Internships: A Guide For Employers

What is an internship?

There are a whole host of different phrases uses to describe non-contractual work that offers graduates and young people the opportunity to gain experience within the work place. This could be school age ‘work experience’, university gap year placements or work placements for school leavers. Internships are largely understood to be associated with graduates entering the labour market wanting experience in a particular industry or profession.

The purpose of an internship should be to provide graduates with some meaningful experience that enhances their employability and skills. There are clearly good business benefits to a quality internship programme, for example cost effective recruitment of new and motivated staff, introducing new skills and perspectives to your organisation and improving your productivity.

Before starting to recruit an intern you should decide upon:

  • Length of internship, working hours and ideal start date.
  • Main duties of the intern.
  • Payment of salary or expenses (see later section on payment).
  • What teams or projects the intern will work on.
  • Any required qualifications.

Interviewing an intern

This section is really just to remind you that you are interviewing someone with little or no work history. Whilst you should follow the normal process that you would for recruiting a regular employee, you should bear in mind that they will not be able to answer questions on work related experience. Focussing your interview around generic work skills like problem solving skills, teamwork and communication will give you a broader understanding of whether your intern candidate is right for your business. 

Paying an intern – the law!

Although there are no specific laws on paying interns, the National Minimum Wage (NMW) Regulations could apply to internships. The principle of the legislation is that if someone is expected to undertake ‘work’ they are entitled to be paid at least the National Minimum Wage.   With interns, the definition of whether they are ‘working’ or not becomes a bit muddied by the fact that they could be classed as ‘volunteers’. Volunteers are not under any obligation to work, have no contract or formal arrangement and have no expectation of any reward besides their expenses being repaid. NMW Regulations do not apply to volunteers. 

In short if an intern is contributing to your company, has a list of duties and is working set hours, then technically they should be paid at least the National Minimum Wage.

There are exemptions for students who are taking on an internship as part of their college course and there are different rules for charity workers too.

You should take further advice on your specific situation before entering into an internship agreement. However don’t forget that if you are paying your intern, they will be subject to state deductions in the same way any other employee would be.


We do suggest that at a minimum you should cover the interns reasonable travel expenses so that they are not out of pocket by coming to work with you. By doing this you also open up a wider net of talent to choose from and also ensure that your intern is focussed and motivated to give you their best efforts. You should agree the exact level of expenses that you are prepared to pay before your intern’s first day.


As with all workers and staff, if the intern understands the environment they are in and the expectations you have of them, they will work better than if you don’t lay down the ground rules. Good induction is a key tool for all people within your business and interns aren’t any different. However you can apply a more simplistic approach in this situation. We would recommend that you should include:

  • Introduction to the company, products, services, culture and history.
  • How the company is structured with a list of names and job titles.
  • A brief introduction to the senior team as well as their line management and peers.
  • A physical tour of the building.
  • Description of lunch and break arrangements.
  • An outline of the role and your expectations in terms of quality of work, behaviour and communication.
  • Completion of an intern information form including any disabilities, medical requirements and emergency contact information.
  • Health and Safety information including fire procedure and first aid provision. (this section is a legal requirement for all staff).

Please remember that your interns are not experienced at going to work and so they may need briefing on good time keeping, sickness notification or other absences and the levels of professionalism that you require from all of your staff.

You should also allocate a mentor or line manager to the intern. This person can be their point of contact for any queries, questions or problems. There are times when your intern will get involved with a variety of work for a number of different teams or staff members. This is quite a fragmented way of working and can result in your intern getting bored or de-motivated so it is important that their days are managed efficiently with a central person helping to manage their time.

Feedback and References

We all need to know how we are we are doing. You should ideally set some set review dates during the internship to feedback on how they are progressing and what could be improved. One of the principles behind internships is for young people to learn how to go to work and they need our help in this. The intern should think about their own development and prepare for these meetings. They should be encouraged to tell you about their achievements and disappointments and discuss improvements with you. Reviewing performance is an essential part of anyone’s working life and is the only true way we improve and develop. You can set them objectives for the internship and measure them against these objectives if you want to. At the very least you should review the interns performance as a whole at the end of their time with you.

Ideally you should undertake an exit interview with your intern to seek feedback on the programme and invite suggestions for improvement. The intern’s line manager should conduct the review meetings but where possible an objective member of staff (eg HR) should conduct the exit interview.

Keep notes on these meetings as you may need them later on. It can be the case that interns come and go within your business and when you are suddenly asked for a reference for them, no one has any record or memory of how they performed. These notes will help you in putting together the vital reference when it is needed!

References can be given either on request or by way of a ‘to whom it may concern’ letter. Either way, your letter should be honest and constructive. You should not use a reference as a way of hindering your intern’s chance at a job but equally you need to tell the truth. If your intern has not worked well with your business and you don’t feel able to provide a positive reference, you should tell your intern that this is the case to avoid any uncomfortable requests in the future.

And finally

As with most areas of life, the more thought that you apply to planning your internship programme, the greater value you will receive from it! A flexible structure will help you with consistency and measurement. A larger business may well have these processes already in place but in smaller organisations you may need some help. Barclay Search can discuss this with you and ensure that you get the most out of your grads and your grads get the most out of you!

This insightful article has kindly been produced for Barclay Search by Libbey HR:                   020 7748 6972         

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