Earlier this year, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg published the book Lean In – Women, Work, and the Will to Lead. While controversial, the book’s success allowed Sandberg to found Lean In, a non-profit that offers women “the ongoing inspiration and support to help them achieve their goals.” The organization’s site features inspirational stories, lectures on leadership, and interviews with high-profile women.
· 265,131 Facebook likes
· 34,105 Twitter followers
On Tuesday, August 13, Jessica Bennett, Lean In’s Editor-at-Large, posted an ad for an intern on her personal Facebook timeline:
Wanted: Lean In editorial intern to work with our editor (me) in New York. Part-time, unpaid […] and able to commit to a regular schedule through the end of the year.
The listing also asked that candidates have web skills, design skills, and “social chops.”
To many of Bennett’s followers, this posting was ironic; Lean In’s philosophy exhorted women in business to help other women, yet Bennett was asking a (presumably female) intern to work for free, for around five months, while living in one of the most expensive cities in the country. They posted almost 300 comments on Bennett’s post, including “What in your world makes you think it is ok to exploit people?” and “To not pay your intern for an organization and job like this is not only laughable but mostly pathetic.”
Critics were particularly outraged because Sheryl Sandberg had made news just a few days earlier by selling her Facebook stock for $91 million. Surely the organization she founded could use a tiny part of that money to pay an intern?
The next day, Bennett posted this response, addressed to “What Appears to Be My Entire Facebook Feed”:
Want to clarify previous Lean In post. This was MY post, on MY feed, looking for a volunteer to help me in New York. LOTS of nonprofits accept volunteers. This was NOT an official Lean In job posting. Let's all take a deep breath.
Needless to say, critics didn’t like being told to take a deep breath. Along with that insult, they pointed out that Bennett’s original ad began with the very words “Lean In editorial intern,” for a position assisting the Lean In Editor-At-Large, and thus was very much an “official Lean In job posting.” 200 angry responses followed.
The flap was covered on ValleyWag, which called Bennett’s actions a “shame” and a “disgrace”. On those sites, most of the commenters united around the idea that interns should be paid on moral, legal, and financial grounds. Some were galled by the “regular schedule” commitment demanded by the listing: “You want someone to commit to a very specific timeframe? Fine. Pay for it.”
On Thursday, Lean In president Rachel Thomas posted on Lean In’s official Facebook page, saying she “recognized the ongoing public debate.” It read, in part:
Like many nonprofits, LeanIn.Org has attracted volunteers who are passionate about our mission. The posting that prompted this discussion was for a position that doesn’t fall within LeanIn.Org's definition of a “volunteer.”
As a startup, we haven’t had a formal internship program. Moving forward we plan to, and it will be paid. We support equality - and that includes fair pay - and we’ll continue to push for change in our own organization and our broader community.
No one asked why an organization’s president had to “push for change.” Why couldn’t she make the change her own?
Of the 194 comments to Thomas’ post, at least half of them were positive, such as “I don’t see the problem with unpaid internships. It’s an opportunity to gain experience, not a career move” and “I appreciate the responsiveness and care you took with this issue.”
Much of the discussion turned to the difference between a non-profit “volunteer” and an “intern.” Gripes about the $91 million mostly disappeared.
So the matter seems to be resolved. This debacle, along with the recent court ruling in the Fox Searchlight Pictures case, the era of unpaid internships may be coming to an end.
So you don't hire unpaid interns. There are still valuable lessons to take from the Lean In case.
- Don’t Disappear or Delete
To Jessica Bennett’s credit, she left up her original job listing, unedited, along with its hundreds of negative comments. She also responded to the critics the very next day…though she only added fuel to the fire. Still, she left those negative comments up as well. Her Facebook profile is public, so the posts and comments can be seen by anyone who is signed in, even now.
- Acknowledge the Critics
Bennett’s dismissive response to “take a deep breath” did nothing to stop the critics. But when Rachel Thomas appeared and acknowledged the uproar, it died down. While she didn’t promise anything specific, Thomas said she believed in fair pay and would “push for change” at Lean In. Bennett didn’t say that at all, and even appeared to be lying about what an official Lean In job was.
- Learn the Law
Plenty of commenters brought up the legal definition of an intern, which includes the fact that it is “similar to training” and “doesn’t displace regular employees.” Neither Bennett nor Thomas defended the job’s classification except to say that it didn’t fit Lean In’s definition of volunteer, whatever that is. If you’re hiring an intern, make sure you know what you’re offering and what you’re getting.
Perhaps the lucky intern who gets the position will write about her experience and add another point of view to this important debate.