Summer is nearly upon us, which means that we’ll soon be in the throes of intern season. Internships are usually associated with major corporations and even federal agencies, but these days, more and more small businesses are seeing the value in hiring interns. And more and more young professionals are seeking out internships at small businesses.

​However, if you’ve never before worked with an intern, the prospect of hiring one may be a bit daunting.

​Here are 5 “Don’ts” to keep in mind when you’re looking for interns. ​These common mistakes can undermine even the most well-intentioned internship programs:

1. Don’t expect an unpaid intern to do a paid intern’s job

​A paid internship and an unpaid internship should entail a very different set of responsibilities.

​For example, unpaid internships are essentially on-the-job training and education opportunities. The intern does not displace regular employees but instead works under their watchful eye so that they can receive guidance (and, when necessary, correction).

​All labor and education is done for the intern’s benefit; not only does the employer not significantly benefit from the intern’s work, but they may actually be impeded slightly. If you hire an unpaid intern to do the work of a paid employee (e.g., replying to client emails, receiving shipments and taking inventory, or even cleaning your office), you could very easily find yourself in legal trouble.

2. Don’t expect a paid intern to do an unpaid intern’s job.

​ Meanwhile, an intern who’s being paid to work for your company should be allowed to work for your company!

​If you tell an interviewee during the hiring process that you’ll mostly expect them to do the work of a personal assistant, then don’t be surprised if the potential hire decides to reject your offer and seek an internship elsewhere.

​The point of a paid internship, after all, is to get a preview of “life” in a selected industry. So while you might not trust them with important duties (and they’ll likely need plenty of supervision), they should at least be given opportunities to contribute to your business.

3. Don’t “just wing it.”

​Internships are supposed to be learning opportunities; the experience and training that an intern receives while working with your company should prepare them for a permanent job in that industry (even if it’s not with your company).

​Before you set out to hire interns, it’s important to have an idea of how you’ll teach them and how you’ll gauge their progress. You should also know how much feedback you’ll want to give and receive.

​Proper communication is absolutely critical. If your “pitch” for an internship at your company seems disorganized or vague, then you probably won’t attract the right kind of talent, and serious, career-minded individuals may feel inclined look elsewhere.

4. Don’t hold interns to a lower set of standards.

​If a prospective employee showed up to an interview five minutes late and dressed too casually for the office, then chances are, you wouldn’t hire them, even if they had a great résumé. So don’t allow unprofessional behavior from your interns, either.

​While it’s true that internships are usually temporary positions and interns are often high school or college-aged, they must be informed from the get-go that they are to behave like professionals.

​ This can mean dressing appropriately, being on time, keeping themselves busy, and remaining free from distractions (e.g., no texting or web surfing) while they’re on the clock.

​And here’s the thing: young adults who are serious about their internships (and possibly interested in full-time work) won’t really need to be told to behave themselves.

​The ones who bristle at—or even seem surprised by—the notion that they can’t listen to music, surf the internet, etc. while working may not be worth hiring, anyway.

5. Don’t assume that your intern is in it for the long haul.

​It’s not uncommon for employers to be so impressed by their intern’s work (and work ethic) that they wind up offering the intern a job with their company. Many interns also go into these programs actually hoping that their internship will turn into a “real” position at the firm.

​But just as you probably won’t end up hiring every intern who does a stint at your company, not every intern who is offered a permanent position is going to accept it.

A summer intern who lives and attends college in Tulsa, Okla., for example, might not want to move to Dallas in order to work for you full-time. If they do want to stay, be prepared for them to request a significant reduction in hours (and responsibilities) once the new semester starts.

​And, of course, it’s also possible that they’ll accept a job elsewhere while still interning at your company! If you want to offer an intern a permanent position, it’s best to speak to them about it as soon as possible so that everyone’s on the same page.

​And try not to become so reliant on your intern’s work that their departure leaves you scrambling for coverage.


Internships can be beneficial arrangements for employers and interns alike. For this to happen, though, it’s critical to hire the right people and have a plan for how you’ll lead those new hires.

​With proper organization and preparation, you won’t just have an extra set of hands helping out this summer—you’ll also be molding and shaping the future of your industry!  

Written By
Mark Sinatra is the CEO of Staff One, a leading human resource consulting and professional employer organization licensed in 44 states. Mark is actively involved in the PEO industry as a Board Director of both ESAC and NAPEO. He’s also Vice Chairperson of First3 Years and a Board Director with Social Venture Partners – Dallas.

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