Five tips to ensure your interns don’t sue you


Internships can be a mixed bag. Done poorly and you have an intern twiddling their thumbs or doing work that really should be done by an employee.

Done well however, you’ll engage some bright young people with your organisation, gain some diverse perspectives, get some value add work done and build the management skills of your staff.

As a startup we’ve engaged hundreds of students and interns. Half our staff have been recruited through these programs and all of our team manage interns and student projects.

From our experience, here’s our top five tips to running a successful program.

Plan it out

When most managers agree to take on students in say an internship, they sometimes don’t stop to think about what the intern will actually do. They’re brought in as filler or an outsourcing outlet for their staff.

The best way to avoid this is to take half an hour (yes, that’s all it will take) and actually plan out both what you want the intern to do and – importantly – learn. This two-way agreement can become the touchstone for the engagement.

The easiest way to manage this is to allocate the student to one project that they can work on with an existing team member for most of their placement. If your workplace isn’t project-based, the next best bet is to allocate the student to a team member as a mentor and manager to shadow in the workplace and set objectives for their contribution. Which, brings us to the next point.

Use internships to train future managers

Chances are, your key managers will be too busy to take an intern under their wing. Fair enough. More often than not, they don’t need to. Managing interns is actually an excellent task for future managers in your office, and can help you as a supervisor get a feel for whether or not they have management potential.

A good intern manager should essentially treat the student as any team member, taking them under their wing and attempt to teach them as much as they can within their allotted internship – which should be only two weeks or less if it’s unpaid, or might be longer as part of some accredited higher education coursework.

That person’s managers should use the experience to coach the staff member in turn.

Promote feedback

The key to successful experiential learning – and benefit for both sides –  is in the feedback loops.

The intern – like any employee, will learn faster and perform better if they’re asked to regularly reflect on what’s going well, what’s going less well and what is unclear, and given feedback.

Another benefit which seems obvious, but you would be surprised as to how many companies miss an opportunity to gather crucial, business-shaping feedback about their workplace from a fresh perspective.

An intern probably isn’t going to reshape your business model, but they can provide valuable, fresh insight into your business and culture.

Lead them towards giving you direct and candid feedback, reassure them that they won’t offend anyone with their views. Ask what they liked about the office culture? What did they really think about their manager?

It’s likely you will have to wade through a lot of inexperienced, mediocre answers. But one nugget could help you rethink how you approach culture, management structure and hiring at your company.

Follow the laws

This one’s a no-brainer right? Unfortunately, in many instances the rules aren’t even known by employers. Quickly swotting up on the Fair Work rules can both mean you stay within the rules, but also that you know what is permitted and can set up very workable programs.

For instance, you cannot work as an unpaid intern for more than two full-time weeks. That can be spread out: two days a week over five weeks for instance. But if you start relying on your intern and bringing them on longer, consider employing them with casual work so you stay within the law.

It’s also mandated that a company must cover the expense of their intern during their placement. A flat fee of $20 per day often does the job for travel and lunch costs. It’s also a sign of good-will towards the intern and helps set the tone for placement.

Depending on the job, consider taking insurance out for the student. You are liable for them while they are in your employ. Most universities arrange this as part of the placement process, but if you are taking a student outside of a University course, be wary of it.

Do it systematically – repeat and learn

Like any other business function – if you do things in an ad hoc manner, you don’t get better and you won’t add sustainable value. Any organisation has simple projects and tasks that wouldn’t otherwise get done, and people who’d benefit from developing their management skills. Over time you’ll get more efficient and more practiced at delivering a positive experience for all.

Managed well, work integrated learning can be incredibly rewarding for both students and employers. It isn’t just ‘free work’, it’s a process that has the potential to net you fantastic new hires and also shape your business.

About the author

Beau Leese is the co-CEO and co-founder of Intersective, an experiential edtech company to helping people develop the skills needed for the jobs of tomorrow.