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Internships have become an essential part of the working landscape. Working as an intern is a great way for students who are approaching graduation to get some valuable real-world experience that they can take with them to the professional world. Additionally, savvy interns can use the opportunity to form critical professional connections.

Because interns are becoming so ubiquitous in businesses across the U.S., many companies and managers may come to see them as just another part of the organization, like employees are. This is good for fostering community and providing interns with much-needed social and professional interactions, but it's important to remember that no matter how much your employees like them, interns aren't technically workers, and are subject to different labor laws and regulations than the rest of your workforce. Be sure to know the difference so you can interact with your interns effectively.

Employee versus intern
Believe it or not, there is no specific regulation that clearly defines what constitutes an employee from a legal perspective. According to the Society for Human Resource Management, the U.S. Supreme Court has yet to pass a piece of legislation creating a clear boundary. However, the guidelines are clearer when it comes to defining and establishing rules for unpaid internships. The U.S. Department of Labor outlined six points that should be considered when determining what an intern's status is with the company. These points include:

  • The internship is similar to training that would be received in an educational environment, even if the intern is performing standard job tasks.
  • Job experience is the primary benefit for the intern.
  • The intern works under close staff supervision, and is not replacing another regular employee.
  • The intern provides no immediate advantage to the employer hosting him or her.
  • The internship does not guarantee the intern a job at its conclusion.
  • The intern is not receiving wages for the time spent with the company.

Is there a gray area?
Many businesses perceive unpaid internships as an integral part of company operations today. However, the growing prevalence of these types of situations has raised discussion surrounding the ethical considerations of organizations relying too heavily on unpaid interns. There have been several instances where former interns have even pursued legal action against their company, Boston University Today reported.

The key point on which this tends to rest is whether the company received significant benefit from the intern's presence, and whether the intern was provided opportunity to gain valuable experience as part of his or her duties.

If your company is considering creating an internship program, consider consulting with PEO companies to ensure your endeavors are compliant with all relevant labor laws.