In a challenging labour market, many organisations are looking to internship programmes as a way to gain new and motivated members of staff, who bring new skills and perspectives to their business. In addition, internships provide young people with a meaningful experience that enhances their employability, at a time when the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated rising graduate unemployment.

This guide offers employers best practice recommendations on how to get the most out of an internship programme, as well as contributing to the intern’s professional development. It also provides a practical checklist for setting up and running a programme and a model internship agreement to formalise the intern–employer relationship.

There are several different phrases used to describe opportunities that offer young people some experience in the workplace. This may be during their time at school (typically lasting a couple of weeks and referred to as ‘work experience’), during university (usually lasting up to a year and called a ‘work placement’), or they may have just finished education and be entering the labour market for the first time. Although internships can include adults wishing to engage in a new career, most programmes focus on the younger intake with a career path only reaching back as far as school.

The prime purpose of an internship programme is to provide interns with a workplace experience that enhances their employability and skills. That said, there are clear business benefits to running a good internship scheme, such as gaining a new member of staff, bringing new skills to your organisation and potentially improving productivity. Even where an internship is of a very short duration and may be unpaid, the quality of the experience is often the most important factor for the intern, as the short-term economic costs of an internship can often be offset by the long-term advantages to the intern’s career and their future contribution to the business economy.

Who is an intern?

An intern will usually be an undergraduate or graduate seeking work experience as a means of getting onto the ladder of work. Students in sixth form colleges, further education colleges or other tertiary education would also be included. An undergraduate or college student required to enter a work placement as part of their studies would not be regarded as an intern; nor would someone who is simply work ‘shadowing’ or ‘tasting’, who does not actually do any work for the organisation. Adults who are interns may or may not have further or higher education qualifications.

The Government estimated in 2018 that there were around 70,000 interns that year in the UK workforce. Those figures may well have decreased since the COVID-19 pandemic, but it is likely that increasing numbers of graduates will nevertheless be seeking an internship as a means of getting onto the career ladder and are aware of how competitive the recruitment process can be.

The Common Best Practice Code for High Quality Internships (‘the Code’), produced in 2013 by the (then) Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) in conjunction with other stakeholders, highlighted six principles of best practice for ensuring internships are of high quality. These were: preparation; recruitment; induction; treatment; supervision and mentoring; and certification, references and feedback. 

The Code also drew on the previous version of this CIPD guide to inform its principles. We believe that the principles in the Code still apply at the core, but in the ever-changing workplace, an updated guide can provide an even more expanded and inclusive approach to how we recruit and engage with our interns. We have updated the six principles, set out below, to show how employers should address the journey of operating an internship in 2022: 

  1. preparation and recruitment
  2. status and payment of interns
  3. introduction to the organisation
  4. the intern experience
  5. supervision, support and mentoring
  6. giving references and feedback.

Each of these six principles is given a dedicated section within this guide, along with guidance drawn both from the CIPD and from government and statutory resources. The guide suggests how each of the principles can be addressed in a way that gives the greatest benefit to both the intern and the employer. If you are short of time, you can jump straight to the following sections, where you will find:

  • an interactive checklist for employers to use when assessing the quality of their programme
  • a voluntary written agreement that gives you the option of formally recognising your commitment to the principles in this guide
  • web links to other organisations and initiatives regarding internships.

Preparation 

Before embarking on the process of advertising for interns, it would be wise to consider the following questions:

  • Why do you want to recruit an intern? Is it to give benefit to a young person entering the world of work for the first time, to fill a gap in your existing workforce, or a blend of both? 

  • Have you designed, or should you design, an internship programme in your organisation to give an intern a niche position and experienced support, mentoring and training? What you can offer will depend on the size of your organisation and the available resources.

  • How long do you want to employ an intern for? Is it for a short slot of a few weeks, perhaps during the summer, or is it for a longer, or even indeterminate, period? The answer to this question may lead to a more specific consideration of whether the intern should be paid (see ‘Status and payment of interns’ below).

Organisations with a track record of taking on interns are likely to have internship programmes and dedicated resources and staffing within those programmes. Even where that is the case, these should be subject to regular review for good practice principles. A smaller organisation, or one which may only take on an intern occasionally, will still benefit from considering why they wish to take on an intern, for how long, and what resources they have to supervise, support and mentor them. 

Finally, since the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been a growing trend for organisations to enable staff to work remotely either full- or part-time. It may be the case that an intern will be offered a similar working pattern, and this should also be considered before embarking on the recruitment exercise. 

Recruitment

As society is becoming more diverse, that picture should be reflected in new entrants to the workplace, and attention should be paid to how diverse and inclusive current practices are. Recruiters should ask:

  • Are job adverts encouraging of a wide pool of talent?
  • Are selection processes as neutral as possible?
  • Are interview panels reflective of a diverse workforce?

In research carried out by Robert Walters, a global recruitment consultancy, 85% of businesses stated that increasing diversity in their workforce was a priority, but only 46% had put programmes into practice to encourage this. 

With an inclusive recruitment programme in place, interns can be recruited in broadly the same way as regular employees of an organisation, with proper consideration given to how their skills and qualifications fit with the tasks they will be expected to fulfil. Recruitment should be conducted in an open and rigorous way to enable fair and equal access to available internships. The job advertisement should give a clear indication of how long the internship will last and, at interview, the intern should be told honestly whether there is a real chance of obtaining a full-time contract.

Why should we recruit interns in the usual way?

The reason for recruiting interns in the same way as other employees is that, because the internship is about the professional development of a young person, it is useful for them to have experience of the job application process. By openly advertising the position, rather than just relying on family and friends, you can also widen the talent pool available to your organisation and make a real difference to the business. Don’t forget that a poorly devised internship programme might mean that you have to put in extra time, effort and resources at a later date.

What should the job advert contain?

You should include the following details in your advertisement:

  • the length of the internship, the expected working hours and the start date
  • the main duties the intern will be carrying out (the more explicit you can be, the better-suited applicants you are likely to get)
  • whether the internship is likely to involve partial or total remote working (this can be expressed as something that is ‘possible’ rather than definite)
  • whether you are offering any salary or expenses (see ‘Status and payment of interns’)
  • what teams/projects the intern will work on
  • what prior qualifications and experience are beneficial for the application
  • a clear statement about whether there is a realistic possibility of the internship developing into a permanent position or, alternatively, the purpose of the internship on offer (for example, to gain skills in a particular professional field).

Employers are now deploying a wide range of selection processes, which may include remote or in-person interviews, psychometric testing and task-based testing. These are also used for internship recruiting but should of course be geared to the likely skills and qualifications of student or graduate applicants. Asking for a CV (two pages) and covering letter (one page) may be a traditional starting point, but bear in mind that it will be unusual for student or graduate interns to have a detailed employment history at this stage. Nevertheless, if your company uses a standard application for other vacancies, it could also be used for internships. Applicants should be informed as to what the stages of the selection process are. 

How should internship selection be conducted?

If interviewing, the meeting should be conducted in broadly the same way as when recruiting a regular employee. That said, when devising interview questions, consideration should be given to the fact that many young people may have limited industry experience (which is presumably why they want to do an internship), and much of the relevant experience they have might be from their school, university education or extracurricular activities.

Focus interview questions or other selection tools around employability skills (for example, problem-solving skills, teamwork, communication, their potential for growth, their enthusiasm and commitment to the values of your organisation), rather than strict qualification and technical requirements. Any other selection tools used should be adapted in a similar fashion. In addition, if you intend to have your intern working on a particular project, the interview is a good opportunity to ask questions about how they would approach the project and what ideas they might have. You could even include these sorts of project-based questions in an application form or advertisement.

A good way of seeing the internship you are providing is from the perspective of social mobility. The aim may be to encourage young people to find their talents, potentially becoming valuable members of your workforce in the future, or ambassadors for your organisation when they move forward in their careers. A 2020 paper produced by the Government’s Social Mobility Commission addressed the sometimes challenging issue of encouraging young people from less advantaged backgrounds to get started in the world of work. One case study focused on a young woman who was the first in her family to go to university. Armed with her degree, she spent time working unpaid in her local area. She then attempted to expand her horizons by applying to a London PR firm.

‘The Jobcentre told me they could pay me £60 a week through Job Seekers Allowance for a six-week unpaid internship. I spent five days a week doing an unpaid internship in Swansea, where I learned about content creation, digital marketing and the specialist skills of translation… There was a PR company in London who wanted to hire me for my writing and language skills. We had a phone interview, then I was offered the role the same day via email. When I asked about the salary, they seemed surprised that I’d assumed I’d be paid – even though they expected me to move to London and work five days a week.’

Status

When considering why you want to take on an intern, you will also be deciding on the type of work experience you want to provide them with and for how long the internship is likely to last. 

A key issue to consider is what their legal status is once they join the organisation. You may only want to offer a week or a few weeks’ work experience, or you may want to offer a longer-term placement. The length of the placement is not, however, the main hallmark of the intern’s employment status. An intern could be:

  • a volunteer 
  • a worker, or 
  • an employee. 

Each of these categories attract different rights or obligations in the workplace. For a more detailed discussion of employment status in the workplace, see our Employment status in the workplace factsheet. Prior to the intern embarking on their work programme, you must decide which of these categories the intern fits into.

Volunteers

Volunteers are an essential part of voluntary organisations and can provide a motivated and flexible workforce to those struggling with limited resources looking to achieve their charitable objectives. 

However, it’s important not to blur the distinction between volunteers and paid workers or employees – this includes interns. According to the National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO), volunteers don’t have a contract of employment and can come and go as they please. Also, since volunteers are under no formal or contractual obligations, they are not paid for their time. 

While employers aren’t legally required to pay volunteers, they should agree to cover any expenses, such as food and drink, as well as any travel the individual undertakes as part of their role. Not only does this help improve people’s access to opportunities, but it shows that your organisation appreciates the volunteer’s time and expense, which will help them remain engaged and committed.

Being clear about the expectations and intentions of both parties is essential when beginning a volunteering arrangement. To do this, GOV.UK and the NCVO recommend putting your intentions in writing in a clearly drafted volunteer agreement. Providing volunteer role descriptions and agreements can further help to reinforce the distinction between paid interns and volunteers.

Workers

Where an intern is required to carry out tasks and comply with instructions, they are likely to have the status of a worker. This will apply to most interns, especially where they remain with you for longer periods of time and contribute to the organisation in various ways. Although you may not ‘spell out’ in their contract that they have this status, an intern’s contract should reflect the usual rights that a worker has in the workplace. A recent case heard in the Supreme Court concerning the worker status of Uber drivers made it clear that, even if employers don’t reflect worker rights in contracts, it will usually be the case that an individual who works ‘for’ an organisation (and not themselves) will be classed as a worker. Key rights for workers include:

  • being given a written statement of the particulars of employment on day 1
  • being paid the National Minimum Wage
  • taking paid statutory holidays 
  • being protected from discrimination as well as adverse treatment as a whistleblower.

Employees

It may (rarely) be the case that you treat an intern in exactly the same way as your existing employees – in which case they may have the right to things like maternity pay and the ability to claim unfair dismissal. This would be unusual and, as long as it is clear that the intern is not embedded into the organisation in the same way as a normal employee, the intern is not likely to have this status.

Why is it important to pay interns?

Paying interns is not only the correct approach where they have worker status, but it also helps to widen access to internships more generally and increase the pool of talent that employers can draw from. Paying interns will also help you to increase the loyalty and motivation of young people, which, in turn, helps improve the overall productivity of your business. As our Learning to Work programme has found, the greater the level of investment demonstrated by an employer, the greater the commitment on the part of the young person.

What does the law say about paying workers?

An organisation should pay a worker the National Minimum Wage (NMW). In addition, some organisations may also offer to pay travel or meal costs (although this is not a legal requirement). 

The NMW is the minimum pay per hour that almost all workers are entitled to by law – regardless of the size of the organisation – and covers almost all workers in the UK. However, workers must be school leaving age (typically 16 years old or over) to receive the NMW. It makes no difference whether an intern works part-time or full-time – they are still entitled to receive it.

What should we be paying?

There are currently three age-based National Minimum Wage rates that may apply to individuals undertaking an internship placement. These are for workers aged 21 years and over; those aged 18–20 inclusive; and those aged under 18 (but above compulsory school age). These rates are updated in October each year, and current rates are available on the government website.

There are a number of circumstances where the NMW does not apply. These include:

  • students doing work experience as part of a UK-based further or higher education course
  • young people of compulsory school age
  • a volunteer
  • a person on a government or European programme
  • someone who is work shadowing.

Finally, once you’ve decided to offer an internship placement, remember to add the intern to your payroll system and ensure your interns receive their payment and expenses at the end of each month.

GOV.UK has more information about the NMW legislation.

Whether joining a large organisation or an SME, an intern just entering the job market may find the workplace intimidating. It is important to introduce an intern to the staff and the values of the organisation to help them integrate into the team and allow them to hit the ground running. Furthermore, there are legal areas that will apply to anyone joining your organisation which will need to be emphasised.

Even though your interns may have excellent qualifications or some previous industry experience, it will still feel like a very new experience for them. In addition, because internships can be relatively short compared with a full-time position, it is essential that interns settle in as quickly as possible. A well-designed process of introducing them to the organisation can make an intern’s transition into the world of work a smooth and enjoyable one, as well as helping your organisation by integrating your new intern as effortlessly as possible.

What should the introduction process include?

You could include the following elements in your intern introduction programme:

  • an introduction to your company, including its history, products and services, culture and values
  • information on how your company is structured
  • a brief introduction to the senior members of your company, as well as the people that the intern will be working with on a regular basis
  • information on who will be providing supervision, support and mentoring for the intern and how and when that will take place
  • a tour of the facilities where the intern will be working on site, including work areas, ‘breakout’ areas, where to get food from inside or outside your company, where the nearest toilets are and where the fire exits are situated
  • advice and guidance on how they can contribute by working remotely (if that is going to be a part of the internship process), whether you will have any monitoring in place for remote workers and information on how that will apply to them
  • health and safety information (this is a legal requirement) – in a situation where the intern is a young person (between school leaving age and the age of 18), the HSE has provided guidance for young people on health and safety issues relevant to them
  • an outline of what data you will wish to process concerning them, as required by data protection law – this information is likely to be available in relation to other members of staff and will apply equally to the intern, so there will be no need to rewrite it for them
  • a clear outline of the job/role requirements (which should be the same as the original job advert), including a discussion of the day-to-day duties that the intern will be responsible for, in addition to any short-term and long-term objectives that are relevant at the beginning of the internship (for example, projects that the intern will be working on). This is likely to be included in the work plan that you will discuss with the intern at the outset.

Finally, it would be useful to ask the intern what they hope to achieve from their experience with you and to suggest that, once the internship is nearing completion, this conversation can be revisited. You may even want to suggest that the intern keeps some sort of diary or record of how they view their experience with you, mainly for their own benefit.

During their time with an organisation, interns should be treated with the same degree of professionalism and duty of care as regular employees. They should not be seen as ‘visitors’ to the organisation, or automatically assigned routine tasks that do not make use of their skills. Organisations should make some allowance for interns to, on occasion, attend job interviews or complete study requirements. Of course, if the intern is of a suitable calibre and proves themselves capable of performing well in your organisation, there is no reason why you cannot offer them a permanent position.

What tasks should we assign to interns?

The aim of the internship from an employer’s perspective is to get the best out of the intern so that they make the biggest possible contribution to your company by using their skills and contributing ideas. If an internship is to be beneficial to both the employer and the intern, it is imperative that the intern is given as much responsibility and diversity in their work as possible. From your perspective, you want to make the most out of having an extra member of staff who, if given the right tasks, can improve your productivity and bring new ideas into your organisation.

From an intern’s perspective, if they are taken on just to make tea and carry out administrative tasks such as data entry, they are not going to be exposed to any opportunities for professional development. Furthermore, taking this young person’s time up could be preventing them from being employed by someone who actually needs them and who can offer them a workload more commensurate with their skillset. On this basis, we strongly recommend that you do not ask interns to carry out basic or menial tasks any more than you expect other workers to.

Bear in mind that the job advert that you placed for the internship should have contained a list of the main duties and responsibilities that the intern will have, so it is sensible to think well ahead when writing the job advert about how you intend to shape the intern’s role on a day-to-day basis. 

How should we devise a suitable work plan?

If you are interested in taking on an intern, an effective way to devise a suitable work plan is to consult colleagues, line managers, heads of department or other personnel in a management position to find out if they have any specific projects they feel an intern could contribute to. If one big project does not stand out, or none of the departments/teams feels they can offer a sufficient workload by themselves, an intern’s workload could be spread across a number of areas (for example, two days a week with one team and three days a week with another team). 

This would not only offer some short-term assistance for particular departments or colleagues, but it would also give the intern a broader view of your organisation and the sector that you operate in, as well as giving them a wider range of learning and development opportunities. Should you choose to split the intern’s time in this way, a structured work plan with clear objectives becomes even more important. If your intern is going to be working on one major project during their internship, a work plan will still be helpful in terms of what you want them to achieve and what timetable you wish to set for their project objectives.

A work plan does not need to be a static blueprint and can be filled in on a daily or weekly basis if necessary. At the very least, the work plan should act as a guide at the beginning of the internship and subsequently merged with any goals and objectives set during the induction process. Remember that interns are there to learn while working, so it is important to keep them active and engaged throughout their internship to ensure that your organisation and their career both move forward.

Organisations should ensure that there is a dedicated person who has ring-fenced time in their work schedule to supervise the intern and conduct regular performance reviews. The same person could also be available to provide ongoing feedback to the intern, be their advocate and mentor during the period of internship, and conduct a review as the internship comes to an end to evaluate the success of their time with the organisation.

Do we need to manage an intern?

The supervisor role in relation to an intern is likely to be different from that of supervising other employees. The aim is to ensure that they understand tasks assigned to them and can develop their work-related skills through carrying out those tasks. They may also have contributions they can make which will help to enrich the process for them and the organisation and for future interns.

A firm and guiding hand may be necessary at times but, overall, the supervision offered should be practical and task-oriented. Since interns may be relatively new to the world of work, the way that they are managed is crucial. Good management and supervision will make the intern more productive and develop more quickly. Although interns will become more self-sufficient as the internship progresses, we strongly recommend that experienced employees act as supervisors and mentors for the intern throughout their time with you. It is important to be aware that, particularly in the early stages, the intern is likely to have lots of questions and may even need support to deal with how they are feeling about entering into the world of work. The role can therefore be time-consuming, as well as requiring relevant experience, and time should be allowed to properly support them.

How should mentoring take place?

A decision may be made, depending on resources, to split the role of supervisor and mentor so that the intern can feel that they have a more informal and supportive relationship with the mentor. Either way, we recommend that mentors are tasked with the following duties:

  • building a supportive working relationship with the intern
  • meeting the intern each day during their first week; if they are working remotely this can take place online 
  • acting as a point of contact for any concerns that the intern might have
  • discussing career options and the intern’s plans for the future.

Ideally, an intern will be working with a range of people (and possibly a range of teams) within your company. In any case, it is not essential for the mentor to work alongside the intern throughout the working day. That said, they should maintain regular contact with the intern, particularly in their first few weeks, to help them settle in and give them any informal help and guidance. 

On the subject of careers, a good mentor can be extremely useful in helping interns review their career plans throughout the internship. Again, this can be relatively informal, but it is enormously valuable for interns to hear about the different career paths and progression routes that others have taken. An experienced mentor would be the best person to start this conversation, although if other employees want to get involved, the interns would certainly benefit from more perspectives.

Are performance reviews necessary for interns?

Performance reviews are an essential part of people management. The Performance Management: An introduction factsheet describes performance management as activities that ‘establish objectives through which individuals and teams can take part in their organisation’s mission and strategy’. This is as equally applicable to interns as it is to regular employees.

Bearing in mind that a high-quality internship involves creating a work plan for the intern to follow, it would be sensible to use this work plan as a basis for regular conversations about the intern’s performance in terms of their achievements, conduct and development, as well as discussing what they will be concentrating on in the future. The work plan may need to be revised during the course of the internship. Conducting work progress reviews with the intern on a weekly basis at the beginning of the internship is recommended, but this can be subsequently changed to a monthly meeting later on if the internship is more lengthy.

On completion of the internship, it is good practice for an organisation to provide interns with a reference letter detailing the work they have undertaken, the skills and experience acquired, and the content of the final review with their supervisor conducted at the end of the internship. Interns should also be offered the opportunity to give feedback on their experience in an exit interview, giving the organisation the opportunity to reflect on its own performance in delivering internships.

What is the best way to conclude an internship?

As the internship draws to a close, regardless of how long it has lasted, it is good practice to arrange a final review meeting with the intern to discuss a number of issues. This review meeting should be carried out by the intern’s supervisor. During the review, you can discuss the following:

  • What has the intern learned and how have they developed over this internship?
  • How well do you think they have met your objectives (set either at the beginning of, or during, the internship)?
  • What have been their biggest/proudest achievements?
  • What projects have they completed or contributed to?
  • In what ways are they better prepared for the job market after completing this internship (this can include ‘soft’ skills as well as specific projects)?
  • How well do you think they have performed (in general and/or on specific projects)?
  • What are their strengths and weaknesses?
  • What areas of development do you suggest that they concentrate on in future jobs?

Remember to write down the intern’s responses to these questions, as this will form the basis of any reference letters that you provide for them. To help the flow of the conversation, it might be easier to give the intern the review questions in advance to give them time to think about the topics that you will be discussing. Always make sure that the conversation is constructive and focuses as much as possible on positive elements of the internship.

Exit interview

In addition to the final review meeting between the intern and their supervisor, you should hold an exit interview, which provides you with the opportunity to improve your programme and gain valuable insight into how well it operates. In essence, this meeting is for the intern to provide feedback about your internship programme. Although the supervisor will have conducted the final review meeting, the exit interview should be carried out by a people professional or another senior member of staff.

What should a reference letter contain?

A reference letter is the best way that an intern can demonstrate to a future employer what skills they have developed and what they have achieved. In terms of content, it is easiest to use the content of the review meeting as the basis for a reference letter, seeing as this will include what the intern has learned, achieved, developed and undertaken during the internship. It is also helpful if you can include positive comments, if appropriate, regarding their punctuality, attitude and any exceptional skills or aptitude that they showed. Typically, employer reference letters for interns are no more than one side of A4. Combining the outcomes of the review meeting with standard reference information (for example, the dates that they worked for you and their main duties) is normally sufficient.

There has been considerable public debate in the past few years concerning the status of interns and whether they are exploited and by whom. The 2017 Taylor Report, commissioned by the Government to look at working practices, was one response to these concerns as it included interns as part of its focus. 

A Private Members Bill (The Unpaid Work Experience Prohibition No 2 Bill) has been making its way through Parliament and has reached the second reading stage. It is largely aimed at prohibiting an internship of more than four weeks from being unpaid. 

At the same time, the Government has consulted on sexual harassment in the workplace and has considered whether to give volunteers and interns any special protection. It decided that the current protection that interns have as workers protected under discrimination law was sufficient and that there would be too great an administrative burden in creating new rights in this sphere for volunteers.

On a more positive note, many employers have seen the benefit and value of taking on an intern and have been happy to pay them. 

This interactive checklist is designed to help you reflect on the content of this guide. It can either be used as a standalone section for your own purposes or combined with the model internship agreement.

This is a purely voluntary agreement that gives you the option of formalise for your intern what will happen during the programme, as well as demonstrate your commitment to the internship programme.

The agreement should be read carefully and signed by the intern and the employer (please make two copies).

The employer’s responsibilities:

As the employer, I am aware that interns provide a useful service for our company. I confirm that I will abide by the principles outlined in the CIPD Internships That Work guide (a copy of which will be given to the intern) and it is therefore my responsibility to ensure that the intern will be:

  • treated with respect at all times
  • supported and trained appropriately for the tasks that they are asked to complete
  • given as much access to learning and development opportunities as possible.

The intern’s responsibilities:

As an intern, I appreciate the opportunity that has been provided for me through this internship and understand that it offers the chance to gain experience and display professional development. Therefore I confirm that my responsibilities are to:

  • behave in a professional manner at all times
  • abide by the rules and regulations of this company
  • work hard and diligently throughout the internship
  • complete the projects and assignments given to me to the best of my ability and in the timeframes set out in my work plan.

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