Some of the lawyers on my blogroll have been poking fun at a guy named Jack Marshall. He calls himself an “ethicist,” runs a consulting firm called ProEthics, and has a blog called Ethics Alarms. I don’t really know anything about him, but I thought his blog might make a good source of stuff for me to write about.
For the most part, his blog turns out to be about ethical situations I don’t find interesting — baseball, politics, frivolous lawsuits — but then I found one from a few days ago that I can work with:
Ethics Pop Quiz: “What’s Unethical About Auctioning Intern Positions?”
Are you ready to exercise those ethics brain cells?
The News Alert blog is reporting that the Huffington Post auctioned off an intern position for $9000, and another internship–three weeks of it with Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Atlantic Airways, and three weeks with hip-hop entrepreneur Russell Simmons — was auctioned off for $85,000, to benefit Simmons’s charity, Rush Philanthropic.
Question: Is there anything unethical about this, and if so, what?
My answer will not surprise my regular readers: No, there is nothing unethical about this. Neither the organizations providing the internships nor the people bidding for them are being coerced. The transaction would not have gone through unless all parties found it acceptable. Since everyone involved likes the outcome, there’s no ethical objection.
Marshall, however, sees a problem:
Answer: It is unethical to have interns do substantive work without paying them, and it is more unethical to make them pay for the privilege of being exploited.
How did HuffPo or Virgin make people pay? It’s hard to imagine a more voluntary market activity than casting bids in an auction.
When a for-profit organization allows an intern to work without compensation, it is 1) taking advantage of workers desperate for experience, 2) skirting the minimum wage laws, and frequently 3) using unpaid interns to take a job that an unemployed worker could fill.
Wow. That single sentence has an amazing amount of muddled thinking. Start with the qualifier “for-profit.” None of the issues he mentions in the rest of the sentence depend on the for-profit or non-profit status of the organization. Marshall is saying these interns are being exploited, but by singling out for-profit organizations, he’s implying that it’s okay for non-profit organizations to exploit people. I suspect he thinks there’s nothing wrong with non-profit organizations accepting volunteers, and he’s trying to hand-wave the distinction.
The first issues he raises, “taking advantage of workers desperate for experience,” is probably the strongest one, in the sense that not paying people for productive work seems exploitive to a lot of people. However, the fact that people have volunteered for these positions, and even paid for them, implies that they must believe they are getting something valuable in return. I think “taking advantage of workers desperate for experience” is probably better read as “providing experience to people desperate to acquire it.”
The second issue, “skirting the minimum wage laws,” is a mind-boggling muddle all by itself. First of all, correct me if I’m wrong, but if you’re skirting the laws, aren’t you obeying them? Second, the minimum wage laws have the same logical form as the ethical issue itself, so appealing to them is a form of begging the question. Third, it implicitly assumes that anything illegal is also unethical, which seems to make it impossible to ever change the law.
The third issue, “using unpaid interns to take a job that an unemployed worker could fill,” is the silliest of them all. What possible change could we make to the intern’s terms of employment that would not take a job that an unemployed worker could fill? Even if the company paid their interns 10 million dollars per hour, the other guy would still be out of a job. And if we give the intern’s job to the other guy, doesn’t that leave the intern unemployed?
If the internship has no real educational value and consists of medial tasks, it’s unfair to the intern for that reason too.
If the internship has no real educational value and consists of menial tasks, don’t you think the intern would quit? I’m sure people wanted these internships because they expected to get something out of them.
The fact that someone agrees to be mistreated doesn’t relieve a person or an organization from the ethical obligation not to mistreat them. Just because you know you can get someone to work for unfair compensation doesn’t make the compensation fair.
I’m not sure why you need a concept of “fair” beyond the fact that people are willing to work for it. To put it another way, if the people who accept the compensation think it’s fair enough for them, who are we to question their judgement?
Auctioning off the exploitive internship to the highest bidder just compounds the unfairness. The interns are now being chosen according to financial means rather than merit. Whether or not the money goes to charity, this is ethically indistinguishable from a bribe or a kickback. “Okay: we have ten good candidates for this internship. Who’s willing to pay the most for it? Cash only!” This method of choosing interns would be unethical for paid internships.
What makes bribes unethical is that the person receiving the bribe is dishonoring a duty. A facilities manager who picks a roofing contractor because he got a kickback is betraying the interests of his employer in finding a good roofer, and a building inspector who overlooks faulty wiring because of a bribe is betraying the city that pays him to keep buildings safe. In the case of the auctioned internships, no one is being betrayed. A professional ethicist should be able to spot a distinction like this.
I imagine that spending time at a major media organization or hanging out with captains of industry is a pretty educational experience. I’m sure plenty of people are willing to pay for those experiences. If there’s an ethics issue here, it’s not that people paid for internships, it’s whether or not they got good value for their money…which is the same question we have about any purchase.