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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 building an internship program.

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Kristin Hoppe
Mar 28, 20185 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 product or services.

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As luck would have it, sourcing interns is a wonderful way to encourage diversity in the workplace. However, hiring diverse interns should never be a short-term solution for a long-term initiative. It may sound a little hokey, but hiring interns is an exciting time. It’s the perfect opportunity 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 should your team approach the intern hiring process so as not to select people only from similar backgrounds and experiences?

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.”

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

5 Ways to Build a Diverse Internship Program

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 bring on diverse candidates.

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 bring more diverse candidates into the fold.

“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.” - PowerToFly CEO Milena Berry

Perhaps most importantly, with a few exceptions, not paying your interns 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.

But take note: federal courts do not necessarily rely on this test and states may have tests of their own. So before implementing an internship program, consider consulting with counsel on benefits considerations and state law requirements.

Related Article: Hiring Interns, the Legal Way

And make sure to weigh all facts and circumstances of each internship program before claiming that an intern is not an employee under the FLSA or applicable state law. As we’ve written about in the past, interns have sued and won against companies who didn’t pay them wages during their internship.

Long story short, paying your interns is good for diversity initiatives and your company’s future.

Branch Out For an Inclusive, Robust Pipeline

Does your coworker have a glowing recommendation for, say, 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 of 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 if you want to look for more diverse interns, it’s important to look outside of your normal comfort zone. The good news is, once you start bringing in more diverse interns, your recommendation pipeline will also become more inclusive of all genders and ethnicities.

Karina Nagin — a woman dubbed the “Intern Whisperer” who has extensive experience hiring 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 Only 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 an impressive creed 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 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, interpersonal skills — it’s so much less entitled and more driven.”

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 would be 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 eyes on.

You can go even further to cast a wide 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 myriad 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 established since nearly the beginning that our values are COGIS — Compassion, Openness, Grit, Integrity, and Simplicity. And we have an interview process that integrates those values into the final decision.

Related eBook: Hiring for Company Culture: Why Values-Based Interviewing Matters

If your company still hasn’t established set values, you can check out Justworks’ guide here on how to establish them and begin hiring a 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.