How to avoid being exploited on an internship, by award winning author Jessica Pryce-Jones

As the first part of a series of blogs for Babe on women, leadership and the workplace


Jessica Pryce-Jones is founder and chair of the iOpener Institute for People and Performance. She’s writing a book and blogging for us about women, leadership and workplace issues. Here she explains how to avoid being exploited when interning and how to get the most out of your experience.

Getting paid for your internship

If you are doing an internship in the media, entertainment or fashion industries, you are much less likely to be paid and you are much more likely to be a woman. According to one study by Intern Bridge, a research and consulting firm, more than three out of four unpaid interns in these industries are women.

In the UK you are legally entitled to the minimum wage whether or not you have a contract, if any one of the following applies to you. And you are:

●Doing real work that is of value to your employer
●Doing work that would otherwise be done by a paid member of staff
●Having to work set hours
●Being left to work unsupervised
●Working to deadlines
●Managing other people

Yes, it’s scary to ask for what’s rightfully yours, but if you don’t, you do yourself down and ensure other young women won’t be paid either.

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Find out before you start

Ideally before you start your internship, you should find out what your tasks and duties are and what the compensation deal is. If the subject isn’t raised, bring it up yourself and ask ‘how do you remunerate your interns?’

This is also the time to negotiate, for example you can say ‘can I have £x when I have achieved y or when z has happened’? For example, ‘can you start to pay me £x when I have been here two months and I am working without supervision?’ Then you have a clear and defined sum of money, a time-line and a goal which no-one can argue with. Make sure that once this is agreed, you follow it up with an email confirming your conversation. Then you have evidence to go back with at a later date.

The worst that happens is that an employer says no. But everyone admires someone who’s ambitious even if they don’t like being asked for cash. But suppose you accepted an internship and were too intimidated or didn’t know you should clarify the situation. Then what?

Get your boss alone to have a conversation. Don’t talk about it in an open plan office because everyone will be listening in. If your boss tries to insist, simply say that you’d really appreciate a private one-to-one meeting. Here’s how.

Getting a one-to-one private meeting

Just be firm and polite. Hold the idea in your mind that you are going to get that meeting locked down. Here’s how it might go.

You: “Hi, I’d like to talk to you about how I’m doing, as well as your expectations and mine for the rest of the internship.”

Boss: “I don’t have time – let’s do it here and now.”

You: “I would really appreciate a private conversation so when might be better for you?”

Boss: “Next week.”

You: “When next week and where would suit you?”

Boss: “OK Tuesday at 9.30; can you sort out where we meet?”

You: “Sure, no problem.”

Then send your boss a meeting invitation so it’s in their diary.

How to prepare for your conversation

First of all, find out what the going rate is for the job you’re doing. If your colleagues will tell you what they are paid, so much the better. Otherwise check here. This knowledge should give you some righteous energy to ask for what you deserve.

I recommend asking for a commercial rate which is slightly above average; you can always reduce that number, but you can never increase it. If you start with the minimum wage, that’s all you’ll get. And if you need to write down what you’ll say to give yourself confidence, that’s fine. Remember to practice with a friend first so you know how it sounds simply saying the words. Like this.

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How to manage a salary conversation

You: “Hi, thank you for making the time to meet. I wanted to talk to you about how I’m doing and how I can be compensated for my work.”

Boss: “OK; I can see where this is going…” [Just ignore any sarcasm]

You: “I really love the job, appreciate the experience and can see how I am adding value to the team.” [Don’t say how much you are learning as it’s not relevant and you may get your inexperience thrown back at you.]

“What do you like about my work so far?” [Get your boss to talk positively about you and your achievements. It’s harder to reject a pay request after appreciating someone’s work.]

“I’m so pleased you like what I’ve done, especially x, y and z because I worked so hard on those tasks.” [Emphasise all the extra work and hours you put in.]

Then either say: “As I understood it, this was a paid internship. When can I expect a salary and what do we do about back pay?” [By saying ‘we’ you are making them help you solve this.]

Or try: “I need to talk to you about remuneration. I understand that at my level and with my responsibilities it’s reasonable to ask for £x.” [Don’t mention your colleagues by name if you know their pay; they won’t love you for it when it gets back to them.]

“I can’t afford to work for free and I’m so stressed about money that it’s affecting my work/health/sleep.” [Under HR law employers need to take this seriously.]

“In view of what I have achieved and the value I have added, I’m also asking for a month’s back pay.” [Use this as a bargaining chip which you can drop if you have to. If you get this extra month, whoop whoop.]

“Just to say again how much I love the job and how much I want to stay with you. But right now I can’t see how I can continue full time on no pay.” [There is a threat here. That’s fine. If you genuinely can’t afford to stay you should also tell your employer the date you will need to end your internship or go part-time.]

Then just be silent. Say nothing. The ball is now in their court. Don’t apologise for asking or say you are sorry for wasting their time; remember you are entitled to be paid. No-one would ask you to work in a factory for free. Count to 25 in your head. Yes, that’s 25 while you wait for an answer. Remember anyone worth their negotiating salt will pretend to fall off their chair with outrage about your demand. That’s how the game is played: just recognise it for what it is. But do not leave the room without a response or at least a date by when you will get one. And again, follow up with an email.

How to handle rejection

If you are turned down, be polite. If you have to look elsewhere for a job, say how disappointed you are and give your boss a leaving date. If you were bluffing, talk about your weekend work and how you’ll need to leave early to do shifts in a bar or café. And leave at 17.00. Why work all hours for someone who puts zero value on your time?