Journalism in the Public Interest

Sandberg’s Lean In Called For an Unpaid Intern – And That’s Apparently Legal

The nonprofit, which aims to empower women to achieve their goals, advertised online for an unpaid intern. And it was apparently legal for them to do so. 


(Photo: World Economic Forum/Jolanda Flubacher)

Aug. 16: This post has been corrected and updated.

A top editor at Lean In, the nonprofit offshoot of Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s book about empowering women to achieve their goals, has come under fire for seeking an unpaid intern.

And though many online questioned the ethics of the position, it likely would have been legal for the nonprofit to do so.

Jessica Bennett, Lean In’s Editor-at-Large, posted on Facebook yesterday: "Wanted: editorial intern, to work with our editor (me) in New York. Part-time, unpaid, must be HIGHLY organized with editorial and social chops and able to commit to a regular schedule through end of year. Design and web skills a plus! HIT ME UP. Start date ASAP."

The public was less than pleased. Noting that the unpaid position seemed to conflict with the organization’s mission to help women “pursue their ambitions,” over 200 people replied to Bennett’s post, the bulk of them saying the organization should pony up:

“By restricting it to those who can afford to have done all that and live in NYC without pay on a permanent position, you excluded an awful a lot of people, namely those with less possessions and women included. Your medium and behavior does not meet the message – and that is a tremendous shame.” – Sofia Diogo Mateius

“Unpaid work, be it internships for young women or volunteer positions for older moms, is exploitive. Shame on you lean in. Pay up.” – Michele Morris

“Have to agree, the message is, at best, mixed, here. What you are “offering” and what the organization supposedly stands for, stand in contrast.” – Shawn Eggers Gypsea

It’s worth noting that three-quarters of unpaid interns are women, according to a recent study.

But despite the online uproar, Lean In is likely not under any legal obligation to pay their interns — because Lean In is a nonprofit, any unpaid interns would be deemed “generally permissible” under federal guidelines issued by the Department of Labor.

Within a few hours of her original post, Bennett clarified that she was indeed looking for a volunteer, not an unpaid intern. “Since I joined Lean In, many people have reached out asking if they can volunteer – and specifically, intern. This was MY post, looking for a volunteer to help me in New York. LOTS of nonprofits accept volunteers. This was NOT an official Lean In job posting. Sorry for the confusion.”

Lean In spokeswoman Andrea Saul also sent us a statement emphasizing that the opening was a volunteer position.

“LeanIn.Org, like many nonprofits, has enjoyed the participation of some part-time volunteers to help us advance our education and peer support programs,” Saul said.

We have reached out to Bennett, and will update this post if she responds.

Update: Lean In Pledges to Establish Paid Internship Program

Late Thursday, Lean In president Rachel Thomas posted a statement on Facebook, noting that while the organization has worked with volunteers in the past, the position in question “doesn’t fall within LeanIn.Org’s definition of ‘volunteer.’”

“As a startup, we haven’t had a formal internship program,” she continued. “Moving forward we plan to, and it will be paid.”

When asked what the difference is between an unpaid intern and a volunteer, professor of labor law David Yamada laughed. "If I had the answer to that, I could be a sitting federal judge."

The difference between an unpaid intern and a volunteer at a nonprofit is simply a complicated issue, Yamada said.

"I don’t think anyone thought about this when the law was being drafted. Internships weren’t a big deal in the 1930s when they were drafting this statute. Now the intern economy is raising questions that weren’t an issue before," he said.

Correction: This post has been corrected to note that federal guidelines for unpaid interns at nonprofits are issued by the Department of Labor, not contained in the Fair Labor Standards Act. We also changed the headline from "perfectly legal" to "apparently legal" to reflect this distinction.

Oh please. An organization only meets the legal standard for unpaid interns when it provides a training/learning opportunity. If you read the lengthier description of the job, it was for scut work—not learning.

Considering no emphasis on mentoring direction, and that volunteering is a historical means of making involvement less-encroaching in social influence, and posting does not orient a flexible schedule for volunteer considerate of income demands, can’t blame all the negative feedback and am surprised they don’t feel the clash of alignment with their mission.

*female involvement
*youth involvement

To be fair, they only help women strive.  Nobody said anything about helping them succeed.  And it’s consistent, after all, with the message that women should work a million unpaid hours to prove their worth like a man would.

Admittedly, I am not Sandberg’s biggest fan, professionally or philosophically.

Just to float a random idea, though, I notice I have a much stronger reaction to unpaid interns in government and at non-profits than I do in industry.  Seems to me that a decent corporate internship is likely to be something of an apprenticeship, whereas the “volunteer”-like interns always seem like well-dressed Morlocks serving their “betters.”

Correction: her response to the public’s outcry was not “sorry for the confusion.” It was this tasty morsel of condescension:

“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.”

“Let’s all take a deep breath”? Wow.

Get their 990s and publish her salary etc.

Mary Caulfield

Aug. 15, 2013, 3:44 p.m.

Her denials are too little, too late. She wants a trained, socially acceptable slave.

Way, way back I was a new assistant—for $10,000.00 a year—at an elite publishing firm in Union Square. One particular editor was mentally ill. He had a terror of flying. He sent me to the airport—in my own car—to get him a seat assignment—way before the internet, folks—and because I waited until I drove back to Manhattan to tell him about it instead of calling him right then and there, he had me fired.

These upper-class snobs are so cossetted by their money they unwittingly become the most entitled people on God’s green earth.  Their ignorance is doubled by their lack of awareness. Stay away.

Robert Spottswood

Aug. 15, 2013, 4:23 p.m.

Excessive money brings with it a childlike sense of impunity.
And impunity, as journalist Naomi Klein observed, leads to a kind of “delusional decadence”.
We should no longer be surprised to see this.

Please report accurately. Her response did NOT end with “Sorry for the confusion.” It ended with “Let’s all take a deep breath,” which is quite a different sentiment (and what I believe is irking people even further).

She could have done so much more for women, Leanin, and the economy by just hiring an assistant,paid intern, or even a contract employee (ie…work for x amount of weeks, x hrs per day, and then bye bye). Instead she showed her ignorance and arrogance. There really are people like that out there folks.

Mary Caulfield

Aug. 15, 2013, 5:06 p.m.

@ Spotwood Oh, that is a good point. I hadn’t thought of it. I hadn’t read Naomi Klein. Very savory phrases.

Erland Flaten

Aug. 15, 2013, 5:55 p.m.

I have both read and heard about the misuse of interns as free labour in the US. What they ask for here is clearly a professional. This bad trend is coming to Norway too. Adverticing before editorial, I guess. More greed in ad. If Sheryl Sandberg wants to give women an opportunity. Please stop using the porn-like images on the Facebook ads for those “Get a new wife from Ukraina. Now.” ads.

Oh, I think we’re giving them too much credit that it’s “delusional” or “unwitting.”  Consider how many books you’ve read and how many movies you’ve seen where horrid little savages (in the jungles or on the streets) only need a rich white guy to walk in and snap them into a force for good, after bashing some heads to show he means business, of course.

In the last century (when that was the plot of nearly any Wells or Burroughs story—think “The Time Machine” or “Tarzan of the Apes”), the overt masculinity has become less of a requirement at times, and white skin is no longer an absolute requirement, but “noblesse oblige” and “white man’s burden” isn’t yet a foreign concept.

Incidentally, “sorry for” what confusion, incidentally?  She still offered an unpaid job.  It sounds to me like a desperate attempt to keep this from spilling over onto the precious book sales or Facebook’s stock price.

Mary Caulfield

Aug. 16, 2013, 10:05 a.m.

An unpaid job that demanded a whole lot of experience and flexibility. Slavery by another name.

Most internships are unpaid for credit in school and they are to do really nothing but follow people around.  If that’s what it takes to get ahead then you get the internship, work hard and THEN get the paid job.  Suzy Orman says work without expecting the reward…then the reward will come if you’ve earned it.  NOt the other way around unless you feel entitled to it and you’re not.  You want something you find a way to get it.

Mary Caulfield

Aug. 16, 2013, 4:22 p.m.

Well, this is an unusual internship then. It sounded as if it were a job with responsibilities: editorial know how, social “chops,” well-developed organizational skills and a commitment to a regular schedule. It’s not at all like the typical internship you describe. I’ve had jobs, never had an internship.

I’ve done lots of work without getting the reward, and my employers benefitted greatly by my ignorance. Suzy Orman may be right about some things, but even she must admit sometimes the job goes to someone who has intangibles, like connections, rather than to the one who does it best.

There are plenty of people who want something: a a place to live, food and a job! And if entry level jobs are going to people who can do them for nothing, they might have to turn to less savory means to get their food and shelter.

Be real.

Does Jessica Bennett still have her job?
If so - why?
I say - lean out. Plenty of folks out there who would be better choices, and less defensive and snide when caught red-handed making a dumb error.
Bub bye Bennett…

Alejandro Moreno S.

Aug. 17, 2013, 3:17 p.m.

“Volunteer”...yeah, right

@Mary Caulfield,
that’s a good example. Staying away however seems hard for many who look up to these corporate / high level snobs. This is just plain exploitation - because she needs a well trained person, and not a noob. besides, this isn’t some small town , but a very expensive place in the country, office commute/ business dressing and food expenses might equal a small salary! ...and since the person is willing to sucker up to this proposal, they might as well, make it a privilege to work for the high and mighty , extend work hours and extend the privilege!

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