When To "Lean In" To An Unpaid Internship—And When Not To

The brouhaha over Sheryl Sandberg's nonprofit advertising for an unpaid internship raises an important question: Do unpaid internships ever really pay?

LeanIn.org, a nonprofit founded in concert with Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg's inspirational business best-seller for women, posted seeking an unpaid intern in New York.

The irony is rich: Sandberg is a billionaire who sold off $91 million worth of Facebook stock just this week and has a nonprofit that is dedicated to, according to its website, "offering women the ongoing inspiration and support to help them achieve their goals." The book, as well as the network of Lean In support circles Sandberg encouraged women across the country to create, is reportedly inspiring women to ask for more money at work. So, to recruit an unpaid intern may seem a little off-brand.

Indeed, LeanIn.org has since backpedaled. In a Facebook post yesterday, Rachel Thomas, president of the nonprofit, clarified, "We’ve had four students ask to volunteer with us...
As a startup, we haven’t had a formal internship program. Moving forward we plan to, and it will be paid."

But optics aside, here's the real question facing ambitious women and men: When is taking an unpaid internship actually good for your career? Are you willingly letting yourself be exploited when you lend your talents to a high-profile nonprofit like LeanIn.org, or is that a plum opportunity? What Would Sheryl Sandberg Do?

The answer depends on the industry, the organization, and your goals. Apply this multipart test to answer the question:

1) Is your desired field engineering, health care, mining, construction, skilled trades, manufacturing, agriculture, retail, transportation, law, finance, hospitality, food service, or education?

NO, don't work for free. Ironically, fields that don't require a college degree, are more likely to offer paid internships. Likewise, fields that are fast-growing or require special skills, like computer programming, finance, and petroleum engineering, tend to have internships that pay quite well. In fact, if there are paid internships available in a field, there are probably good job opportunities—and the converse is true as well.

2) Is your desired field related to media, entertainment, or the nonprofit sector? Could this be someone's dream job (the White House, Vogue)?

YES, you're probably working for free. As a last resort, look for a job with a big media company like Condé Nast or Hearst, a celebrity like Norma Kamali or Charlie Rose, or a major movie production studio like Fox Searchlight. That way, you can join a class action suit and try to get paid that way.

3) Do you want a quality, educational work experience and a chance at a real job later?

NO, don't work for free. Not surprisingly, paid interns have higher rates of satisfaction. And according to one study of nearly 700 employers, paid internships score higher on all measures of quality.

4) Do you want to be like Sheryl Sandberg?

NO, don't work for free. In Lean In she mentions being a "lowly summer intern" at consulting firm McKinsey & Co. McKinsey summer interns currently earn between $4,900-$10,000 a month.

[Image: Flickr user TechCrunch]

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  • Dominic Pannone

    The discussion regarding unpaid internships is getting completely out of hand. An internship is about getting training and experience for your eventual career - not to pay the rent. I have had a couple careers and both began with an unpaid internship that provided the skills to be hirable. It is not easy, but it will mean getting another job that will result in working 60+ hours a week between both internship and other job. Guess what - that is perfect preparation for most careers where you will be working 60+ hours.

    The real conversation should be about learning how to be in control of your intern experience and ensuring you get every possible benefit the internship affords outside of pay. Many times, if an intern is good they either get hired or if still in school get brought on for a "second internship" that usually is paid. To complain that internships should be paid is so shortsighted.

    Know your goal for your internship before starting. Working at a large firm may mean you get to put some of the biggest names of industry on your resume. Working at a smaller firm could provide the ability to do comparable work to that of a first year hire. Those in a class action lawsuit for "lost wages" during their internship have completely missed the boat. You are telling the industry you are in it just for the money. Whats better for your career, telling future employers you won a lawsuit or that you got to work on a well know indie film? If you truly are in a horrible internship, you can always quit, but that carries its own baggage and Id strongly advise making every effort to make it work before going to that extreme. 

    The experiences, networking and mentorship I have obtained at internships have been more valuable than any amount of pay. It is so important to have goals and know what experiences will "pay" a few years later in your career.

  • Chicago Nelly

    As a person who owns a small, well respected, online consumer website that's barely keeping its head above water, we value our interns.  We simply can't afford to pay them, but we give them all we can in attention, training, and go out of our way to keep them happy and learning valuable skills. We invite them to the parties and press events, share swag and gifts sent to us, and offer them introductions to people who will be in a position to offer them a real job in the future.  If we had the funds, we'd gladly pay them, they deserve it.

    On the other side of the coin, when I read about greedy people like Ariana Huffington who received over 300 million dollars for her site, and then proudly proclaims that the freelancers and interns "don't deserve" to be paid because she offers them exposure, while she became uber-wealthy from *their* work, it makes me ill.
    Sheryl Sandbeg's Leanin organization is right up there with the Huffington greed. Tell women to demand more money, have over 90 million dollars in your bank account and then expect interns to work for no pay? 

    Piggies, piggies piggies!

  • @kma

    I'd also wonder--will an employer invest in you if they don't pay you?  If they don't put any financial resources towards compensation in internship programs, they may not be putting anytowards mentorship, education or career development.  It's no skin off their nose if they get no meaningful short- or long-term work out of you.

  • Salar Khan

    3) The answer should be YES. In my experience, unpaid interns have more hands on interaction/are given more attention because they have no other incentive to stay (ie. a paycheck).

  • StNick

    False, as an intern your incentive to stay is that you want to get your university degree. This unpaid internship has taken such grotesque forms that currently, companies aren't even willing to pay graduated Masters. These people are then hired as unpaid 'trainees'. Because without the magical 2-5 years working experience, your degree is nothing even with the big names on your resume.

    It's even worse in design, where they expect you to do it because it gives you exposure. Someone should start a hall of shame for these types of firms. Exposure is not going to pay my next rent now will it?