How Unpaid Interns Can Ask For Work That Pays

As soon as you start managing your career by hoping, you start heading down the non-promotable career path.

Suzanne Lucas

A reader writes: Dear Evil HR Lady, I am currently finishing my Master's degree at a prestigious university in London. I entered the Master's programme directly out of my undergrad. I'm a top student, and graduated cum laude with highest honours. I have some internship experience, and job experience working with children and teaching English, but because I am young, my experience is quite limited. I am looking for a full-time job when I graduate in September, and I am worried my boss is taking advantage of me as an intern rather than thinking about me as a potential hire.

[See 11 insider tips from the HR department.]

At my internship, I'm currently doing the same work as fully paid staff members- and members of the team often come to me for advice on how to solve problems. I am frustrated that I am still unpaid, but I don't know if I can do anything about this situation, as I agreed to intern for free. Can I approach the boss and ask to be put on a paid position, or do I just have to hope that things will work out? The company seems to really take advantage of the terrible economy, and eager students like myself who are willing to work for free. I wonder if I should write a letter expressing my desire to take on a full time role when I graduateor even letting him know that I would like to be paid nowor would that be too forthright for me to do?

You are still unpaid because you are still an intern and whatever time you negotiated for the internship to last has not ended. They haven't approached you about a job because they either don't have one they want to offer you (just because you're doing a good job doesn't mean they have room in the budget for a paid position), they don't want to hire you, or (very likely) they aren't thinking about it. Why? Because nobody cares about your career like you do.

[See why your boss can require you to wear pantyhose.]

As soon as you start managing your career by hoping, you start heading down the non-promotable career path. You don't want to be there at this stage of your career. So, yes, approach your boss, but don't do so by accusing him of taking advantage of free student labor. Do so by telling him how much you enjoy working there, and your internship is coming to a close and your graduation is nearing, and you are very interested in moving into a regular position at this company and then let him respond.

Your boss may not be watching the calendar, and may say, "Oh my word, is it August already?" and start the ball rolling on hiring you. Or he may say, "We just don't have any paid positions available, but we'd love to keep you on as an intern!"

[See the 4 big career potholes.]

Whatever you do, don't place all your eggs in this basket. Many internships lead to full-time jobs, but many do not. Don't sit on your hands waiting for an offer to materialize, because one may not.

But do speak to your boss about it. If there are open positions that you are qualified for at this company, start posting for them now. Don't wait for them to ask you. You need to ask them.

As for asking to get paid now, it would be nice, but if you agreed to the internship for a set amount of time and that amount of time isn't up yet, I wouldn't bother. If it was open ended, then what you're really asking for is a job, so see above.

Congratulations on your degrees and good luck on the job hunt.

Suzanne Lucas has nine years of human resources experience, most of which have been in a Fortune 500-company setting. She holds a Professional in Human Resources certificate from the Society for Human Resource Management. She blogs at Evil HR Lady.


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