Can I Use Unpaid Interns?

Can I Use Unpaid Interns?

It’s a complicated question, but more often than not the answer is NO.

Well-structured internship programs benefit both interns and employers. By participating in these valuable on-the-job learning opportunities, interns augment their work experience, hone important work skills, and develop their career goals. In turn, internships give employers access to a pool of motivated individuals who bring fresh thinking and innovation to their workplaces.

Interns are generally students or recent graduates who work on a full- or part-time basis and perform work for an employer that is relevant to their degree program. Internships in the “for-profit” private sector are most often viewed as an “employee” and subject to minimum wage requirements under the FLSA.

There are some circumstances under which individuals who participate in “for-profit” private sector internships may do so without compensation. Refer to Internships and the FLSA to determine if your intern program may meet the definition of a trainee program.

Unpaid internships in the public sector and for non-profit charitable organizations are generally permissible.

What about unpaid co-ops?

Cooperative education, commonly known as a "co-op", is a structured method of combining classroom-based education with practical work experience. A cooperative education experience provides academic credit for structured job experience.

Cooperative learning falls under the umbrella of work-integrated learning (alongside internships, service learning and clinical placements) but is distinct as it alternates a school term with a work term in a structured manner, involves a partnership between the academic institution and the employer, and generally is both paid and intended to advance the education of the student.

Unpaid co-op arrangements may be possible if the program meets the above FLSA definition of a “trainee program.” The work must be viewed as an extension of the individual’s educational experience versus performing productive work that benefits the employer.

Similar to internships, unpaid co-ops in the public sector and for non-profit charitable organizations are generally permissible.

Can someone ‘volunteer’ their time to work for my company?

It is unlikely that a for-profit business would meet the criteria for a volunteer. According to the DOL, an unpaid volunteer is: an “individual who performs hours of service….for civic, charitable, or humanitarian reasons, without promise, expectation or receipt of compensation for services rendered.”

To determine whether an individual is a true volunteer engaged in “ordinary volunteerism,” the DOL considers a number of factors. No single factor is determinative. The factors include:

  • Is the entity that will benefit/receive services from the volunteer a nonprofit organization?
  • Is the activity less than a full-time occupation?
  • Are the services offered freely and without pressure or coercion?
  • Are the services of the kind typically associated with volunteer work?
  • Have regular employees been displaced to accommodate the volunteer?
  • Does the worker receive (or expect) any benefit from the entity to which it is providing services?

A volunteer position is likely to be regarded as “ordinary volunteerism” and safely exempt from the minimum wage requirements of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) if you can answer “yes” to the first four questions and “no” to the final two questions.

It is unlikely that a for-profit business would meet the above criteria, and therefore should carefully consider the legal ramifications of using an unpaid “volunteer” that may in fact meet the definition of an employee. Misclassification of an employee can give rise to a variety of liabilities.

FINAL THOUGHTS: When in doubt, always pay minimum wage!

Solvere HR Consulting provides powerful HR solutions that optimize your organizational capability and profitability through your most valuable asset -- your employees.



4 Reasons Why Effective Job Descriptions Add Value to Your Business

4 Reasons Why Effective Job Descriptions Add Value to Your Business

Effectively developed job descriptions are communication tools that greatly contribute to your organization's success. Poorly written employee job descriptions, on the other hand, add to workplace confusion, hurt communication, and may leave employees unsure of what is expected from them. Further, having a written description of duties accomplishes many important things that protect your business and positions you for success:

1)     Legal Protections. If a dispute arises over job duties, the job description will be used to settle the matter. An accurately written job description may avoid potential lawsuits and defend a termination decision for an employee who did not satisfactorily meet the requirements of the job.

2)     Reward & Recognition. Clearly defined roles and responsibilities provide the basis for employee reviews, salary increases, setting goals, and growth paths. Employers also use job descriptions during evaluations for raises, promotions and recognizing employees that go above and beyond.

3)     Employee Compensation. A job description serves as a reference guide when determining comparable industry salaries and helps maximize dollars spent on compensation for the position by ensuring experience and skills needed for the job are detailed.

4)     Recruiting the Right Talent. Job descriptions provide the foundation for effective job advertisements and developing interview questions that ensure you are screening and selecting candidates with the skills and experience necessary for the position.

“Other Duties as Assigned” is the most important element of a job description.

Make certain employee job descriptions have enough flexibility so individuals can "work outside of the box." Ideally, employers are hiring highly motivated and skilled employees who are eager to do more than just their assigned tasks. But not all workers are as dedicated to their jobs or the companies. Employees who refuse to do more than their job description specifically states can create avoidable headaches for their employers.

By including “other duties as assigned” to a job description, the employer has flexibility to add new tasks to the position as needed. You want people who are comfortable taking reasonable chances and stretching their limits. You don't want to encourage people to think "that's not my job."

Finally, job descriptions should always include an “Employee Signature” at the bottom. All employees should sign to demonstrate acknowledgement of their job description. Signed copies should be retained in the employee file.



Reward and recognition should be individualized to be effective. What motivates one team (or person for that matter) won’t be as effective for another. It’s worth the effort to find what motivates each of your people. Further, consider that not all employees appreciate a public display of recognition. It’s equally as important to find out HOW they like to be recognized in addition to learning WHAT type of rewards motivate them. Asking these questions in the form of a survey is a very effective method to gather the intel you need.

Reward and recognition doesn’t have to be expensive! In fact, sometimes it’s the most basic forms of appreciation that make the biggest difference. When crafting your rewards and recognition programs, also consider what is in-line with your company values. Some types of rewards will map directly back to your company culture. And the way you recognize your employees should line up too.

Here are 10 effective and FREE ways to recognize your employees:

  • A sincere “thank you” and handshake face-to-face.
  • Write a personal note specifying exactly what the employee did that you want to recognize.
  • Recognize a job well done in a meeting or get others involved in applauding the great work.
  • Send a shout-out around in your company’s blog, private social site or other public social media channel.
  • Mention an employee’s success story in a presentation, webinar or even in the company newsletter.
  • Give a long lunch, an extra break or a get-out-of-work-free day.
  • Offer a stretch goal or even let an employee take on a more managerial role—like a team lead.
  • Arrange for the CEO or other top manager to stop by and say, “Great job on _________!”
  • Offer extra flexibility or more chances to work from home if desired.
  • Create a “Wall of Fame” or white board where you display what employees do that’s extraordinary.

Employee Handbooks Aren’t Just About Policies

Employee Handbooks Aren’t Just About Policies

Employee Handbooks are the backbone of an organization’s culture and guiding principles. More than just policies, they should tell the story of who you are and describe the motivations and priorities that drive your business. Many employers mistakenly think a Handbook only serves the purpose to ensure legal compliance….but that’s not what is most important about a Handbook!


The policies you establish are what align your employee behaviors, organizational philosophy and leadership expectations. An Employee Handbook is like having a rulebook for sports. It defines your company’s boundaries, gives ground rules and explains what is and is not considered acceptable behavior internally and externally.

Legal protections. Of course, Handbooks also protect the company and ensure your policies are compliant with federal and state requirements. While a handbook can’t protect you from being sued, it can provide documentation that can help protect you if you are. For instance, if your handbook explains how overtime is calculated you may be able to use your policy as documentation to help protect yourself and your company in the event of an accusation.


Review contents annually. The employment landscape changes frequently, as such employers are encouraged to review and update their Employee Handbook every year. Avoid creating such detailed policies that require more frequent updates to the Handbook making the process overly burdensome.


It’s not enough to just update the contents each year. You must make sure your employees are aware of your policies and that you review them with your employees every year. Employers are encouraged to provide employees a copy of the Handbook upon hire and every time you update it. Always have them sign an acknowledgement that it was received.


Don’t have a Handbook? It’s time to build one. Think there is a stigma with the name? Call it something fresh, like a Culture Book. No matter what you call it, having a documented set of guidelines that direct your employee’s behavior and allows you to hold them accountable is a win-win!

5 Ways to Disengage Your Workforce

Employee engagement is defined as “the relationship between an organization and its employees.” Like all relationships, they must be built on a foundation of mutual trust and respect with a healthy dose of give and take. How much you put into it, is what you will get out of it.

The statistics on the success of companies with a highly engaged workforce are staggering, so why do some organizations still struggle to find the employee engagement sweet spot?

Here are 5 common pitfalls that will quickly diminish your relationship with your employees:

Ask for their opinion, then do nothing with it.

Most companies use engagement surveys, focus groups, even the old-school suggestion boxes to solicit input from their workforce. Then what? Soliciting input from your employees only matters if you do something with it in a timely manner. That is the differentiator between soliciting input and creating an environment where their opinion truly matters.  

Don’t launch a survey or focus groups unless you are willing to communicate the results and commit to actions based on the feedback. Similarly, create a two-way suggestion box mechanism allowing you to visually share the suggestion and your direct response to it (ex: new carpeting in the break room is a great idea, we’ll evaluate the cost during 2018 budgeting). 

Employees will never feel “heard” unless you tell them what you are doing with the information they gave you.

Forget what it’s like to be in their shoes.

You were there once……young, enthusiastic, hungry to learn, eager to share. You had valuable insights and input to share with your leadership--ideas for new products and services, new more efficient ways of doing things—that’s how you gained credibility, respect and climbed the ladder.

They have the same to offer you.

Don’t underestimate the value of your front-line. They are closest to your products and/or services and more importantly your customers. As such they are in the position to be most knowledgeable and have incredibly insightful feedback to bring to your business.  

‘Pinball Machine’ leadership.

Have you ever experienced a leader that made quick, knee-jerk decisions, then turned around the next week to revisit/tweak the idea, then the following week canned the idea it all together? Complete waste of time, energy and resources…and worse, loss of credibility. There is nothing more frustrating than working for an organization that operates like a ‘pinball machine’.

Be thorough and thoughtful in your decision making. Even if it slows the process down a smidge, it will ensure you are optimize the valuable time of your employees, get the results you desire and gain you far more credibility in the long run.

Failure to communicate.

Failing to communicate (whether intentional or forgetful) creates space for doubt and mistrust. In the absence of having all the facts, employees will try to fill in the blanks and share their theories with one another. And so the grapevine begins…

Control your grapevine by providing your employees with the information directly. Don’t leave it to peers, colleagues, or media to inform and educate your employees on the happenings of your business.

Employees are your most valuable asset and your worst enemy in the communication chain. You choose which role they will play!

Never get comfortable.

Your relationship with your employees is a constant cycle of dating – actively learning about one another, all the while wondering if this will be a long-term fit. It may be a committed relationship for a period of time, but there is no “til death do us part.”

Relationships are hard work and require constant attention. If you get too comfortable and complacent, it will inevitably end in a breakup.


Solvere HR Consulting provides powerful HR solutions that optimize your organizational capability and profitability through your most valuable asset -- your employees.

Learn more at