Bullish Q&A: What to Do When Your Internship is Probably Illegal?


I’ve been working with a photographer for about 2 months and while I’m learning things, a lot of what I’m doing is mostly just work for her that isn’t super helpful for me and I’m pretty sure that I’m being taken advantage of (though I don’t think this is intentional on her part). She’s really disorganized and has a lot going on in addition to being a parent.

When I took the internship I was under the impression that there was a team and I’d be learning by watching what everybody was working on and asking questions. In reality, a lot of the days I’m just working with her. I’ve been working really long hours (some days 12 hrs+), and I’m doing a lot of what I’d consider actual productive work rather than learning – establishing an LLC for her, finding clients, putting up my own money and then being paid back by her… Oftentimes, I’ll start working on a project that ends up being stalled because I either lack knowledge, direction, or access to important documents. The lack of organization means that there’s a TON of wasted time.

I have another job that I’m responsible for and I also need to have my own time for exercise and studying for the exams I need to take. However, I started looking into the internship hiring process, and came across the legal requirements for unpaid interns, and I’m pretty sure my internship is in violation of pretty much every single requirement.

Additionally, I talked to her recently about adjusting my schedule because I need time for the other areas of my life and she asked whether or not I could take a break from my other job (!), and asked how important finishing my degree is to me and asked if I could postpone my studies (!!).

I feel like I’m in a tight spot now because this internship is a huge foot in the door for me.

I have no idea how to approach this subject with her in a way that doesn’t sound accusatory. Lately, I’ve just been kind of avoiding dealing with things and not returning her calls on weekends and after hours. I don’t feel like avoidance is the best course of action, but I don’t know what to say. Help!


Hey there. You already know that this internship is technically illegal. But these regulations are rarely enforced in any industry. And by “enforced,” I don’t mean that the feds come knocking and demand that interns be paid – I mean that interns can sue their employers and sometimes win (see the Black Swan lawsuit, and here is a law firm that specializes in this). In general, there’s not much point in suing a small business that you already know doesn’t have a lot of money.

It’s true that the U.S. Department of Labor guidelines under the Fair Labor Standards Act stipulate that “the employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the intern.” It’s also true that a culture of unpaid internships makes it hard for people without family money to break into various professions.

But expecting these guidelines to be strictly followed by a small business is naive. That doesn’t mean you should allow yourself to be exploited. Let me explain.

Managing an intern – or anyone – is a hell of a lot of work. You have discovered this firsthand. (“Oftentimes, I’ll start working on a project that ends up being stalled because I either lack knowledge, direction, or access to important documents. The lack of organization means that there’s a TON of wasted time.”) I personally am guilty of requesting that my (paid) virtual assistant do tasks for which she does not have the passwords. Managing is work, and it’s a lot for someone who is already struggling in their business.

For this reason, a company offering an unpaid internship from which they derive “no immediate advantage” actually means that the company loses money, because managing interns is work, and managers command high salaries.

So a large company might offer a perfectly legal and educational unpaid internship program for some social purpose – for instance, to encourage more minority students to enter a profession.

But almost no one would offer such an unpaid internship just to help … people. In general. Who want training. For themselves.

When you take an unpaid internship for a small business, I think you should have a common sense understanding that the small business plans to benefit from it – you make the call whether the benefit to you is a fair trade. Do you benefit as much as they benefit, or enough to make the experience worthwhile? That’s for you to decide, and that’s a relationship you need to manage on an ongoing basis.

You say in your letter that your boss, who does not pay you, is not allowing you time to exercise.

That’s absurd. You need to set boundaries. If you use this situation to learn to either set boundaries and preserve this relationship, or gracefully withdraw from the position, you will have in fact learned quite a great deal from this internship (paradox!)

With any unpaid internship or volunteer position, you say what you are willing to contribute. You can say, “I’m available to give two full days a week to this,” or “I bartend in the evenings, so how about I come in before that – say, weekdays 12-4pm.”

You can also set boundaries on your unpaid work by offering to take one or just a few specific tasks off the manager’s plate. This makes the manager’s job a bit easier, because there’s a lot less to manage if you take responsibility for one thing than if you show up at odd hours and need to be told what to do and how to do it. It’s fine to say, “I’m available to assist on photoshoots as many as three days per week, but administrative work is not a good fit for me.” Or, more positively, “Administrative work is not a good fit for me, but I’m available to assist on photoshoots as many as three days per week.” (Notice how the exact same thing sounds much better when you put the negative part first and the positive part at the end!)

The less organized the program is, the more this is necessary. Conversely, if you get an unpaid internship as part of a well-developed educational program, or at a large company that actually has a history of hiring its interns afterwards for paying jobs, then you probably need to do exactly as they say if you choose to take the internship. But when working for an individual running a scrappy small business, there isn’t a “program” at all – this is just one overburdened person who found a way to get some free help, and she’s going to ride that train as long as she can.

I don’t think it’s unreasonable that your boss asked you to set up her LLC and help find clients. That’s GREAT experience for anything. However…

Asking you to front your own money and get paid back is pretty trashy, unless it’s just Starbucks and she pays you back the same day. And of course: Suggesting that you quit your degree program is beyond insane. Badgering you with phone calls on a Saturday night is not okay. Asking you to cut back on paid work to work for her for free is ridiculous.

Even if you were being paid, this boss is just abusive, and getting overly personal.

I suggest politely but firmly giving notice. Don’t write a passive-aggressive email and disappear. (I’ve just learned that in Australia, they have an expression: Take a concrete pill and harden the fuck up. So much better than “big girl panties.”)

Go into work, work your normal day, and a couple hours before leaving tell her you want to talk to her before you go. Tell her this will be your last week. You can say, “I’ve learned a lot, but this job isn’t a fit for me anymore,” or “It’s time for me to move on.” Want to sound really businessy? “It’s time to close out this engagement.”

Use language that implies that you are peers. Not “You have been exploiting me” or “This isn’t fair” or “I asked if I could have an exercise break and you said no” or “I really need to study, why can’t you understand that?” Don’t use language you used with your mom as a teenager. Just tell her, on a peer level, that the arrangement is no longer of mutual benefit, and you’ll be moving on. She doesn’t need to know your personal business.

Offer to post an ad for her to find a new intern. You can do a bit of a good deed by more accurately describing the internship for any newcomers to this party of discontent. If instead she tells you to get lost, get lost! While it’s polite to give two weeks’ notice at a conventional job (I think a couple of days is fine in a more informal situation), employers sometimes walk you right out of the building the moment you do so. That’s fine.

You are not indebted to this person at all.

If you want to use her for a reference but fear that you now will not be able to, work around it by writing up a “case study” about your work for her and adding it to a work portfolio on your website. (Please make a website.) Mention any big names you worked with on her behalf (did she shoot an ad for Sony or Coke or something?) Include any relevant photos, screenshots, etc. Quantify whatever you can. If she finds this page and objects, change it to “Photography Company in City, State” and obscure some details – then list the actual name of the company on your LinkedIn, where it is simply a fact on your resume.

Either future employers will see your work portfolio and not feel the need to call her up, or if they do call her up, they’ll be primed to see through her bullshit because they’ve already seen documentation of your ability to get a lot of shit done and document it.

I promise you, if you use this experience to learn to stand up for yourself, set boundaries, and diplomatically talk to superiors on a peer level, you will have learned more from this otherwise horrible experience than you would have at an “educational” internship where you would’ve been coddled and nurtured. It’s possible to be overnurtured so much that you have no natural defenses in the wild.

It’s good to learn to deal with people like this early on, before your livelihood is on the line, before you waste decades working for someone like this.

See also: DailyWorth: How and When to Work for Free