October 12, 2011

Protecting Yourself From an Illegal Internship: Before You Apply

Sometimes as an intern you may feel like you're living out deleted scenes from The Devil Wears Prada  and not learning anything. As Lauren discussed recently, there are a few situations where your lackluster internship may actually be illegal and two interns from the movie Black Swan are suing the studio for that reason. Is legal recourse really the answer here, though? Well, probably not if you don't want to seriously hurt your chances of finding another job or internship. Most companies don't want to hire the people famous for suing their former company regardless of whether or not they were in the right. You should, however, do your best to avoid a bad situation by protecting yourself before, during, and after you apply for internships.
By Brad Shorr (The Straight North Blog) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Whether you're buying a house, investing in a business, or choosing a college to attend, you wouldn't make a decision like that without finding out all of the relevant info first. When you chose a college you probably looked at their reputation, their campus, job placement rate, the size of the dorm rooms, the tolerability of the dining hall food, etc. So, you should do the same thing when you look for an internship. Here are some guidelines:

Is it a known, respected company?
This is less about finding a major corporation than about weeding out the dudes in their basement who think it's cool to manage their friend's band. That doesn't mean you have to avoid start ups either, just that you need to properly vet them. Does the company you're considering applying to have a good reputation, a new product that was recently launched, employees that have some sort of background in the industry, or some other combination of elements that tells you that this is a real, professional organization?

Do they have an established internship program?
Established doesn't mean they post an opening every once in a while when they need help- though in some cases there is nothing wrong with that either. Many of the best internship programs have a bit of structure to them as far as training, mentorship, networking, and educational opportunities. 

Does the job description include specific goals and tasks?
Again, this isn't necessarily a warning sign in itself because some very legitimate internships will lack concrete descriptions. However, there are also cases where a lack of specificity means that the person who wrote it either has no idea what they intend to have you do yet or doesn't want to advertise that the plan is for you to get coffee and alphabetize things. 

Does the language talk about educational opportunities?
This again isn't necessarily a reason to avoid an internship altogether, but maybe a sign you should ask more questions. The goal of an internship is to learn something and you want to be sure that the company you are applying to is motivated by a desire to teach you something and not a desire to get free slave labor. 

A great example of these last three is this internship listing for A&M/Octone Records. Notice how implies that there is some sense of an established structure, gives specific examples of tasks and departments, and gives interns the opportunity to learn more through social events, showcases, and meetings so it meets all of these requirements. 

Is there a specific boss or mentor you will work with?
I admit in some cases, a lack of one specific boss can mean an opportunity to work with and meet many different people and departments, but that is really the exception. Most of the time, if you don't have one person in charge of monitoring your work and progress it will make it a lot harder for you to get any feedback or direction. 

Are there past interns at your school?
Is there someone else you know who worked there you can easily access to glean some information and learn about their experience. You can try asking your career or internship counselor, looking on LinkedIn, or just asking around within your major. 

What can you find online?
Find out what you can about the company, their interns, and their reputation by searching Google, industry blogs and sites, news sites, entrepreneurial websites, LinkedIn, Twitter, and whatever else you can find.

The most important thing to keep in mind is that you should trust your instincts and look out for red flags. If something does not feel right about the company or internship, it probably isn't.


Thanks to @wesdavenport for sending me the article that inspired this post!

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