Are you ready to exercise those ethics brain cells?
The News Alert blog is reporting that the Huffington Post auctioned off an intern position for $9000, and another internship —three weeks of it with Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Atlantic Airways, and three weeks with hip-hop entrepreneur Russell Simmons — was auctioned off for $85,000, to benefit Simmons’s charity, Rush Philanthropic.
Question: Is there anything unethical about this, and if so, what?
[Play the “Final Jeopardy Theme” while you think this over…]
What did you decide?
Answer: It is unethical to have interns do substantive work without paying them, and it is more unethical to make them pay for the privilege of being exploited.
When a for-profit organization allows an intern to work without compensation, it is 1) taking advantage of workers desperate for experience, 2) skirting the minimum wage laws, and frequently 3) using unpaid interns to take a job that an unemployed worker could fill. If the internship has no real educational value and consists of medial tasks, it’s unfair to the intern for that reason too. The fact that someone agrees to be mistreated doesn’t relieve a person or an organization from the ethical obligation not to mistreat them. Just because you know you can get someone to work for unfair compensation doesn’t make the compensation fair.
Auctioning off the exploitive internship to the highest bidder just compounds the unfairness. The interns are now being chosen according to financial means rather than merit. Whether or not the money goes to charity, this is ethically indistinguishable from a bribe or a kickback. “Okay: we have ten good candidates for this internship. Who’s willing to pay the most for it? Cash only!” This method of choosing interns would be unethical for paid internships.
The tight job market for students and non-students create a buyer’s market, and within limits, companies are not being unethical to use the scarcity of jobs to keep costs down. Paying nothing for a workers’ time and talents, however, is never ethical for a profit-making company. Making them pay the company (or the company’s charity) for the privilege of being exploited and taking a paying job away from someone who can’t afford to work for free is indefensibly unfair, and an abuse of power.