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Resource Center / Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion

How to Prioritize Diversity in Your Next Internship Program

Studies show that a diverse and culturally robust workplace can strengthen a business, and the same is true when it comes to building an internship program.

The letter "J" for Justworks.
May 24, 20215 minutes

You’ve read the stats, and perhaps you already know why a diverse workforce is important. It lifts employee creativity, ushers in productivity, and better represents the wide array of people who use your products or services. But how can your team approach the intern hiring process without bias so they avoid selecting people because of similar backgrounds and experiences?

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Sourcing interns can actually provide a great opportunity to encourage diversity in the workplace. However, hiring interns is not a short-term solution for a long-term diversity, equity, and inclusion initiative. As PowerToFly CEO Milena Berry put it, “Diversity [is] not a Band-Aid. It’s a lifestyle choice. If you want to lose weight, you don’t go on a diet, you change your lifestyle.”

It might sound clichè, but hiring interns is an exciting time for a business. It’s a chance to bring a fresh perspective into the office, teach people about the knowledge you’ve accumulated, and learn from their existing knowledge as well. But how can your team best approach people from different backgrounds and experiences?

Below, you’ll find five solid tips to start you off on turning the intern hiring process into an inclusive and beneficial process for your interns, employees, and company at large.

Consider Paying Your Interns

If you run a for-profit company, paying your interns is one of the most effective and meaningful steps you can take to diversify your internship program.

Why? One answer is the same compelling reason to offer your employees a competitive compensation and a benefits package: with a paid internship, you’ll cast a wider net for talent, which can help diversify the candidates that apply.

Importantly, not paying your interns also has the potential of putting your company at risk. Interns in the for-profit private sector will most often be viewed as “employees” under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) and therefore must be paid.

On January 5, 2018, the U.S. Department of Labor announced that it will use the “primary beneficiary test” to determine whether an intern working for a for-profit employer is an employee under the FLSA. Take note: federal courts do not necessarily rely on this test, and states may have tests of their own. Knowing that, consider consulting with counsel on benefits considerations and state law requirements before implementing an internship program. Also make sure to weigh all the facts and circumstances of each internship before claiming that an intern is not an employee under the FLSA or applicable state law. There are instances where interns have sued and won against companies who didn’t pay them wages during their internship, and that’s a situation any business owner should try to avoid.

Long story short, paying your interns is helpful towards advancing diversity initiatives as well as your company’s future.

Lean On Recommendations After Your Pipeline

Does your coworker have a glowing recommendation for one of their best friends’ children? Go ahead and look into it — after all, a certain ratio of referrals can be great for your company. But don’t let close-knit recommendations be your only sourcing tool.

A study from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York stated that most referrals take place between people “with similar characteristics in terms of age, gender, race/ethnicity, education, and staff level.”

That means that, if you want to look for more diverse interns, it’s important to look outside of your normal comfort zone. The good news is that, once you start bringing in more diverse interns, your recommendation pipeline may also become more inclusive of all genders and ethnicities.

Karina Nagin — a woman dubbed the “Intern Whisperer” who has extensive experience hiring for and sourcing large internship programs — had that very experience at the Clinton Foundation. “We get a lot of our interns through recommendations [from past interns],” said Karina. “This is one reason why it’s worth investing in interns and training them.”

Don’t Just Seek Prestige

You might be looking at an intern who comes from an Ivy League school and has already done internships abroad or with other prestigious companies. Although picking someone with relevant office experience and impressive credentials might be tempting, Karina suggests looking for candidates who come from a completely different background as well. Doing so puts you in the position to give someone an opportunity who might not have otherwise had it. And you might even be surprised by the results.

Karina recalled one standout intern who was a first-generation student from CUNY and had worked in the restaurant industry as a server before accepting the internship. ”That skillset of working in a service industry — knowing how to multitask, and having interpersonal skills — it’s so much less entitled and more driven,” she said. He did such an impressive job, in fact, that Karina hired him afterwards.

Search Beyond the Expected Spots

One obvious place to search for interns is within schools — either high schools or colleges in the area. But as mentioned above, prestigious schools aren’t the only places you want to set your sights on. You can go even further to cast a wider net. Look into extracurriculars, clubs, or athletic societies for intern talent as well — like Girls Who Code or Americorps.

Focus on Values Over Culture

Whether for interns or long-term employees, this advice always rings true: hiring for a values fit as opposed to a cultural fit will benefit your company in many ways.

If your company has already established long-held values, this will help tremendously in choosing people who will work well with your team, regardless of whether you like the same football teams or grew up in the same neighborhoods.

For example, Justworks has, from the beginning, established that our values are COGIS — Compassion, Openness, Grit, Integrity, and Simplicity. And we have an interview process that integrates those values into the final decisions we make.

If your company still hasn’t established set values, you can check out Justworks’ guide here on how to establish them and begin hiring stronger and more diverse teams, from the interns up.

This material has been prepared for informational purposes only, and is not intended to provide, and should not be relied on for, legal or tax advice. If you have any legal or tax questions regarding this content or related issues, then you should consult with your professional legal or tax advisor.