Dear Employers: Interns Are People Too — A Reaction to the Harper’s Bazaar Intern Lawsuit

NY Creative Interns tells employers to give humanity back to interns.Image Courtesy of Thinkstock

Interns are humans. We are not coffee, fax, or xerox machines, though we know how to use them at maximum efficiency. We are not food delivery people, unless you’d like to give us tips, then we may act as food delivery people. We have lives outside the company and usually, a ton of homework to do when we get back from working a full day at your company. We do not work for your sole benefit, nor are we supposed to, as explained in our video “The Test of Unpaid Interns.”

On Monday, former intern for Harper’s Bazaar Magazine Xuedan Wang announced that she would be suing Harper’s owner Hearst , claiming that “failure to compensate interns for their work, and the prevalence of the practice nationwide, curtails opportunities for employment, fosters class divisions between those who can afford to work for no wage and those who cannot, and indirectly contributes to rising unemployment.”

Frankly, I’m not surprised a lawsuit is being brought up by an intern. I was lucky enough during my three internships to get some sort of compensation (in the form of free books, swag, or travel refunds) where it made going into the workplace two or three days a week (and paying for it) a completely worthwhile experience. However, I cannot imagine doing the amount of work I did for absolutely nothing.

I don’t see how companies or schools can expect interns to pull off a 20-35 hour work week while maintaining some sort of budget and a high GPA and their sanity. Especially now that employers are expecting students to have the same skill set as an entry-level job applicant; truly, I don’t know how many internships I didn’t apply for because, even though I was interested in learning about the company or a particular area, they wouldn’t have called me. I didn’t have the exact skills they wanted (though that may be because we live in a society that acts like we’re still in the 1950’s “career mode” and forces people to make important life decisions when they’re 19, but that’s a rant for another time).

Then, even with student loan rates on the rise, not to mention the myriad of Universities that are raising prices for credits, interns are expected to pay out the wazoo for their intern experience. Seriously— eight hundred dollars a credit times the three or four credits you need to fill an internship quota equals a ton of cash paid for…what? A chance at a good connection and an overload of work? I know way too many student interns who would come home on a Tuesday night at seven or eight o’clock and have to cancel going to, say, a French study group because they were way too tired. Others missed out on “college experience” activities during the weekend because they were stuck inside doing the homework that they couldn’t do during the week after long internship days. They’d sacrifice everything else in their lives for very little to no reward. It wasn’t worth it for a lot of them.

An internship should be a wonderful time for both parties, but I think employers tend to forget that interns are there to LEARN (I wish you knew how furiously I want to put multiple underlines beneath this word), not to act as a replacement for a paid employee.

Employers, this needs to change. Like, immediately. Yes, internships should be a chance for employers to get some work done that maybe their actual employees don’t have time for; that’s understandable. But supervisors should make sure that their interns learn at least one new thing about the business every day of their internship. Make a lesson plan. Treat them like people and answer their questions. Show some love to your interns, and even if you don’t have any money or free things to give them, make them feel appreciated. I know it sounds like a lot of extra work, but it’s totally worth it, if for no other reason than it will prevent future interns from suing you.

(video by Phil Robibero.)

What do you think, interns? Are companies wrong for expecting  interns to work a true part-time job without pay? Have you had an experience like this? Let us know in the comments.


17 comment on “Dear Employers: Interns Are People Too — A Reaction to the Harper’s Bazaar Intern Lawsuit

  1. Your explanation of why the Intern system is broken reminds me of the demise of the master/apprentice system that used to exist among European craftsmen. Apprentices (or their parents) would pay the master to train them in the art, until the apprentice was deemed to have learned enough to be certified as a guilded journeyman, and receive payment for his labors.
    Eventually, the masters realized they could just delay journeyman certification, and continue to receive payments as well as free labor. Children stopped becoming apprentices, the guilds dried up from lack of new blood, and the system collapsed.

    Or, as Aristotle said, “A democracy can only survive until the people realize they can vote themselves money from the public treasury.”

    Or, as the common theme, no system can last longer than the time it takes for people to figure out how to take advantage of it.

  2. But wait. Did Xuedan commit to faxing, filing, photocopying and getting coffee without pay? If so, she has nothing to complain about. Nobody forced her to take the internship.

    Did Harper’s commit to acting as a mentor and providing a learning experience? If not, they’ve done nothing wrong.

    Don’t get me wrong, I take your point that internships SHOULD be an amazing learning experience as yours were. However, I worry that students who go into unpaid internships with that expectation (but they don’t get a commitment from their internship host about that being reality) and then get burned – are painting the whole system with the same brush.

    A lot of internships are AWESOME. But, just like the real working world – students can’t assume they are going to get a great experience. They’ve got to get a commitment from the employer. Nobody ever forces anybody to get an internship. Rather, internships are competitive. 

    Thanks for the post!

    • I see what you’re saying, but I think you missed the point. The idea that “nobody forced her to take the internship” is a little less black-and-white than you make it out to be. In more ways than one, the kind of free-market society we live in does in fact mandate internships–it is virtually impossible to get a legitimate job without one. In a way, internships are like the extra-curricular activities you tack on to your college application in order to make yourself appear more appealing.

      In this awful economy, internship programs are a blessing to almost every place of employment. The opportunity to take on an additional employee without having to pay them–and in most cases, the intern is the one who ends up paying, as Steph argued–is invaluable.

      The notion that internships foster a class divide between those who can afford to work without compensation and those who cannot is, in my opinion, one of the more pressing issues surrounding the practice.

      • Sorry Kate – students in the U.S. have more options than just about anywhere. Think of all the things Xuedan could have done….almost limitless possibilities (she could have worked on a farm, become a lifeguard, written a book, started a business, almost anything). But, she chose to intern at Harpers, and it sounds like she didn’t get a commitment from them about the sort of work she would do beforehand.

        Just can’t buy that she was a victim of the economy on this one. Almost everybody’s life, especially in our privileged first world, is a direct product of the questions they ask and the choices they make. 

        When I did my internship I worked two jobs on the side. Regardless of your background, for most, finding opportunities are possible. Is it easier for some? Sure. Is life always fair. Nope.

        Some people have advantages over others, but to say a student had no choice but to accept an internship at Harpers? Sorry, can’t buy that….

        Nevertheless, thanks for diving into the debate! 

        • Excuse me if I got your argument wrong but in my mind it simply doesn’t make sense. Legitimately the intern in question could not have just done anything as you say. If her field of interest was in communications without a doubt that eliminates many options. It is also a bit harsh to expect someone who is new to the field (and thus has to intern in the first place) to be able to leverage exactly what experiences the want to have from the get go. The whole point is that they are here to learn about the field! How can they then say I want to do X Y and Z? They wouldn’t be aware of the subtleties associated with work in that environment. 

          In the current state of affairs, internships are a MUST. Otherwise any job applications you send are at most a joke and a waste of time. When exactly did you take your internships?

          In order to stand out my generation has no choice but to have on the job experience even before we graduate! Without it we have no marketability. In this economy employers want people who can hit the ground running, not people that they have to train!

          Anyway you slice it she was taken advantage of because come on now if she was an employee would such work hours and treatment even be OK? I don’t think so…

          • Thanks for your response. Let me clarify.

            Here are all the points at which Xuedan had a choice:

            She chose her interests.

            She chose her desired career path.

            She chose to apply for an internship at Harpers.

            She chose to accept that internship, it seems, without getting a commitment about the sort of work she would do.

            When the work didn’t meet her expectations, she chose to stay.

            Let me clarify some more.

            Let’s compare the situation of a modern student in the U.S. seeking an internship with some people who truly don’t have choices…

            Slaves in early America had no choices, and they could enjoy backbreaking work in fields (vs. sending faxes)

            Child soldiers in places like Uganda and Burma have no choices and they get to step on landmines and go blind (vs. getting coffee)

            Women who are trafficked in Southeast Asia and Russia as sex workers don’t have choices and they are forced to have sex as young girls (vs. filing)

            People starving in the Horn of Africa don’t have choices and they can look forward to seeing family members, and ultimately themselves die from lack of nourishment (vs. having to do some homework on the weekend because they had to work late)

            …any of these people would LOVE to have the problem of a college education and chance to do an internship – as many students in the first world do.

            Does Harpers suck because they have a sucky internship. Of course. But the notion that modern day students are somehow victims because they choose to intern someplace that doesn’t meet their expectations. I’m sorry – it’s just a ridiculous argument.

            Thanks for engaging! Eric

            P.S. If you want to know more about my internship story, check out my book/website at

          • Hey Eric. I think you’re comparisons are a little out of context here. There is a level of responsibility that companies have to take in how they run there intern programs, that is for sure.

          • Hey Eric. I think your comparisons are a little out of context here. There is a level of responsibility that companies have to take in how they run there intern programs, that is for sure.

          • Hi Eric. First, thank you for reading. Second, I have to agree with the criticisms of your comments. The amount of work that Harper’s was making Ms. Wang do was completely illegal; she was essentially working a full time job, which was not part of the internship expectations that she had agreed to do before starting. She was made to work extra hours and do tasks that does not fall under the “intern work” category. Therefore, Ms. Wang has every right to sue for compensation. 

            Please re-read the article, located here: 

          • Emily and Steph – I guess we’re just at an impasse. Again, nobody forces anybody to apply for a particular internship, accept an internship, or if it turns out to be bad, stay at an internship. 

            I suspect way too many students (many of whom now mentor interns of their own as staffers) have had too many great experiences through internships for it to really matter, but these occasional “internships are predatory” stories (which always seem to appear in the NY Times or I guess now, NY Magazine) give a great institution (internships) a bad name.I feel strongly about this because I’ve seen SO MANY students lives’ (including my own) changed for the better because they had a great internship. They went into an internship with a great attitude and they crushed it.Interns, be empowered! Take responsibility for your own future and your own career path. Just because you’re an intern doesn’t mean that you can’t stand up for yourself in the moment.Students who commit to doing unpaid internships know the deal going in: they’re not getting paid. A wise student will get a commitment from an internship host about the sort of work they will do, and then hold that employer accountable to that commitment. If you find yourself in an internship and you’re not learning, or your employer isn’t fulfilling their commitment to you (that you asked them for before you accepted the internship), leave. You’re not a victim. You have a choice. You don’t need to dive into a lawsuit after a year feeling abused. No whining. Have an attitude of gratitude, but take your future by the horns!Think that’s too tough? It’s exactly what happens in the real working world every day.  Xuedan’s complaint itself reveals at least one lesson she learned from Harpers, which is: you’ve got to empower yourself, you’ve got to be responsible for your own career path and for holding colleagues and bosses accountable to their commitments in the workplace.Appreciate this discussion all – it gives me some good material to think on and write about. Thanks again!

          • This is a very interesting discussion. Although I don’t wholeheartedly agree with his comparisons, I do think that Eric makes a good point about the choice that Xuedan had. She did have a choice to take and stay with this internship for what seems to be a full year (Dec 2010-Dec 2011).

            According to the new laws on internships, what Harper did was wrong and I applaud Xuedan for suing. At the same time, I think that understanding the economic state of your field of choice, understanding the philosophy of the company you are interning for and being aware of your options are all important parts of surviving in this economy.

            As a journalism student I took two unpaid internships while I was in undergrad. Although I felt that I was being overworked, I made sure that I got a handful of bylines out of the experience. I understood the state of journalism and how difficult it would be for me to find a job, so I took it in stride, but if after a month of interning I still didn’t get any traction I would have made it a point to talk to my supervisors. I don’t know the whole story but it doesn’t seem as if Xuedan was proactive in this sense.

            It makes total business sense for Harper to take advantage of free labor and I am sure 99% of companies would do this if they thought they could get away with it. As recent graduates in this tough job market, we need to understand that all interns get taken advantage of to some point, but as interns we must find a way to take advantage of the companies we are working for. Rather than the broken unpaid internship model, I think the more important problem is the lack of job offers after internships end.

          • “but as interns we must find a way to take advantage of the companies we are working for.”
            Truer words could not be spoken. Thanks for adding your thoughts, Herry.

  3. I’m always skeptical whenever any one sues in these situations, because I think most civil suits are ultimately about an inflated amount of money that someone feels they are entitled to, when they are not. But I resent the poster who said interns shouldn’t complain about getting coffee, because they’re lucky they’re not a sex slave in southeast Asia. You are comparing apples and oranges. Better yet, you are comparing apples and human trafficking. 

    Saying I can’t complain about my internship because other people don’t have one, is like saying I can’t be sad, because there are people in the world who are sadder. We are a first world country that has created a corporate infrastructure that has resulted in opportunities for students to gain skills and experience before they even have to enter the workforce. We should be applauded for this. And the giant corporation the directly benefited from this girl’s effort, with no intention of compensating her even slightly, or making her an employee (while she did the job of one), should be derided.

    I think what the employees at Harper’s found was a willing and capable college graduate that they didn’t have to pay, and used the grey area of what constitutes an internship to justify what they did. It says she was there for a year, working 40 hours a week. Every internship I had (and I had 4 before I graduated) was semester based, around my schedule. 2 or 3 days a week. If their internship calls for a full 40 hour work week for an entire year, they’re lucky she was the only one to sue.

    Some internships hold you hostage, because they have something you want. Or more importantly something you need. You can’t quit, because you need A) a good recommendation in the future, B) the experience and sometimes even C) the longer you stay the better shot you have at getting a job. Internships are backstage passes to the inner workings of the companies you potentially want to work at. Without it, you wouldn’t even be able to set foot in the front door. Maybe you could leave your resume at the security desk. 

    I don’t think that Xuedan is entitled to compensation, because she did willingly stay, perhaps even longer than she needed to. But I do think this lawsuit is needed to shed light on a much larger issue, which is the seemingly open-ended definition of what constitutes an internship, and what constitutes illegal business practice. 

  4. It’s not untrue to say that fashion is an unfair industry (along with life in general), but it is lazy. Those who hold this train of thought probably know that this isn’t the only time they’ve shrugged their shoulders and simply ate their spinach. Save the Garment District seemed like a hopeless cause, but the catchy slogan, Made in NY, made a difference.  I applaud Xuedan Wang for making a bold move. 

    “The world will not be destroyed by those who do evil, but by those who watch them without doing anything” –Albert Einstein 
    READ and RATE your fashion internship

  5. We have an opportunity to create a difference. You know, this situation has not always been. Which puts it heads and tails ahead of the sacrifices prior generations made to enact minimal labor laws. How does anything get changed? Unpaid internships that require the work
    of a regular employee are illegal. Just like any other labor law. If people fought to eliminate school team apparel created by child labor, they can fight this on the campuses. Refuse to allow businesses that exploit unpaid labor to recruit on campus. Have a visible protest at businesses that don’t pay. Stop the race to the bottom.

    I can’t believe that a generation would not want to make things better for another. Like the pain and unpaid labor we allow is a badge of honor. An Uncle Tom way of not complaining and step and fetch it to the bullies. It is amazing that we don’t even have to fight for the laws to be passed, just for them to be enforced which puts us far ahead prior generations.

    Xuedan Wang will go into the history books.

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