Ethics Pop Quiz: “What’s Unethical About Auctioning Intern Positions?”

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…]

Time’s up!

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.

6 thoughts on “Ethics Pop Quiz: “What’s Unethical About Auctioning Intern Positions?”

  1. First, spot on.

    Second, I don’t think if you were auctioning off “An Experience” that it would be a good idea to call it an “internship”. Perhaps “An Apprenticeship” would be more appropriate?

    “Be Donald Trump’s Apprentice for a Day” as an example would certainly be an experience and something that would raise good money for charity. I think it could even be acceptable, and the duration doesn’t have to be limited to a day. However, there most certainly are limitations.

    1) The apprentice would have to find value in the experience, the subject matter, and the person being the Master.
    2) Everything the apprentice does is to create value for themselves first. Profit/Loss is secondary.
    3) Everything the apprentice learns, they can take and re-purpose for their own uses.

    These 3 factors make up the “Value” in such an experience and contribute to the auction price that is paid.

    Without the 3 factors, it is simply an exploitative un-paid internship.

  2. What is really being sold here is the personal contact with a bigshot so that the intern can get a job in the industry. This effectively keeps the wrong type of person (poor) from getting jobs in an industry whose business model is to take large sums of money from artists to allow the artist to be famous.

    It may be easier to see the problem with this if we look at another story in the news this week. The Mayo clinic is taking the federal government to court to claim that medical residents shouldn’t pay income tax. They misrepresent the residents as students instead of the licensed physicians that they are. The residents are taking a relatively low-paying position in order to get further on-the-job training. They are not students, however. They are not getting another degree or taking any courses, they are not paying tuition and they are being paid. They are having to pay back their student loans.

    The interns in the current case are not enrolled in classes with Richard Branson, they are not getting a degree from him. They will be making him coffee and handling his personal schedule. They are working for him and paying for the privilege to do so as a sort of hazing/gatekeeper function of their field.

    As for apprentices, they are not apprentices. Despite the show with the same name, real apprentices are regulated (normally by the state) with hours, training requirements, and exams. Once their apprenticeship is up, they can take their exams and be licensed to work in their field (hairdresser, electrician, plumber, etc). Real apprenticeships still exists and Donald Trump just flatters himself in purporting to be a self-proclaimed “master” who will teach and certify others in whatever it is he does.

  3. This to me is not only unethical, but it is the continuation and expansion of our culture’s evolution of stratification, 2 tier, pay to play, elite vs serfdom direction in which we seem to be heading. Which is – what else is new? Now they are just more blatant. Time was you’d post an intern position, there’d be X number of applicants, you’d interview the top ten qualified based on resumes, then pick the most attractive based on personal preference.. ( hah ) –

    Now, it’s whomever’s daddy can afford the highest bid… if that’s not an open door invite for class warfare, what is?

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