How to Avoid the 5 Biggest Mistakes Companies Make Hiring Interns

Internship programs are a great asset for organizations. Not only do they give students an opportunity to gain valuable experience in an industry they’re interested in, but they also give companies the chance to give potential future employees a low-risk trial run.

Though internships can be mutually beneficial for interns and the organizations that employ them, there’s a lot that can go wrong as well. To avoid disappointing all the parties involved and avoiding legal trouble or bad press, companies must comply with federal laws and commit time, effort and personnel to creating a strong internship program.

Here’s a look at five of the biggest mistakes organizations can make when it comes to internships and how to avoid them.

Mistake #1: Not carefully vetting interns

Because internships are temporary positions and applicants are often students or recent grads with little experience, it’s tempting to not place much weight on the application materials that candidates provide. But even if their resume is short, there are ways to ensure that you’re hiring the right person for your organization.

How to avoid it: When evaluating applicants, make sure they’ve provided a resume, but pay special attention to the cover letter, advises Rachael Jurek, an internship coordinator for the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee and director of media relations for PR firm Moon Landing, Inc.

“Look at the level of effort that they’ve placed in their cover letter,” Jurek says:

  • Did they research the internship opportunity?
  • Are they knowledgeable about your company’s vision and mission statements?
  • Did they make an attempt to explain how they’d fit the company culture or contribute to a specific department?

If so, it’s probably worth giving them an interview.

And pay attention to details as much as you would during an interview with an applicant for a full-time role — take note of whether or not the prospective intern dresses appropriately, brings enough copies of their resume and is knowledgeable about your company.

Mistake #2: Not being aware of legal obligations

Organizations are not required to compensate interns, but they must comply with federal law when it comes to hiring them. Without doing your legal research, you could end up in hot water. “The first thing companies need to figure out is whether or not the people they are hiring are interns or low-level employees under the law,” Jurek says.

How to avoid it: Fact sheet 71 is a federal test that helps companies determine if an intern is entitled to minimum wage and overtime pay under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). Employment law expert Chaya Mandelbaum, partner at Rudy, Exelrod, Zieff & Lowe, says recruiters should be asking, “Are you looking to provide an educational environment for people who may enter your industry down the road, or are you looking to fill a labor gap?” “If your answer is the latter, alarm bells should be going off,” he adds.

If a company uses interns to do work that they would have to hire an employee for, they may be better off hiring “interns” as minimum wage W-2 employees, Mandelbaum recommends. If companies fail to comply with federal law, they could face lawsuits, fines and reputation damage.

Mistake #3: Not providing learning opportunities

Hiring interns to do the work of an employee, or spend the day filing, making copies or getting coffee won’t benefit either party. Interns that are forced to do busy work burn out quickly, and don’t end up contributing much to your company in the long run. Plus, they’ll likely consider other options when they look for permanent employment, and you will have wasted time on a worker you’ll never see again.

How to avoid it: Remember, an internship should be an immersive learning experience, so structure the internship in a way that gives interns access to valuable learning opportunities. Give them specific project to work on, or assign a series of tasks that enables them to learn about your industry while actively contributing to company goals.

Consider how you can show the next generation what it’s like to work in your industry — encourage interns to observe, ask questions and strategically offer ideas. “Create an experience that teaches, guides and ultimately ends in resume bullet-points for the student while assisting projects moving forward for the business,” advises Jurek.

Mistake #4: Isolating interns

You might be eyeing that small desk in the corner of the office as a perfect spot to place your intern, but separating your intern from the rest of the team is a bad move that defeats the purpose of the internship. A strong program should expose interns to many different parts of a company, and encourage them to contribute ideas to upcoming projects, participate in daily meetings or go to lunch with staff members.

How to avoid it: To make the most out of your program, integrate interns into company culture, let them sit in on meetings and allow them to shadow a variety of employees. “Problems happen when the intern shows up, sits in a cubicle away from everyone else, isn’t invited to lunch or coffee and doesn’t interact with the office,” Jurek says. “When people don’t feel that they are part of the team, they will perform as such.”

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Be sure to set clear goals, responsibilities and duties for both interns and their supervisors. Interns should be managed by someone with experience who can critique work and give advice rather than a junior-level employee that may not have much experience either. Managers should act as coaches, helping interns create a plan to complete their assigned tasks, discussing ways they can improve their work and challenging them to go beyond the minimum of what is expected.

Mistake #5: Not staying connected with past interns

In a busy work environment, it’s easy to fall into the habit of letting interns come and go, but you may be missing out on maintaining valuable relationships with individuals that could eventually turn into promising employees.

How to avoid it: Stay in touch with former interns by sending them company news updates, connecting with them on social media, engaging with school counselors or holding an annual intern reunion. Former interns can make for great future candidates. It can cost up to $5,500 to hire a new employee; rather than going through the expensive process of recruiting brand new candidates, you can draw from a pool of talented people who are already familiar with your company, culture and way of work.

A strong internship program has the potential to benefit both employers and students. By establishing concrete goals, assigning educational tasks and fully immersing interns in company culture, you can create an environment that enables students to learn about your industry while developing a future pipeline of talent.

This article originally appeared on ReWork, a publication exploring the future of work.

Charles Coy

Charles is the Senior Director of Analyst and Community Relations at Cornerstone. He came to Cornerstone interested in the ways that technology can impact how organizations evaluate, motivate and value their employees. Charles is a study in permanence, having worked in every dark corner of Cornerstone since the early days of the company more than 16 years ago.