Although the weather this past weekend made summer feel far from reach, the start of March means it’s time for March Madness and….. Summer internship season!  We’ve done intern hiring for companies across all industries, stages, and sizes, and have seen one consistent thread throughout: there’s a lot of confusion about how to successfully hire and manage interns.

Interns can be incredibly impactful, and – particularly for smaller companies – can provide excellent leverage. But they’re also young, inexperienced, and sometimes create more work than they produce. The key to creating a good experience for your interns? Well, let’s start by understanding some fundamental “do’s and dont’s” to approaching your intern program.  Read on for our thoughts on the basics.

1. Can I ask potential interns whatever I want in interviews?

Your company is small, everyone wears sneakers to work, and the team talks about weekend escapades during lunch break. Thus, it’s important to vet out culture fits during your interviews, right? Definitely! Be as authentic to your culture as possible in your interview style with candidates. That being said: these are still college students, and they have certain expectations for what a “real company” looks, sounds, and feels like. We’d suggest meeting these expectations. Don’t reschedule the interview at the last second; stay (relatively) on topic with your inquiries; and perhaps check out the legal guidelines around what you can and cannot ask.  

 2. Interns are free labor, right?

The short answer: nope! The longer answer: it’s complicated, but don’t assume anything. When in doubt, check out this handy fact sheet from the Department of Labor about paid vs. unpaid internships.  (Two legal documents in one blog. Your lucky day, right?). There are 6 criteria that must be met to determine if interns are excluded from FLSA’s requirements, but the general gist is that unless an intern’s work does not take the place of an actual employee, does not provide immediate benefits to the company in addition to the intern, or provides educational credit, there’s a good chance they hit the minimum wage and overtime requirements.  Read the document here.

managing interns
You do not want a protest on your hands…

Also, for what it’s worth, hosting fully unpaid internships will severely limit your pool – you’ll only attract candidates who can afford to lose money for the summer. Try to at least make your interns “whole” (i.e. transportation, food, or housing stipends) and you’ll get a much more diverse set of options.

3. Should I just give my interns the admin work I don’t want to do, as it comes up?

There’s a few good reasons to answer “no” here.  First: if you’re hiring well (or through us!), your interns are bright, capable people with a different perspective from the rest of your team – and probably much more energy. You know what’s sure to sap a 20-year old’s enthusiasm and passion pretty quickly? Eight straight hours of Excel entry. Take advantage of the unique traits they bring to the office, and spend some time finding meaty projects that they’ll get excited about. One of our interns actually did all the research, planning, and execution to set-up this blog. Another became the “chief of staff” to our CEO for the summer. Turns out that kids these days are quite useful.

Managing interns
Be sure to teach them a thing or two…

Also – your interns have families, friends, college peers etc. They can be a rich source of organic marketing, both for your future talent stream and your product or service. Think of your interns as a mega-customer, of sorts. You want them to leave happy.

4. Can I become friends with my interns?

Sure, to an extent.  It can sometimes be easy to forget that college kids are not our peers, and interns are not always 21 years old.  Don’t ever put them in a position where you’re asking them to break the law – i.e. asking someone underage to buy/consume alcohol, do drugs, etc.  Seems like a no-brainer, but trust us, we’ve seen it all. Do a common sense check here.

And while we’re on the topic of common sense, let’s flag the big one: we strongly suggest avoiding romantic interactions with your interns. Even if your company doesn’t have well-defined policies around it (and perhaps you should!), dating a subordinate can lead to all sorts of weird office politics and negative implications that are best avoided. If you’re jonesing for a date, might we suggest J-swipe or Farmers Only? Or if you do happen to fall madly in love, wait until after the summer to profess it and live happily ever after.

5. Anything else I should be mindful of?

We’re almost done! A few more suggestions:

  • Set a good example. Don’t expect your interns to come into the office every day before 9 am if you typically stroll in at 9:45 am.
  • Don’t underestimate their potential. Although your interns have less experience than most employees, their fresh eyes and optimistic minds might be just what you need to streamline your UX or finally take that inefficient weekly meeting off the calendar.
  • Remember what it was like for you to be an intern – the Golden Rule totally applies here.  Take the extra 5 minutes to explain the call they just shadowed, include them in your meetings or brainstorming sessions, and make sure they have enough work to keep themselves busy.   Oh, and treating them to lunch every now and then goes a long way.

Now that you’re ready to be a perfect intern manager, it’s time to start hiring those interns!  Sign up at to learn more.