What's the best way to manage internships?

29 October 2010
What's the best way to manage internships?

Q: We want to be able to offer internships in our organisation. However we're concerned about the increasing number of tribunal cases where interns sue their organisation for back payment of wages. What should we do? 

An organisation’s main aim will be to ensure that their interns fall within the category of “volunteers” rather than “workers”. Volunteering England’s ‘Volunteers and the law’ provides a good introduction to this area so is worth reading (free PDF download available here). 

Some key tips for ensuring your interns do not count as workers include: 

  • Reimburse only those expenses incurred for the post (ie upon receipt of food/travel costs). 
  • Do not pay a flat rate to cover daily expenses (eg £10 daily) since this may be more than the volunteer spends – and in turn, could be construed as benefit or ‘consideration’ for work done – potentially, creating a contract. 
  • Frame obligations in terms of “we would like” or “we would be grateful” instead of “you must” – where this relates to commitments of time etc. A sense of obligation will again risk sounding contractual. 
  • Good idea to have separate policies for volunteers and employees. Interns will comply with the volunteer rather than staff policies – again, for clarification. 
  • Also a good idea not to get yourself and volunteers to sign agreements. Again, this can look contractual. Perhaps have a simple document setting out what you’d both like to achieve. Volunteering England has some examples here
  • If you provide any training for the volunteer, ensure this is relevant to helping the volunteer conduct their work – and could not be perceived as a “perk” (eg an expensive post-graduate qualification!). Don’t give elaborate thank you gifts – as again, this could be construed as a perk.

Ideally, if you can pay afford to pay interns a living wage or the minimum wage, then this would be the best route to go down. Otherwise, you could perhaps consider being more flexible with your placements - for example, offering part-time internships or shorter placements to make your scheme as accessible as possible.

Please note that HRBird by its very nature offers general information. If you're looking for advice specific to your situation, speak to an HR professional or solicitor. Got a question on staff or volunteers? To submit an anonymous query for the HRBird blog, contact us. 

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