fixed pool of placements. We want to debunk the myth that only white-collar, highly paid jobs can provide good work experience.”

However, the website has attracted its fair share of criticism. Labour Party leadership contender Andy Burnham, for example, expressed his doubts over how inclusive its opportunities were for families in straitened circumstances. In a letter to Simmons, the Leigh MP made a number of suggestions to improve the website’s impact on social mobility.

“As a first step,” he wrote, “it must be possible to help young people who do not have family able to make a reciprocal offer and pay people on placements for longer than four weeks. It is extremely difficult for young people from families who are not able to financially support them through an unpaid internship. I would suggest that visitors to your site, or future corporate partners, might sponsor the participation of young people from working-class backgrounds undertaking longer placements so they can access the huge benefits that good quality work experience provides.”

During a head-to-head on this morning’s Radio 4 Today Programme, Buzzfeed deputy editor Jim Waterson put it to Simmons that his website was working to expand the availability of highly sought-after placements “from a tiny elite to a slightly bigger elite”. Waterson explained: “The problem with unpaid work experience is the more you give, the more it reinforces the system, and the more you end up with social mobility not being [about] people coming up from nowhere, but the same group of professionals swapping professions, generation by generation, with their friends.”

With the controversy over in mind – and companies’ use of unpaid internships constantly in the spotlight – Insights asked Om Ruparel, managing director of digital talent agency, for some classic no-nos that firms should steer clear of when taking on interns.

Here are his thoughts on how NOT to manage an internship scheme. Whatever you do, don’t

1. Offer unpaid internships

“Interns shouldn’t be treated as cheap labour. No one should lose money while they are gaining experience and adding value to your company. I’d recommend you at least pay for travel and lunch expenses. Lunch expenses can be set at a limit and paid as a weekly allowance – or by using a system of handing in receipts.”

2. Expect interns to carry out tasks that a paid employee can do

“An intern is entitled to the National Minimum Wage if they count as a worker. If they are performing duties a regular employee would, then pay them. Ultimately, if you have an intern who is performing a set of duties during a regular set of hours and is generally contributing to your company, you should be paying them the National Minimum Wage.”

3. Forget about your intern

“They require the same one-on-one attention as permanent employees. So meet with them once a week – a good manager understands their staff and is always available. People work much better when they feel comfortable and that their presence is wanted.”

4. Fail to set interns specific goals and targets

“They need clear goals to ensure they are performing. This will aid their improvement, and give you a benchmark to ascertain their growth. A well-structured programme benefits both your organisation and your intern by managing the expectations on both sides and reducing any guesswork. Think about your internship program as a dynamic and hands-on way to introduce young people to your industry. Consult with the intern’s designated mentor when writing the job description – this will help both the intern and the supervisor on a day-to-day basis.”

5. Scare your interns

“They need to feel part of the team and make a contribution, and they will have questions – so be approachable. Keeping lines of communication open is extremely important. Your intern should feel comfortable asking questions. An information pack is handy, but will not contain all the answers to enquires that may arise.”

6. Treat interns like slaves

“While it is important to work your way up a company’s ladder, making tea and coffee all day isn’t helping the intern. All jobs come with admin, but interns should have other tasks as well. Interns should be considered a valued part of your workforce, and should learn the nature of your business and come away with an understanding of it. Make sure your intern works on a variety of projects to give them some broad experience, and make, say, two of those projects more in-depth, to hone the intern’s skills. There should be at least one project that your intern sees through from beginning to end as a team member. It is important for them to feel that satisfaction of completion.”

On the specific point of, Ruparel told us: ““I applaud that Nick Simmons is trying to solve a problem around internships, but I don’t think this is the solution. It needs to start from schools, colleges and universities. Interns should be provided with better preparation to ensure they stand out from the crowd while applying for such opportunities. Going about it this way is unfair and unacceptable – opportunities for jobs and internships should be equally available to all. This mentality of ‘It’s who you know and not what you know’ is outdated and old fashioned.”

He added: “I think that, by opening up opportunities to a bigger pool of candidates, businesses will be more likely to find even more suitable, high-calibre interns. I would rather hire a suitable intern candidate who I felt could add real value to an organisation than hire an intern because I had lunch with his mother a couple of months back.”

Annie Peate, policy and campaigns officer at leading people-development body CIPD, took a similar view, telling Insights: “While it’s positive to see employer embracing new, innovative ways to introduce young people into the world of work, it’s important that these schemes are designed in the right way and are accessible to all young people. Websites that rely solely on the premise that parents have available opportunities in either their own – or friends’ and relatives’ – organisations can disadvantage young people whose parents have limited access to employer networks. And by simply swapping opportunities between parents, young people are not benefitting from the first-hand experience of applying for these placements and talking to employers about their skills, personal merit and strengths: all valuable experience in itself.”

Peate added: “It’s also vital that websites like this carry clear guidance on whether the placements should be paid, and how the opportunities themselves should be designed and managed to ensure they provide the young person with a worthwhile experience. To not include this is a missed opportunity to help encourage and share employer best practice – and protect young people in the process.”

During his Today Programme debate with Waterson, Simmons argued that was impartial because it had no third-party investment and hosted no advertising. At one point, he also appeared to agree with Waterson’s underlying sentiments – adding that in future, the site may work with schools and youth organisations to advertise placements on a wider scale.

Click here for CIPD best-practice guidance on internship programmes.

For more thoughts on how businesses can work across generations, sign up to this forthcoming CMI seminar.

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