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Unpaid internships are a fact of small business life. And for startups just getting off the ground, interns can be an incredibly valuable resource. Unfortunately, they can also be an incredible legal headache, costing you more in court than you would've spent on paid employees.
But it doesn't have to be that way. Here are five ways to avoid legal trouble if your startup is hiring unpaid interns:
Obviously, you need to know what you're getting into. And you've come to the right place to start. Make sure you know the legal requirements of an internship (including a learning curriculum, and clear distinction from normal employee duties) as well as the business pros and cons before you decide to bring on interns.
Next, you'll need to know you're bringing in the right interns. Clarify whether intern candidates are getting school credit for time spent in your office, and confirm their expectations for work, supervision, and (lack of ) compensation coincide with what your startup is offering.
Once they're in the door, run your internship program the right way. Make sure the internship is an educational experience, and don't have interns performing employee functions or displace paid employee for an unpaid intern just to save money.
Following steps 1-3 are a good start to avoid intern litigation. You might also want to make sure your internship program is well-documented -- from signed agreements before the internship begins to notices regarding the lack of wages and promise of permanent job after the internship ends.
And if you were unable to avoid an intern lawsuit, you may want to try and resolve it via mediation as opposed to a trial. Mediation and other alternative forms of dispute resolution can save your startup time, money, and good will.
If you're thinking of beginning an internship program at your startup, or have found yourself in legal trouble regarding an unpaid internship, you may want to contact an experienced employment attorney near you.
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