5 Ways to Build a Diverse Internship Program

This post originally appeared on Justworks' blog

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.

But how should your team approach the intern hiring process so as not to select people only from similar backgrounds and experiences?

As luck would have it, sourcing interns 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 can your team not only approach 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.

1. 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.

Perhaps most importantly, with a few exceptions, not paying your interns has the potential of putting your company at risk.

As Nancy J. Leppink said during her tenure with the Department of Labor, “If you’re a for-profit employer or you want to pursue an internship with a for-profit employer, there aren’t going to be many circumstances where you can have an internship and not be paid and still be in compliance with the law.” Interns in the for-profit private sector will most often be viewed as “employees”under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) and typically must be paid at least the minimum wage and overtime pay for hours worked over forty in a workweek.

The U.S. Department of Labor uses a six-factor test to determine whether an intern is a trainee or 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.

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.

2. Lean On Recommendations After You’ve Built Out Your 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.”

3. 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.

4. 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

5. 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.

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.