Thursday, November 17, 2011
Sunday, April 4, 2010
The New York Times recently had an interesting (and surprising) article titled Growth of Unpaid Internships May Be Illegal, Officials Say.
Unpaid internships are a messy issue. We don't want workers to be exploited. However, if somebody is willing to work for free to gain experience, build their resume, or for a host of other reasons, shouldn't we let them?
My personal experience says yes. I am nearing the conclusion of an unpaid internship. Do I feel exploited or used? Certainly not! I took the job knowing that I wouldn't be paid. It was stated clearly in my contract. On the contrary, the internship has been one of the most enlightening and interesting work experiences that I've had.
In China, I also mentored an unpaid intern. If he had immediately applied for a paid position, he would have been rejected - I can say that for certain, because I would have made the call. However, after 3 months of unpaid work, the company offered him a paid position. We made a job for him because he proved that he deserved it.
Those cases show only one side of the story, and I realize it. There are plenty of people who take unpaid internships doing menial work. They don't learn much, and they are not compensated. Should those internships be allowed to exist?
I honestly don't know . . . I tend to believe that people are free to turn down those internships and they should turn them down. If the internship were so bad that everybody turned it down, the employer would have to offer pay. On the other hand, there is always the fear that there will be nothing better . . .
However, I'd guess that most people do not want bad unpaid internships to exist. Let's go with that. Then here's the big problem: how do you get rid of the bad unpaid internships while still allowing the good ones?
I don't see a way given current law.
The truth is that my internship wouldn't have existed if the company were forced to pay me. The company was a start-up with two people and little cash. I suppose they could have given me equity, but that's equivalent to nothing unless I were with the company until the equity actually had a value attached.
Perhaps legislators could introduce a "mutual benefit" test as suggested by Camille Olson, a lawyer mentioned in the article. That would certainly be a start, but it sounds fuzzy. I don't know how I would prove the "value" that I gained from my internship, but I know it was there. Though given the evidence that my employer could pull together, I have my doubts that they could win in court if I claimed that I was unfairly compensated.
So what to do? We could protect some (probably those with the least options) while preventing others - like me and my former employee - from gaining experience that opens doors. Instead we could open the doors for mutually beneficial unpaid internships, knowing that some unfortunate and unprepared people will be exploited.
I lean towards the latter. I'm sympathetic to people who may be exploited, but I people should take responsibility for their decisions. If they accept a bad internship, it's generally not the end of the world1. They'll learn from it.
However, like I said, it's a messy issue.
1 I should know, I spent a summer at the Wisconsin State Department of Revenue entering tax information. I was paid minimum wage, but my brain was so numb at the end that I still felt exploited.
Wednesday, March 31, 2010
I've watched a number of effective managers in my life . . . and I've even tried to imitate some of their successes.
One thing that they all had in common: their teams just worked.
It was amazing to compare highly skilled managers' team members with those of less skilled managers. Everybody from the strong manager's team seemed to be a star, and they were several steps ahead of others in the meeting - always ready to make a decision and push ahead.
Of course, the strangest part was that these managers never seemed to be devoting huge amounts of time to managing their people. Work just got done, and it was high quality.
How did the great managers craft these dream teams?
They created structures in which other people could succeed, then they got out of the way.
Instead of telling people how to write a proposal step by step, they described the information that the client needed to see and then left the proposal crafting process to a team member.
Instead of giving a strict list of duties, they created a set of objectives that should be met and allowed team members to create their own list of duties.
Instead of trying to fix areas of weakness, they crafted teams so that one person's weakness was another person's strength. No individual was perfectly strong, but the team was.
They created the structure: Great work was the byproduct.