Internships: Exploitation or creating valuable ambassadors?

“She made over $100 million last week and is number two at the world’s largest social networking site. But Facebook’s chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg has been slammed by an army of angry commenters after advertising for an unpaid intern at her community organisation Lean In,” reported recently.

The Lean In organisers might have been thinking that they were giving a young person “a great opportunity to learn, grow and develop”, and ultimately giving the successful candidate experience and a ‘leg up’ in the competitive world of graduate recruitment. The intention might have been good – but the impact on Sheryl’s personal brand was devastating.

More recently, Eric Glatt, a board member of Fair Pay Campaign, chose to sue Fox Searchlight Pictures Inc on behalf of the unpaid interns who contributed to the $300 million success of the movie Black Swan – he claims it has become a “normal” practice in Hollywood for producers to try to manage cost overruns by using unpaid labour interns – on the promise that their resume will stand out from others, and they are more likely to achieve future job success.

So have internships moved from the notion of education and gaining experience to one of exploitation?

In Australia internships are called ‘work experience’ and the Fair Work Act of 2009 covers such employment arrangements. There are a number of criteria used to determine if the engagement forms a legitimate internship:

  • Benefit to the individual
  • Commercial gain for the company
  • Period of placement
  • Relationship to a course of study

In Canada internships are often called ‘co-ops’, and there is no national regulation governing them. Ontario for instance has a six-point test to determine if an employee-employer relationship exists, and there has been much debate on this subject in Canada in recent years.

In the UK it is just as complex – with some employers paying interns (often called a ‘sandwich placement’) and others not. Organisations such as the Trades Union Congress and Intern Aware have been lobbying for a change in British internships to make interns aware of their employment law rights, especially in relation to whether they are entitled to minimum wage and paid holidays.

All this being said, now meet Kate…

I have known Kate for at least five years – she came to RedBalloon seeking the experience she required to complete her Bachelor Degree in marketing. The first time she came to the company for her internship was for one day a week for four months – to observe how a marketing team worked. She was very much treated as part of the team and included in all company activities. Over the years she returned to us on many ‘internships’ – she became a casual employee and her contribution was always valued as she worked across many teams.

After completing her degree in her chosen field of marketing, she began seeking employment and at each interview she found herself comparing the potential employer to her experience at RedBalloon and asking the question: “Is this the company for me?”

Kate (far right) on a recent company trip to Port Douglas.

For more than half a decade Kate has been an absolute advocate of RedBalloon and she now works full time as a Customer Happiness Consultant. She speaks openly to her friends and family about her experience as an intern. This is what she wrote a few years back as a comment to another post I wrote called Trust Takes Time:

Hi Naomi

I just wanted to let you know how much your blog from yesterday struck a chord with me.

As you know, I joined RedBalloon as a teenage intern in my second-year of uni. RedBalloon was my first office and, three years later, I am still here! I didn’t have too much experience in the workforce, but the thing I noticed about RedBalloon so early on was the thanks I received – no matter how small the task. I had previously worked as a waitress in a couple of restaurants and bars where I rarely felt appreciated for all the hard work I had put in. It may not seem like a lot, but to an 18 year old, it made such a difference to me and my day and gave me the incentive to work harder!

On the topic of trust, I was paid cash in hand at one job and didn’t receive my tips. If I was lucky they gave me $2 as a bonus and kept the rest for themselves. I came to RedBalloon and was surprised I was paid fairly and thought maybe this is how the real world works. The company changed the way I perceived what ‘work’ was and, as you mentioned, successfully rebuilt my trust in authority.

Just thought you should hear first-hand from an employee whose experiences match some of those mentioned in your blog!

So THANK YOU Naomi for creating an organisation that changed my perception of the workplace.


There is no doubt that RedBalloon provided valuable experience for Kate’s resume, but there is also no doubt that RedBalloon received a commercial benefit from having her with us. Young people need a break, and businesses need a strong employer brand – so I say for the sake of a few dollars it can be a match made in heaven where both benefit greatly.

I checked in with fellow entrepreneur Andrea Culligan CEO Harteffect (an employer branding agency in Canada and Australia) and she concurred: “Companies are competing headlong to get the best graduates … and word travels fast. If an ‘intern’ is treated with respect and feels valued by his or her employer they’re likely to speak highly of them – and as such all the work the employer does in attracting great talent to their brand will resonate so much louder. Authenticity is what graduates want from their employer and it starts with treating interns fairly.”

Many young people are too timid to ask to be paid, but it is the role of employers to protect our brands, to treat young people with respect and to develop wonderful future employees.

Naomi Simson has received many accolades and awards for the business she founded,, including the 2011 Ernst & Young National Entrepreneur of the Year – Industry.


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