Christmas may be the most wonderful time of year for many, but for managers, it’s summer that often brings the greatest joy. After all, this is when millions of college students and recent graduates offer their services for little or no pay. What could be better for business than voluntary unpaid labor? The federal Labor Dept., however, is cracking down on these arrangements, on grounds that they may violate labor laws.

But even if the vast majority of unpaid internships are legal, are they ethical? Some are, and some are not.

In a key scene from Jonathan Demme’s film, The Silence of the Lambs, FBI agent Clarice Starling interviews the serial killer Hannibal Lecter in prison and asks him for help in solving a case that concerns a crime similar to what Lecter committed.

“Quid pro quo,” Lecter tells Starling. He’ll help her on the condition that she reveal something intensely personal about herself.


Quid pro quo is a Latin phrase that means roughly, “something for something.” Not only can a quid pro quo arrangement be ethically appropriate; it can be mutually beneficial and even praiseworthy. If you and I are going to the same meeting by car, and you offer to split the cost of gas if I drive you, that’s a quid pro quo provision in which everybody wins. We get to enjoy each other’s company, my expenses are half what I anticipated they would be, you are spared the hassle of driving, and our carbon footprint is half of what it would have been had we driven separately.

Unpaid internships are a form of quid pro quo arrangement. A business or other organization offers someone a valuable experience and in turn receives help from that person. It’s the kind of help the individual provides that determines whether a particular unpaid internship is ethical or not. If the intern’s efforts are integral to the learning experience (for example, setting up appointments and then attending those meetings), such efforts are a legitimate use of the intern’s time and are thus ethically appropriate. If, however, the intern is acting essentially as unpaid labor (e.g., stuffing envelopes, making photocopies, or fetching coffee), such work may constitute exploitation and is therefore to be avoided.

Note that it isn’t the lack of payment that makes some unpaid internships ethically questionable or flat-out wrong. When an organization offers a useful experience to a young person that he or she might not be able to get any other way, the knowledge or skills that are gained may legitimately take the place of a paycheck, college credit, or other tangible benefit.

I speak from experience. During the spring break of my junior year in college, I spent the entire week as an intern for a physician at the University of Pennsylvania. Although I had little contact with that doctor, I had my first taste of doing professional research, and I loved it. I didn’t mind that I wasn’t being paid, or even that my week was spent in a library rather than at the beach. The passion I had for doing such work continues to this day.

The Do’s and Don’ts for Managing the Unpaid Intern

If you’re considering bringing interns aboard this summer and not paying them, here are some guidelines for doing so ethically:

DO make sure the intern is going to gain something genuinely useful. Going on sales calls, learning how to use PR tools, and being part of discussions with you and other managers about your business are just some of the things that can be meaningful to someone who is considering going into your line of work.

DON’T have interns do menial labor if you’re not going to pay them for it. Having your interns regularly refill the coffee pot or run errands is taking advantage of your power over them and may even be illegal. As employment law expert B. David Joffe of the law firm Bradley Arant Boult Cummings told me: “Under the Fair Labor Standards Act, the Labor Dept. generally takes the position that it is not permissible for an individual to volunteer his or her services to a for-profit employer.” (Joffe also noted that in certain circumstances, students obtaining training are not considered to be employees and thus are not covered under the FLSA.)

DO express your gratitude often. It’s always the right time to say thanks.  Even if you can’t pay your interns, you can still do something nice for them, such as take them out to lunch from time to time, give them gift cards, or something else along these lines. Of course, such gestures apply to everyone on your team.

DON’T be so sure about taking on a friend’s son or daughter. Dual relationships are sticky, and you may find your friendship compromised if the internship doesn’t work out. Nepotism is common, but that doesn’t mean it’s good for business or good for you.

DO make it clear early on to the intern what he or she can expect to accomplish through the experience and what won’t be on the agenda.

Bottom line: Unpaid internships have gotten a bad rap, and in many cases, for good reason. But by the example you set, you can show the business world that not only is it possible to do these the right way, but that everyone wins when such arrangements are founded on the ethical principles of respect and fairness.

This article was originally published in Bloomberg Businessweek.

Watch my ABC News interview on this topic here.