What do I need to know about hiring an intern?


My bootstrapped startup (Textaurant ) needs some help with market research. Since we're so close to two of my alma maters (undergrad is ~1 mile, grad is ~5 miles), I figured I would reach out to their career centers and see if I could bring on one or two students as interns for the spring semester.

Now that we've had a few interviews, I'm wondering if I'm missing anything. These are unpaid students, with no stock options, so from a compensation standpoint, there shouldn't be anything to sign. I figure having them sign an NDA is probably a wise decision on my part, but other than that, what documents should I be asking them to sign?

What other things do I need to consider? They won't be working on-site (we're a "virtual office" right now), so that's not an issue.

- Josh

Hiring Interns Employees

asked Jan 13 '10 at 03:10
Josh Sam Bob
1,578 points

6 Answers


Yes, definitely have them do an NDA + ensure that you own the right to any IP they create while working for you.

While career centers can be helpful, I'd suggest reaching out to professors you know and trust at your alma maters and asking them for personal recommendations for their top students who would fit your venture.

You should be looking at these interns as a terrific source of future employees - you each get a chance to "test drive" each other and you'll know if there's a good fit. In other words, only "hire" interns you think could be good employees down the road.

answered Jan 13 '10 at 03:26
Warren E. Hart
2,181 points


To echo fm, one thing I learned early was that defining the parameters of a task carefully enough that you can hand it over to someone who is not a company insider and get back the results you want is actually a lot of hard work. It can be almost as much work as doing the taks yourself, and it is definitely not a trivial task in terms of time committment.

There is a temptation with interns and temps to think that they are just coming to do one particular thing, so you don't have to do the same kind of on-boarding, orientation, enculturation and team-building with them that you would have to do with a new permanent employee. My experience suggests that we need to do a bit more of this on-boarding than is generally thought, especially if we want the interns to "get" the business, and care about the business.

The unspoken assumption when we think about bringing someone new on is that we are bringing them in to do the task, kind of assuming that they will serve the culture of the company by instinct. I have brought interns in and see them totally not get this. From their perspective, the internship is a bit of monkey-work they had to do in order to get their degree, and what really interested them was going on at school. Since they never got fully oriented to and aligned with the project we had them on, and since we needed them to do something fairly complex, we essentially had to undo everything they had contributed and re-do it. Net loss for us across the board.

Like when you hire a permanent employee, hiring a temp works best if you take the care to select the right person - lots of prior work, good references, etc. In movies, they say 90% of directing is casting! If you get the right person (screening carefully to do so), then the job may be largely done.

But if you only have a good candidate, and not a perfect match, then up-front energy spent on-boarding this person is key. Once they start producing, careful task definition and early supervision and monitoring again is needed to get them rowing in the right direction. Understand all this, and ask yourself if there really is so much work that you need another pair of hands on the team. If you really do need someone to do this, remember that the up-front hit of getting them started right is better than mopping up a mess after them.

Management science studies suggest that even though this above thinking about the importance of up-front attention is true, most of us will still not do it, make off-the-cuff decisions to bring in temps and interns, and play the more expensive game of mopping up afterwards, because of the short-term illusion of convenience of having someone new to throw ownership of a task at. It's a predictable irrationality of human decision-making. That momentary illusion is so relaxing/reassuring that we will actually create more work for ourselves down the line than to do things right from the start. Fight that tendency!

answered Jan 15 '10 at 01:40
Neil La Chapelle
51 points


+1 to Warren.

Also note that unpaid interns, although common practice, is actually illegal. A shame.

answered Jan 13 '10 at 04:26
16,231 points
  • Yes and no, Jason. From Mark's post: The employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the trainees and on occasion the employer’s operations may actually be impeded So if we derive no *immediate* benefit - i.e. they are doing market research, or something with only long-term benefits - then perhaps that's a loophole. – Josh Sam Bob 14 years ago


A a well-written NDA is crucial not just for interns, but for contractors and future employees as well.

As for interns, I'd be careful about what tasks you assign the students. I'd make a strong effort to have them work for course credit at their school. I'd also only take on students who are actually studying a field related to the work they'll be doing. Providing mentorship and feedback is also a positive factor.

The laws around unpaid interns are very murky and most need to be analyzed on a case by case basis. I do not happen to agree with Jason (though some believe on principle it is illegal) - I have not yet read any law or material indicating unpaid interns are illegal per se.

There are general guidelines and the most basic principle is that "you can't just label people interns so that you don't have to pay them" especially if they are doing work an employee should be doing.

Note: The information provided above is for general guidance on matters of interest only. The application and impact of laws can vary widely based on the specific facts involved. Given the changing nature of laws, rules and regulations, and the inherent hazards of electronic communication, there may be omissions or inaccuracies in the information provided. Accordingly, the information is provided with the understanding that I am not herein engaged in rendering legal or other professional advice and services. As such, it should not be used as a substitute for consultation with professional legal or other competent advisers. Before making any decision or taking any action, you should consult a professional.

answered Jan 14 '10 at 10:13
279 points


First, I'd agree with the others commenting that you definitely need a contract with you intern. I've e-mailed you a copy of the contract a startup I do marketing for, CareerNumbers, uses.

CareerNumbers has run an internship program for going on three semesters now, two of which I've shared significant responsibility for. Some of the most important things I've learned are:

  • Be aware of the knowledge you don't know you have, about your company and about the results you want. Giving interns the bigger picture, and figuring out the assumptions you have about their knowledge and making certain they're accurate, are key to setting reasonable expectations and avoiding communication difficulties.
  • Set clear, measurable goals, or have them do so themselves. Open-ended goals are a recipe for disappointment, and resentment of your disappointment.
  • As with all management, it's your job to give them the tools and point them to the resources they'll need to get things done.
  • Don't ask ifthey have questions, ask them whatquestions they have.

And finally, I'd really encourage you to reconsider them not-working on site. Showing that you're a credible business is really key to getting the best talent, some schools even have requirements for on-site work for students to receive academic credit, and it's excellent for improving communication and efficiency. Even if it's just meeting in a shared office a couple of times per week, it really makes a difference.

Best of luck!

answered Jan 15 '10 at 14:40
Jay Neely
6,050 points


From my personal experience with interns, just ensure that you won't give them a task which might affect your business or schedule.

In my experience most of the interns are pretty rubbish about deadlines and do a sloppy job, so you have to clean up after them. I learned one thing: never give them something which might affect or delay your mission-critical tasks.

Actually I've already fired one and am planning to fire another one — even though they are unpaid, they managed to damage to the business. Hopefully yours will be better :) Maybe I chose the wrong guys.

answered Jan 14 '10 at 19:24
The Dictator
2,305 points

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