Are your interns small business kryptonite?

By Nina Kaufman, Esq.

There’s no such thing as a free lunch,” said my colleague, Joe Harris, Esq. of White Harris PLLC. “That’s what small businesses need to understand about interns.”

Joe reaches for the check (“Ironic,” I think, “… seems I am getting a free lunch!”) as we chat about the trends and challenges we’re seeing for small businesses. I tell him about speaking at NAWBO-Greater Raleigh. The stories of business owners just starting to become aware of burnout. Looking to cash out within the next 5-8 years. Eager to breathe more freely than they have for a while … and anxious that they might not be able to without the right team in place.

Joe regales me with Tales of the Courtroom. Of lawsuits where interns got wise and sued for unpaid wages. And won! “But wait a minute”—you’re probably asking—“didn’t they know from the beginning they wouldn’t get paid?”

Yes, Grasshopper, they did. But in today’s litigious society, that’s not really the point.

Gone are the days (for the most part) when people could agree to work for free in order to get experience. Taxing authorities don’t like it, because if you don’t pay a worker, the government doesn’t get its share of employment taxes. Politicians don’t like it because workers with long resume gaps were asking to fill these lower-level positions to get experience. This reflects badly on their ability to boost the economy … and it fills up positions that usually go to students, who are having their own difficulties in the job market.

So the Department of Labor imposed rules on the “right” way to use interns. A six-factor test. (Some States have their own, additional rules, too—so don’t ignore those.) It can’t just be free work. You need a proper internship program. They can’t just be getting coffee. And you can’t just dump a bunch of work on them. They need to learn by job shadowing. Attending workshops. Accompanying you on trips. Education and hands-on teaching, not off-load delegating. An internship program needs to benefit them—not you so much. And yet, not promise future employment.

In fact, one of the hallmarks of a proper internship program is that it impeded your business. That you found the responsibilities overwhelming, and they distracted you from your work.

I’ve worked with small business owners who couldn’t envision their business without interns. But handle this the wrong way, and it could be kryptonite to your small business.

How do interns fit into your business growth plans? Post a comment below and let us know.

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