Going Once. Going Twice. Sold: Internships on the Auction Block

With the recent headlines shining a light on the corporate exploitation of interns, it’s shocking to me that some firms are auctioning off internships in the name of philanthropy. Imagine, a wealthy family of a college student or recent grad actually “making a donation” to get their kid’s foot in the door.

It’s true. Big name movie studios, glamorous fashion houses, private academic institutions, and highbrow publishing companies are just some of the many organization that have auctioned off internships — paid or unpaid — via Charitybuzz.com, the online auction house.

According to an article in U.S. News and World Report, internship auctions have “… brought in big money. In fact, one posting billed as the ‘ultimate intern experience’ gave one bidder a 12-week-long internship … for $85,000, making it the most expensive internship ever sold on the site.”

Some of these internships are really job-shadow experiences while others are actual hands-on work. Regardless, these internships are appearing on the resumes of those wealthy enough to afford steep donations, which are generally $1,500-$5,000 in value.

The first question that comes to mind: When they interview for their first “real jobs,” do these privileged students reveal the fact that their internships were unearned? The answer: Of course not!

Here are five other questions to ponder with regard to internship auctions:

  1. Whatever happened to equal opportunity in the workplace?
  2. Are the “socially responsible” firms offering these internships really benefiting society at large?
  3. Does money matter more than merit when exposing potential talent to the inner sanctum of these prestigious firms?
  4. What are the legal implications of this practice?
  5. Are organizations unintentionally sending out the wrong message and hurting their brand in the process? (I say YES!)

According to the Associated Press, 53 percent of recent college grads are jobless or underemployed. Many who secured good educations, worked hard in college, and graduated to find that the job market now demands focused, lengthy, industry-related work experience, without which they cannot land meaningful work. By offering internships strictly on the basis of wealth, participating companies are implicitly favoring those who can afford it and excluding a huge number of students who don’t have the same means.

Don’t forget, even without “buying” the internship outright, it’s the wealthy students with well-connected families who are far more likely to land — and able to afford — an internship. After all, it’s hard enough for most young adults to financially stay afloat, especially when working an internship that is low or unpaid. But many struggle to make ends meet because these opportunities enable them to secure a real career down the road, in areas like politics, the arts, journalism, and the glamour industries.

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And what about merit? These auctions are most certainly filtering out young people with talent, creativity, and ambition while accepting the unvetted offspring of fat cats with wallets to match. Zack Weisberg is the publisher of The Inertia, an online surfing publication that auctioned off an unpaid, two-week internship this year. He acknowledged that money does not equate with talent. When questioned about the quality of the “pay to play” intern, Weisberg said, “I think that there clearly are some concerns to consider.”

Here’s something else to consider: The law. According to employment attorney Katherin Nukk-Freeman, Esq, “The idea of an employer posting an unpaid internship on a website like Charitybuzz.com to be given to the highest bidder raises potential issues under the Federal Fair Labor Standards Act as well as state law. Given the recent surge in wage and hour litigation arising from unpaid internships at for-profit companies, employers should review their intern payroll practices and consult with legal counsel prior to using a site like Charitybuzz.com to implement an unpaid internship program. Posting such an unpaid position serves to broadcast the fact that the employer may not be complying with the relevant laws.”

Aligning a company’s brand with this practice can do more harm than good. Certainly, an auction on Charitybuzz.com could be perceived as an act of goodness, which I’d like to believe is at the heart of these fundraisers. However, auctioning off an internship could easily be perceived very differently:

  • The firm does not believe in equal opportunity.
  • The firm’s leadership and decision makers are out of touch with the masses.
  • The firm does is not selective about the talent they welcome into their fold.

As a result of these perceptions, many are left with an impression that companies auctioning off internships — companies we respect — may not support the ideals and values that we thought they stood for.

The takeaway here: Companies looking to raise funds for the important work done by charities should find an alternative to auctioning off internships. Perhaps they could take a cue from other firms who choose to auction off other business-related perks like executive lunches, power meetings, coaching, or strategy sessions. After all, the efforts supported by a brand should be appropriate for its organizational objectives and values. Corporate HR leaders and executives of every company should take a close look at their charitable activities to ensure that they can’t be misconstrued.

Gail Tolstoi-Miller is the CEO and chief staffing strategist for Consultnetworx, a national consulting and staffing firm. In addition, she is the CEO of SpeedHIRE, the only nationwide targeted invitational recruiting event organization.

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