HR Experts Urge More Protections for Interns

By Steve Bates Sep 10, 2013
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HR experts are urging employers to provide more protections for interns after the Aug. 15, 2013, death in London of a 21-year-old financial services intern who reportedly worked nearly around the clock for three days.

As of Sept. 9, 2013, the official cause of death had not been reported for Moritz Erhardt, who had secured a coveted summer internship at Bank of America Merrill Lynch. Some news reports suggested that he had an underlying medical condition.

The death has shed light on the working habits of interns in the financial services industry and certain other high-pressure fields in the U.K., the U.S. and elsewhere. Many interns buy into the culture that suggests that only those who work the longest hours have a chance at being hired for regular employment.

While experts say that HR professionals should strive to create internship programs that focus on providing young people with positive experiences, they add that the primary responsibility for making interns safe remains with senior executives, through leadership, and with line managers, through close supervision.

“Give line managers some training and guidance before things go wrong,” advised Katerina Rudiger, head of skills and policy campaign at the London-based Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development.

“It’s about improving those core leadership and management skills,” said Chris Roebuck, a global consultant and a visiting professor at the Cass Business School in London.

Opting Out of Guidelines

There are guidelines in the U.K. for the hours that employees work, but many companies, particularly large multinational firms, opt out of them routinely. The guidelines, based on a policy directive of the European Union, were designed to give workers the right to rest for at least 11 hours in any 24 hours, to restrict excessive night work and to limit work to 48 hours per week.

In the U.S., there are no broad laws or regulations limiting the number of hours that can be worked—only guarantees of overtime pay for those who qualify, experts say. A spokesman for the U.S. Department of Labor did not return calls by publication time.

The death of Erhardt stunned many in the U.K. John McIvor, head of international communications for Bank of America Merrill Lynch, told SHRM Online in an e-mail that “We are deeply shocked and saddened by the news of Moritz Erhardt’s death. Moritz Erhardt was popular amongst his peers and was a highly diligent intern at our company with a bright future.”

McIvor added that the company has “convened a formal senior working group to consider the facts as they become known, to review all aspects of this tragedy, to listen to employees at all levels and to help us learn from them.”

Marv Russell, a Boynton Beach, Fla.-based speaker, author, consultant and executive coach, said he found it “kind of surprising” that there are no general laws or regulations restricting hours worked by interns or regular employees in the U.S.

He said the global financial services industry has been ethically challenged for years and that its executives and managers need to understand that their culture can cause young people to put themselves at risk.

“Even for an experienced employee, it’s hard to come forward to talk about bad working conditions,” Russell said. “You can’t expect an 18- or 19-year-old to do that.” He suggested that colleges teach “workplace survival skills.”

When organizations invest in young people, such as through internships, they have an opportunity to build an employer brand, Rudiger said. “It’s in the employer’s interest to do it well.”

‘Somebody Needs to Be Responsible’

But, Rudiger noted, it shouldn’t take a death to incentivize companies to ensure that working conditions are safe—for interns and for regular employees. “Somebody needs to be responsible and say ‘What’s going on?’ ”

“Organizations sometimes forget that people do not function like machines,” said Ken Matos, Ph.D., senior director of employment research and practice at the New York City-based Families and Work Institute. “Just look at people’s schedules: Ask ‘When do you eat? When do you sleep?’ If it’s not obvious, something is wrong,” Matos said.

Sometimes, Matos added, “Managers need to take that step of changing the culture.”

There is precedent for restricting hours. Work limits for medical residents have been debated for years. Airline pilots and others who work in safety-critical jobs have workload restrictions, Roebuck noted. But the vast majority of workers are at the mercy of line managers, many of whom lack the skills to manage people effectively, he said.

However, the intern job market might be in for a course correction.

“Interns are starting to challenge programs that treat them poorly,” said Nathan Parcells, co-founder of online job aid service InternMatch, noting that lawsuits are targeting some industries in the U.S. for not paying interns. “Students are finding more of a voice and are more tech-savvy.”

Allison Cheston, a New York City-based career advisor, agreed. Millennials are “voting with their feet” and avoiding financial services and other high-pressure internships and careers. “values have shifted,” she said. “The power is really in the hands of this generation.”

Steve Bates is a freelance writer based in the Washington, D.C., area and a former writer and editor for SHRM.​​

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