Tag Archives: Annabel Kaye

reputation management

Social media a danger zone for HR professionals

Career coaches are constantly exhorting candidates to take care of their cyber foot print, especially at entry-level. All recruiters and headhunters usually check out applicants online before meeting them. Line managers have been warned to pay attention when liking and sharing inappropriate content on LinkedIn. Many are unaware it all goes out to an individual’s whole network and can potentially damage their personal brand. Direct reports say that it looks creepy!  But social media is now becoming an unforseen danger zone for HR Managers. They too have to be mindful of their social media activity.  Social media posting is now part of the daily routine for those working in the function, but it can have a downside.  Any ill-considered content could be not just be damaging to their reputations, but can also be used in legal action.

Social media activity reflects our belief systems 

There is a new discussion around posting and tweeting  on issues which are important to us personally. They reflect our views, values, our belief systems. But to counter that, they are they also an indication of deeply embedded biases and attitudes. The question is whether they are going to follow us into the workplace and impact our decision-making.  Or are they  a form of authentic expression separate from our professional lives? Adding a disclaimer may be enough for any organisation, but what about a legal process?

Clearly I could never get a job in UKIP or any European Fascist Party. Needless to say I don’t lose sleep over that. Or I might, if there is a populist takeover and all dissenters are rounded up. That has happened before.

Shifting culture

We are seeing increasing cultural and political shifts, with strong feelings and rhetoric on all sides.  Is it possible to separate what we see posted in the public domain, from the person’s ability to do an unbiased, neutral and professional job? The lines are actually very blurred.

Here are two stories that have been shared with me only this week. The names have been changed for obvious reasons.

Aliyha is a research chemist with an international company based near Birmingham, U.K. She has received what she experiences as unconstructive and even obstructive communication from her HR Manager, Alison, regarding her career progression. Aliyha is seeing her peers’ careers developing at a different (i.e. more advantageous) pace.  Last week she discovered quite accidentally that Alison has been very energetically re-tweeting Katie Hopkins over a long period.

I checked out the account and the profile is the usual benign HR blurb: “HR Management, CIPD, mother and wife etc.” She also endorses Katie Hopkins and her opinions somewhat enthusiastically  – at least once a day.  Depending on your point of view, Hopkins will be a “controversial columnist” or a provocative hate generating commentator. She has caused outrage and legal action associated with her comments on immigration, overweight people and even children’s names, as well as personal vindictive attacks resulting in libel suits.  Aliyha asked

“I have no reason to believe that my performance is lower than that of my colleagues. My annual appraisals have always been excellent.  I have never had any problems at all until Alison became my HR Manager.  Is it because I am the daughter of immigrants, a bit on the chubby side and have an Arabic name  – could this be what is coming into play now?”

The answer is we will never know for sure, but there is no doubt that if Aliyha’s complaint becomes a case, her lawyer confirmed he intends to reference Alison’s online and social media activity and support of a racist, as an indicator or her inherent bias and prejudice.

Backlash 

At the other end of the scale Michael is a Trump voter. An HR Director in a security company in San Diego,  he believed his social media activity was minimal. However, he  has openly supported Trump on his Facebook page and posted pro-Trump comments on LinkedIn. Since the November election he has been surprised danger zone for HR professionalsto encounter negative undercurrents from colleagues, who now question his commitment to building a diverse and inclusive workforce for the company.

He has been called a racist and misogynist. His peers and team have told him that even if these are not his personal views, it is clear that he tacitly approves the stance of  President Trump. Michael feels that he has unfairly lost the trust of colleagues and employees and he is the victim of bias and prejudice.

I asked Annabel Kaye, Managing Director Irenicon a UK-based employment law specialist if there is a case.  She agrees social media is a danger zone for HR.

HR Managers should be and always are careful of their online posts. It is entirely possible that Twitter support of Katie Hopkins for example could indicate unconscious racial bias if not active racial prejudice. Whilst it is not definitive proof either way, certainly in the UK it would allow the ‘inference’ to be drawn that any decisions made by the HR person who made those tweets might be influenced by bias and thus put their employer at increased risk of losing a discrimination case.

For this reason most HR people who tweet use things like  “my opinions only – nothing to do with my employer”   on their bio as disclaimers.

But as discrimination cases are often about what people think (consciously or unconsciously) this would still be evidence as to their state of mind. Of course in the UK individuals who make discriminatory decisions are potentially liable as well as the organisation. So all in all, not a good plan to publicly support racists, sexists, or other discriminatory tweeters or characters if you don’t want this coming to an employment tribunal near you.

Of course, this is not definitive proof of discrimination or bias, but it is another item that is going to be used in tribunal.

Separate personal and professional

So what does this mean for HR and our social media activity and how it relates to personal branding and reputation management?  Should HR or even all professionals go back to the old school way of keeping our views on sex, religion and politics separate to our professional personas?  At what point do they decide that social media can be a danger zone for HR managers? And  then what happens if what we tweet is out of alignment with the values of our organization even with a disclaimer?

So where do you stand in the danger zone for HR professionals?

 

 

 

The Lipstick Jungle: Get me out of here!

This continues my series of bullying by women in the work place. Please see previous posts: Bitch or Bully: The Pink Elephant, The Lipstick Jungle, Mascara Mafia , The Petticoat Polemic

For many women, organisations are not safe places. Not only are they more likely to be bullied by a man, but also by another woman. For many this bullying leaves indelible scars, ultimately impacting their long-term view of their future career progression. Forbes research suggests as many as a third of women leave the workplace for one reason or another with 24% indicating straight dissatisfaction. Certainly my sources cited bullying as a major influence. With all the challenges both professional and financial that women face, staying at home with the kids (74%) becomes an attractive option to those in untenable situations.

Changing times
The pace of social change in the last 40 years seems to have left women, despite outstripping men academically, feeling uncertain on how to progress once they enter the workplace. With so-called high EQs, we think they intuitively know what to do, but all indications suggest they don’t. If they act like men, they’re damned. If they act like women, they’re damned too. This results in a maelstrom of confusion. Annabel Kaye reminded us that many bullies are not even aware of their behaviour and there is also a noticeable gap between management and political rhetoric and the realities of organisational life.

Traditional Steps
A further aspect of my research indicated that the support strategy many victims received from coaches generally focused on the healing process: restoration of confidence, letting go of anger and moving on, as well as responding with emotional intelligence. This is all essential, but all the women I was in touch with, without exception, went on to leave their organisations. The research also indicated that HR professionals and line management, despite paying lip service to ethical workplace practises, tend to respond only to hard facts and official complaints. So it seems that something is missing from the traditional process and that other more practical dimensions need to be added.

Early action
In the early days most victims I spoke to felt confused and intimidated by what was happening to them and quite often waited far too long before seeking support, sometimes many months down the line .

Creating an early, time bound, goal – related action plan is key and the earlier the better. If there is a gut feeling over a reasonable period of time that something isn’t right – then it probably isn’t…. somewhere. So investigate. Treat this sensation like any other malaise. A pain in the shoulder, a sore foot, a stomach ache. Would you sit there feeling increasingly debilitated by a physical symptom without investigation? No. Highly unlikely. We can’t sit there and wait for someone to step in and rescue us either – all indicators suggest that this is unlikely to happen.

Defining the context is necessary now. Facts talk. Finding out the guidelines for bullying behaviour in your geographic region, sector or company is a must. Do these companies have a grievance process or a written policy on respectful workplace practises? These are your benchmarks, so establishing what they are and being familiar with the content is important. Knowing your rights and precisely when they are being transgressed is also more empowering than “feeling” bullied. It also will tell you if the line has been crossed into harassment which is legally defined. If this is the case, seek legal and psychological support immediately.

Evaluation of personal performance is next and being clear that all aspects of performance and presence in the workplace are up to scratch. Somewhat contentiously, I actually don’t think that because a person feels bullied, that it necessarily means that they are. I received enough emails from managers, both men and women who struggled to cope with “emotional meltdowns ” from female employees. This is something we women have to work on. So try and get into business neutral.

Evaluation of where this treatment lies on this benchmark spectrum is now important. Be realistic and neutrally objective.

Keeping a log of the incidents is one of the most significant things that can be done at this point. What is being established is a pattern of inappropriate or unreasonable behaviour. Most companies have formal channels for communicating performance or job related issues. This is another benchmark. Is the communication stepping outside these channels? If it is, times and dates should be noted. In addition to putting things into context for the victim, an audit trail and timeline for any future grievance or legal process and constructive dismissal is also being established.

Asking for detailed qualification is one sure way of deflecting verbal abuse and criticism in a calm and business neutral way. A common theme was that criticism was often emotive, imprecise and colloquial. Phrases including, heat and kitchens, stepping up, getting in the zone, knowing the door/score etc were commonly used. Counter that with specific questions” How do you suggest… ”

Paraphrasing is another great technique for reaching an understanding ” Have I understood correctly…” Confirming that in writing is essential. We have also learned that there is no point engaging with a bully head on. This is what they love, to bait a victim until they lash out inappropriately or get upset, especially if they have an audience. Then they really have a case against the victim. Somewhat incredulously, I have heard horror stories about computers and email accounts being hacked by bully bosses (as well as lockers and desks). Without seeming too “Nancy Drew” like, I would suggest sending a blind copy of any correspondence to a secure private email account and keeping a hard copy in a safe place outside the office.

Strategic Action
As an ex – corporate HR professional if any employee comes with a dossier of documented instances of abusive or inappropriate behaviour, they know they are obligated to investigate it. They also know there is a potential law suit waiting in the wings. The victim’s fear is of course is that any action will make things worse. If it does, note any further instances of inappropriate behaviour, because this now is really crossing the line into harassment.

There are always solutions and it’s up to us women to find them. Combining traditional coaching techniques to restore confidence, self-esteem and general healing is vital. But there also needs to be a focus on strategies to highlight these issues within organisations in a way that will allow victims to be heard. Decision makers will not only be forced to take note, but to act, before it’s too late for all parties.

Why? Because no one else will!

mascara mafia

Mascara Mafia: To Debate Or Not?

This continues my series researching the bullying of women By women in the work place. See my 2 posts to date: Bitch or Bully: The Pink Elephant and The Lipstick Jungle: Female Saboteurs

 

The response

I originally set out to benchmark a client’s experience. If I had any preconceived notions, they were centred around bullying being a predominantly male activity and simply wanted to investigate corporate checks and balances, as well as any legal deterrents that dealt with this problem. I have to confess that I also secretly hoped to prove the findings of the New York Times wrong. Somewhat predictably, this sadly, was not to be. My in-box started filling up almost immediately. Broadly speaking the responses fell into 3 categories and can be paraphrased as follows:

  •  Well done Dorothy for highlighting a difficult and sensitive issue which we need to acknowledge and tackle on many levels
  •  What on earth are you thinking Dorothy? Don’t we women have enough obstacles to progression without you dredging up this sort of stuff?
  • Heart breaking case studies, including what sounded like psychotic abuse in some instances, accompanied by pleas for support

Difficult issue

As more and more women pursue professional careers (60% of European graduates are now female) I actually don’t think that this is a topic we can pretend doesn’t exist.

And it won’t go away on its own.

Annabel Kaye Managing Director or Irenicon Ltd UK tells me that victims of female bullying “leave and find another job without complaining at all. On average we find our ‘complainers’ turn out to be the sixth victim. Others come forward if our people are seen to be gaining ground. However many of our complainers settle quietly, signing ‘gagging clauses’ that mean they cannot testify if others come forward and the problem of bullying is buried once again beneath the surface … but the feeling is that it is healthier to move on rather than fight, which leaves systematic bullies and bullying institutions unchallenged and ready for their next crop of victims.

Are women more susceptible to bullying?

Sharon Eden contends “This is a far more complex situation than gender. Being susceptible to bullying also depends on psychological make-up and culture. People who are raised in families or from cultures where assertiveness is frowned on, and politeness and passivity valued, will be more at risk of being bullied in ‘Western type’ organisations.”

Anne Perschel told me “Boys in most cultures are raised with an expectation that they will be a physical aggressor or defender. This may be in the context of the hunt, an invasion or warding off intruders. Girls are not raised with such expectations. As children our play it is in large part, a rehearsal for future roles. Girls do not rehearse for aggression to the degree that boys do. So in grown up life, when a woman is bullied, she doesn’t have the response repertoire easily available. Bullies feed on this. I’ve seen it. When a bully is on the attack, if the victim backs up in fear, the bully keeps aggressing. There have also been suggestions that testosterone is associated with more risk-taking and aggressive behaviors, so it is possible that biology plays a role as well.”

  Corporate Culture

However, it’s also about the organisational culture and what is perceived to be acceptable. My own experiences have been centred on men bullying men, but when that happened in all 3 cases the CEOs were themselves bullies and this modus operandi had become the corporate cultural norm.

Annabel reminds us that “Often the perpetrators are oblivious to their behaviour talking about ‘strong leadership’, ‘tough decisions’ when the reality is they demonstrate the opposite. A strong organisation can tackle these issues successfully – but the fish rots from the head and often it is the board themselves that initiate behaviours that stimulate and encourage bullying. The ‘strong’ thrive on challenge – but the ‘weak’ crumble.

Double bind

All the commentators I consulted agreed without exception, that women in the workplace and in leadership positions, or en route, are in a double bind. As Anne suggests “Women are expected not to be aggressive. It’s okay and expected from men. If they lead with emotional and social intelligence, they don’t get as much credit or notice as do men. We expect women to be social, communal, nurturing and supportive of others. We don’t expect it so much from men, so when they behave accordingly, they are viewed as more extraordinary than a woman who exhibits these same behaviors

Skewed view

Is it just me or is there something wrong with this picture?

  • Women emulating assertive male behaviour for advancement in organisations are perceived negatively… and we talk about that.
  • Women not emulating male behaviour, don’t advance, are again perceived negatively … but we talk about that too.
  • Women advancing themselves via “mascara mafia” tactics are actually behaving negatively, very often go unchallenged and …we don’t talk about it very much at all!

Go figure!

Need to highlight

So no, I don’t think that highlighting an issue that negatively impacts women’s perceptions, performance and progression in the workplace should detract from any advances we would like to make in other areas. Neither should it draw attention away from the impact of any other barriers to progression. In the meantime, women slug it out in sub – board room roles, leading to high job turnover, reduced engagement as well as health issues.

Isn’t it understandable how lower level, lower paid, lower stress jobs become attractive options when women have to factor in family considerations? Where are the men in all of this? Well , they are still sitting pretty at the top. In these positions they will continue to define corporate norms and values and their criteria for what makes a good manager and leader will prevail. In the meantime, women will remain confused and disenchanted, below the glass ceiling.

But as in most cases women have to help themselves and each other to create more secure and meaningful professional lives and business environments, even if it means confronting and finding solutions to eliminate unacceptable behaviour within our own ranks, and putting our own “house” in order. Just as parents who find their teenager has lost his/her way or companies realise they have a product that tanked, it is not the end of the world as we know it. The instances of extreme dysfunctional abuse aside , it’s a problem that can be resolved. There are almost always solutions and we women have to find them.

Why? Because no one else is going to do it for us.

What do you think?

The Lipstick Jungle: Female saboteurs

Bullying of women by women.

Bullying of women by women.

Bullying by Women in the Workplace – Part 2

The sabotaging of women BY women. As part of my series of bullying by women in the work place started in
Bitch or Bully: The Pink Elephant

I am exploring a number of complex and often confusingly over lapping issues. I have consulted a global network of HR professionals, lawyers, bullying specialists, psychologists as well as executive coaches and leaders.  My LinkedIn poll  “Have you experienced bullying in the workplace by a woman?” is still running. Please take it if you haven’t already! Interestingly, although the numbers have been slowly climbing, the percentage analysis has remained consistent . 51% of those polled claim they have personally been bullied by a woman and 25% indicate that they have witnessed it.

These figures reflect all the statistics I have seen elsewhere, dashing my hopes once and for all of disproving their theories. It would seem that despite the increasing number of females in the workplace, many statistics suggest that the business environment has become potentially a more hostile place for many women.

How could this be?
Isabella Lenarduzzi , the founder of Blog Jump, a Belgian organisation for the advancement of women in the workplace makes this comment: “ Studies have shown that relationships can either be the best or the worst thing to happen to women at work: women have a greater capacity than men to affect one another’s professional performance–with better results for all if their interaction is good, and worse results if it is not.”

So what happens when interaction is not good?
Research also shows that women bully other women 2.5 times more frequently than they target men. The bullying weapons of choice in our arsenal tend to be sabotage and the abuse of authority, carried out either subtly or covertly behind closed doors. Women are apparently also more likely to elicit the support of other women, either tacitly or actively, isolating the victim with the creation of a “mascara mafia”, adding further to her distress and feelings of alienation. So our WMD are vocabulary, body language, voice tone, isolation, humiliation and unreasonable or inappropriate demands. You might remember the experiences of my client Jane. Her case it seems is classic text-book and could be taken straight from the syllabus for Bullying 101. The irony is therefore not only are we more likely to be bullied by a man, women are also out ranking men in the harassment of their own gender

Silent Epidemic
This type of bullying, known by the United Nations’ International Labor Organization as the “silent epidemic,” is four times more prevalent than illegal, discriminatory harassment.  Because this type of activity is not illegal, even when complaints are made, HR departments or employers are reluctant to pursue the perpetrator. Very often they know what is going on, but choose to ignore it. As female bullying is usually more covert and does not involve physically abusive, but still no less damaging, it is more difficult to audit and also to prove. Very often (as in Jane’s case) it is accompanied by unsupportive comments about a need to be less sensitive and more assertive. Annabel Kaye Managing Director of UK law firm Irenicon asserts that it can take up to six complaints about the same person to instigate an investigation.

So one bemused question has popped up throughout this research: Isn’t life tough enough for us you ask?

Why do we women sabotage each other?
Sharon Eden offers one explanation:
Sociological research has indicated it seems to be a biological imperative that women compete for the ‘best’ male so that their offspring are more likely to survive. This spills over into the executive suite where men still predominate and some psychologically unaware women wipe out the female ‘opposition’ for male attention

So at some primal sub-conscious level in our lipstick jungle, it would appear that we are clearly brushing down our business suits and sharpening our French manicures in order to compete for the attention of the best males, by annihilating any actual or perceived threats …anyway we can. As these men tend to be found at the top of the pyramid the “battle” intensifies. Research on bully behaviour and harassment at the Workplace Bullying Institute also suggests that regardless of gender, bullying is deeply rooted in insecurity resulting in a need for power and control, with the perpetrator seeking out a perceived weaker employee to dominate. This process actually makes the bully feel better about themselves.

Mary Pearson, who has been writing about bullying for a number of years elaborates “A workplace bully, whether male or female, ensures their intimidation tactics are witnessed. They gain control over a larger group by isolating and victimizing one or two people, more brutally than others. It’s a similar tactic to what a terrorist uses instilling fear in a community through picking a single victim”.

But can it also be that in our desire to get to the top the communication style of women is misunderstood? Can our attempts at being tough turn into bullying? Perhaps we are we caught between the gender stereotyping equivalent of a rock and a hard place. Damned if we do. Damned if we don’t

Isabella suggests ” Women in leadership positions find themselves with an identity dilemma: if they act like a typical male leader, they are perceived as ‘hard’ or ‘cold’, because their behaviour jars with that of the stereotypical woman

Although this goes someway to explaining some aspects of the problem, the “hard ” approach of mimicking male behaviour, it doesn’t cover the type of pernicious and inexplicable treatment that Jane and so many others experience. As Annabel Kayesuggested in my last post, many victims are so ground down, they simply resign.

So while we women bleat endlessly about glass ceilings, timidity at the negotiating table, and under representation in a corporate world, there seems to be very strong indications that in many cases we are actually our own worst enemies. The concentration of females in the corporate population hovers below board level. While there are obviously other legitimate factors preventing advancement, it would seem that part of this blockage is that many women directly sabotage their female colleagues or subordinates and therefore ultimately themselves.

At some point we have to take responsibility for this. The question is how.

What do you think?

Bitch or Bully: The Pink Elephant

Part I of 5 in my series on bullying by women in the work place.

I am exploring a number of complex and often confusingly over lapping issues. I have consulted a global network of HR professionals, lawyers, bullying specialists, psychologists as well as executive coaches and leaders. I have also heard from ” targets”  themselves.

A few weeks ago I was contacted by a client. I’ll call her Jane. She was struggling to have a successful and equable working relationship with her new boss of 9 months. Her husband thought she needed to ” step up , toughen up and be more assertive”. Whatever was going on was impacting her negatively. She felt she was wearing the departmental scarlet letter, sleeping badly, starting to dread going into work and feeling distanced from her colleagues.

Not only did she feel that she was being singled out for exceptional treatment, but that she was being openly bullied . What had surprised Jane the most in the whole process was that her new boss was a woman.

A can of worms
For me this opened a mental can of worms. What exactly is bullying? Did I really know? When does strong management and bitchiness cross the line into tyranny? How prevalent is the issue of bullying by women? Do we really sweep it under the carpet? Is this issue the pink elephant in our sitting rooms that we don’t talk about?

In my own career I have worked in environments where I have witnessed bullying of the most appalling nature both physical and psychological, so I thought I knew what it was. In one extreme case it led to a complete nervous breakdown, in the other chronic depression leading to heavy drinking and marital breakdown. I have a family member who actually received a written death threat from a senior manager. In many of our minds it’s associated with raging, verbal and physical abuse, Machiavellian sabotaging and back stabbing. I have never been in a situation where the perpetrator was a woman. So where are all those soft skills, empathy and high EQ that we are supposed to have and read about?

Jane’s story :

  • she was  singled out for public criticism about her work and appearance
  • she was regularly called into bosses office at 17.20 to be given additional work with tight deadlines
  • she was excluded from email circulation lists and meetings
  • the only person in the department not invited to a social event at boss’ house
  •  attempts to discuss had been dismissed with contempt
  •  The HR department would only get involved if a formal complaint was made

So what is bullying really?
Annabel Kay of Irenicon offers this legal input about the UK legal system ” Interestingly at the moment there is no actual legal definition in terms of a statute defining it, the ACAS code and case law provide a guide (common law) – but that is it. “

Another lawyer in the US confirmed this ” although harassment has a clear legal definition, bullying does not, only guidelines”.

Jane Perdue suggests that ” Bullying is behavioral based actions that repeatedly humiliate, intimidate, frighten, offend someone, making them feel defenseless, particularly coming from a person in position of authority or with much influence . Acts/behaviors can be overt or covert such as personal attacks or social ostracism. In my view bitchiness crosses the line when it’s repeated, takes on notes of intimidation & becomes a believable threat, particularly from a woman

Annabel goes on to add that “The real problem in dealing with bullying in the workplace is that by the time the ‘victim’ feels desperate enough to complain, they are in no fit state to endure the rigours of formal grievance hearings and appeals and possibly employment tribunals .”

A Poll
The New York Times says that today 70% of cases of women reporting being bullied was by other women. This seemed incredibly high and feeling loyal to the sisterhood, I decided to conduct my own poll on LinkedIn. Have you ever been bullied in the workplace by a woman? Please take a few seconds to participate and read the results to date. It will be open until the end of the April.

Within 24 hours I had over 100 responses and my mail box flooded with stories, insights and perceptions, too many to cover here on the whole issue of female bullying.

In the meantime I am going to collate all the comments and feedback. I have invited leadership specialists, HR practitioners and communication experts to contribute their views over the next few weeks. Here are just a few of your thoughts that have been tossed out to me:

  • If someone feels bullied – does that mean they are, or just being sensitive?
  • When does strong or tough management cross the line into intimidation?
  • Do women feel they have to act like men in, or en route, to leadership positions?
  • Do reports expect female managers to behave differently?
  • Why do women sabotage other women?
  • Are women easier to bully than men?
  • What should the role of HR be in dealing with issues such as this?
  • When does passivity become enabling?

In case you think I’ve forgotten about Jane, this process is ongoing.

What do you think? Workplace bitch or bully? Or are they one and the same?

Part 2: The Lipstick Jungle: Female Saboteurs 

Part 3:  The Mascara Mafia   

Part 4: The Petticoat Polemic: the role of the organisation

Part 5: Whatever happened to Jane?

The enslavement of Gen Y

The enslavement of Gen Y

                                       

  A new  form of slave labour resulting in the enslavement of Gen Y.

We are all very aware of different forms of exploitation in the corporate world. I’m not even talking about sweat shops or fields in emerging markets, but something that exists  in businesses right in front of our eyes: on our high streets, in our business parks and industrial estates. In some cases these organisations are well-known household names: we watch their programmes, read their newspapers and magazines, wear their clothes, go to their galleries or shops, and buy their products.

I’m talking about the explosion of unpaid interns
One of my most popular posts is  “Unpaid internships: Opportunity or Exploitation? ”   As a result of this article I receive mails regularly  from interns, graduates, unemployed young people as well as parents, all commenting or asking about this issue. I have a strong interest in this as subject my son is currently working as an unpaid intern,  so I am tapped into that generation on a very personal level. It also means that many of my friends are supporting their graduates in these “opportunities” with subsequent personal sacrifice. They actually feel, (as I do!) that they are contributing to the bottom line of sometimes large and profitable international companies. Professionally, I coach and mentor some entry level graduates and see and empathise with their dilemmas.

Exploitation
Not only are these young adults working for nothing , some are not even getting reimbursement of their travel expenses or a sandwich at lunchtime.  The only light at the end of their very dubious tunnel is the promise of a reference, rather than a permanent job opportunity.   In many cases there are no training  programmes or even supervisory arrangements in place.   One graduate I am in contact with is being supervised by another unpaid intern  who has only 6 weeks more work experience  than he does!  The phrase the blind leading the blind comes to mind. Overtime is frequently demanded and he is pressurised to meet tight deadlines for specific commercial projects by working from home. One intern was even asked to bring his own computer (desk top)  into the office. Another graduate is working in an organisation where over 75% of the staff are made up of unpaid interns.

Many graduates are now moving from one unpaid internship to another.  Increasingly, this seems to me simply a way of getting some of the brightest and best of our young talent to  contribute to these organisations for free !

Intern explosion
The word  “intern” has slipped into global biz speak to convey some sort of traineeship or learning situation, replacing the older word apprentice, which had become slightly outmoded until very recently, when it re-surfaced on a  popular TV show by the same name. As the stories of these young people unfold, I begin to question the morality of a situation which seems to me to be a flagrant abuse of the economic downturn for corporate gain. There seems to be a regression to the same exploitive employment practises that existed throughout the centuries, which ironically generations of campaigners have actually fought to eradicate.  Currently it seems that unpaid internships are exploding without restriction.

History
The history of apprenticeships  comes from the earliest times. In Egypt and Babylon, training in craft skills was organized to maintain an adequate number of craftsmen  and as a way of passing on skills to the next generation. In Europe in the Middle Ages families signed apprenticeship agreements and  sometimes paid stipends for their offspring to learn a trade to protect their long term economic well being.  But this was at a time when most children did not have access to formal education, when the number of apprenticeships a ” master” could hire leg ironswas controlled. There was also another darker aspect of the apprenticeship  system  where  “indentured servants” were simply exploited to provide a free service to their masters. But even these poor souls received some sort of board and lodging.

Legal situation
I know from my network that the intern system is internationally used and abused and although the implementation seems to be fuzzy, the legal framework seems to be clear! In the US, the Department of Labor has applied certain stipulations. The basic principle behind legal unpaid internships is simple – they should be for the benefit of the intern and the work should not involve anything operationally vital or replace the job of a full time permanent employee. This could include any basic tasks that helps support a business,  including routine administration work.  Mark Cuban owner of the Dallas Mavericks makes a valid point when he wanted to hire unpaid interns  “Thus we would have to create work that is useless to us if we choose not to pay them. How silly is that?” . . . Indeed interns themselves want to do something useful. But it begs the point why couldn’t they be paid – something at least.

According to Annabel Kaye,  Managing Director, Irenicon Ltd, a firm specialising in employment law based in Croydon, Surrey, said  “in the UK, anyone performing work (whether as an employee or a worker) is entitled to the National Minimum Wage (at an appropriate level) unless they fall within specific and limited exemptions.  

 These include:  1) On specific government training schemes, or  2) On European Social Funded or Government funded placements of less than six weeks or 3) Volunteers working for a charity, voluntary organisation (such as a local community organisation) associated fund raising body or statutory body or 4) Students on a course involving  work experience of not more than one year.

Individuals on an ‘internship’ leading to paid employment are often entitled to minimum wage throughout their ‘internship’ and paid employment period.

Penalties for employers
There is no  doubt that this system is being abused. So are there deterrents? Annabel told me that they are indeed quite significant in the UK at least ” If an organisation has underpaid minimum wage then the penalties are quite high once the wheels are in motion , apart from having to pay the intern the appropriate wages (going back over 3 years to all underpaid employees) ”    plus additional penalty payments.

However, a complaint has to be made,  not necessarily by the employee.  The young people themselves, fear reprisals and will not step up.  Her concern is  that  any complaints  about abuse will reduce the number of internships available “  The exploiters of interns will  bring down an enforcement regime , that will ultimately reduce the number of ‘good’ places as well as ‘bad’.”

I am not taking a stance on unpaid internships per se.There are excellent reasons why internships when entered into in the spirit they are intended can bring positive results for both  business and intern alike. Companies can benefit from fresh new talent and test them without going through an  expensive hiring and perhaps firing process. This is especially helpful with new technologies,   giving  organisations access to knowledge and skills that would cost signficantly more if they used a normal consulting company. Interns gain insights into the workings of their chosen sector and get used to a work structure after several years as students.

It can be a win/win. But  if the fine line between use and abuse is crossed, it is no different from some historic forms of exploitation and slave labour.

What do you think?

Note :  For UK interns only :   Annabel suggests that anyone who is being (or has been) under paid can call the Pay and Work Rights Helpline on Tel 0800 917 2368. They take complaints from workers, employers and third parties 

Anyone on job seekers allowance (JSA) can undertake voluntary work as long as this does not detract from their job search or availability for interviews. The Government have made specific provision for unpaid internships of up to 13 weeks,  which can run alongside claiming JSA. Reimbursement of limited expenses should not affect Job Seekers allowance but should be declared to the Job Centre Plus Office. 

You can download a booklet on this from : http://www.jobcentreplus.gov.uk/jcp/stellent/groups/jcp/documents/websitecontent/dev_015837.pdf

Special thanks to Annabel Kaye, Managing Director,  Irenicon Ltd : Airport House, Purley Way, Croydon, Surrey, CR0 0XZ , Tel:  08452 303050