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As we head into the new tertiary year – with thousands of young people starting at Universities – as employers we sit and wait – hoping that they will come out well rounded individuals ready to face the work world. Internships are a great way to get undergraduates ready for the world of work. News reports were scathing about Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In community project posting a note on Facebook for an unpaid intern in August 2013 – as I mentioned in my LinkedIn post last year.

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,” said

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 $300M 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.

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

This debate has gone on in other countries too.

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, and/or
  • relationship to a course of study

In Canada – internships are often called ‘Co-Ops’ and there is no national regulation governing them. At best each province as recommendations ie Ontario has a six point test to determine if an employee employer relationship does exist. 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.

This being said – now meet Kate, I have known Kate for at least five years and she came to RedBalloon as part of the experience required for her to complete her Bachelor Degree. The first time she came to RedBalloon 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 that is included in all company activities. Over the year at RedBalloon she returned many ‘internships’ – in fact in essence she became a casual employee, her contribution always valued and she worked in many teams. As part of her course she also went on exchange to Boston in the US too and had a very different work experience there.

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

For more than half a decade Kate has been an absolute advocate of RedBalloon – she speaks openly to her friends and family about her ‘experience’ at RedBalloon – “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 3 years later – I am still here! I didn’t have too much experience in the work force, but the thing I noticed about RedBalloon so early on was the “Thank Yous” 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. RedBalloon 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 her 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 an employer brand – so I say for the sake of a few dollars it can be a match made in heaven where both benefit greatly. At the bare minimum an intern should be reimbursed for his or her out of pocket expenses.

I checked in with fellow entrepreneur Andrea Culligan CEO Harteffect (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… it is the role of employers to protect our brands, to treat young people with respect and to develop wonderful future employees.

I look forward to the ensuing debate!

Image: Kate – far right starting her career as an intern with RedBalloon – she has most recently been promoted to RED [Recognition Every Day]

Reader Interactions


  1. Hi Naomi

    nice contentious topic! I suppose I tend to think of work experience as being something shorter length whereas when something’s a bit longer than I think pay is more in order.

    I met a lady in her mid-30s recently who told me she’d never had a job interview in her life. She’d always done work experience (I suppose there was some sort of ‘interview’ before she started) which had turned into paid work. One job had lead to another.

    It’s certainly beneficial for the employee trying to get experience to do some work experience. My wife ran several op shops (volunteer-based) and young people would often volunteer there for a while so they could build up their CV with experience in serving customers, handling cash etc. Virtually all of them ended up getting paid work from it.



  2. I every time spent my half an hour to read this website’s articles
    every day along with a mug of coffee.

  3. Interesting!

    When i was in university, I spent a semester as an unpaid intern at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. There, too, I felt like I was part of the team, but there were strict regulations on my hours and the time spent working on CBC projects — union rules stated that interns couldn’t take the work of a full-time employee, which is tough to define.

    Now I’m hiring interns in Australia, and the experience is vastly different. This is more like paid casual work with a timeframe, and it shows in the attitude of the people I’ve interviewed. Paying people for their work isn’t just good for the employees; it’s hard to do your best work and be your best self when you’re struggling to make ends meet, or when you feel like your work isn’t valued.

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