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Staying within the law when employing interns

Student and graduate internships came under the spotlight recently when media intern Keri Hudson took online review site My Village to court claiming that, despite agreeing to intern for free, she deserved to be paid the National Minimum Wage (NMW) for the volume and importance of the work she carried out.Judges ruled in Hudsons favour, stirring plenty of debate about the legalities of internships.

Andrew Scherer (AS) of Inspiring Interns explains how small businesses can take advantage whilst staying on the right side of the law.

Q. Does the result of the recent case spell the end of student internships?

AS: No, the Governments position on that is clear. There is a place for the internship, so long as it is a genuine training position and not a way for an employer to exploit cheap labour.

Its still a grey area as there is no specific legislation, but the distinction is clear. The accepted definition is a placement where the individual is learning, carries out supervised tasks and benefits from the programme. If theyre working full time with little or no training element, then thats regular employment and they should be paid accordingly.

Q. How should a small business make the most of a student internship?

AS: It starts with the recruitment process. Dont take on an intern as a favour for a friend. Instead, advertise it widely, carry out genuine interviews and do your best to find an individual that fits your organisation and is there for the right reasons. Treat it as though youre recruiting for a full time position.

The placement itself has to be beneficial to both parties. The intern needs training in skills that are relevant to the industry they have chosen. An employee neednt worry about setting tasks, because often we learn by doing, but its important to supervise and give feedback.

In return, the business gets access to graduate talent which it can train to work its own way.

Q. What are the most common mistakes and how does a business avoid them?

AS: Some businesses have unreal expectations when recruiting interns, confusing them with entry-level employees. Its unlikely that the intern will have experienced office life, so everything from workplace politics to using simple technology, like a photocopier, [might] be new to them.

Remember, interns are in that position because they want to learn. They wont come equipped with all the experience and skills youd like. Thats why theyre looking to you.

Its also important to note that, with all the best intentions, sometimes placements just dont work out. This could be for a number of reasons, but thats ok. If you have to let an intern go, sit down and talk them through the situation. There are no legal obligations, but you should at least be courteous.

Q. Should student interns be paid?

AS: If the intern is benefiting from their training, and doesnt have a specific list of duties, then the NMW isnt necessarily applicable. The idea is for it to be cost neutral for the intern. Remember that compared to a degree which now costs 9,000 in many cases its still a very good deal.

Source: Atom Content Marketing 2011