Ethics in internships and practicums

Ross Woods, 2018

For the purposes of this article, internships are programs where students learn on the job in order to earn a college qualification, but are not paid for their services. They might have to pay for college supervision and might be funded by government study loans. Similar ethical contraints affect college practicums, where students are placed with employers to learn on the job or to be assessed on what they have learned.

The ethical guideline is that students’ activities must primarily be a learning and assessment experience.

Admittedly, the intern must do enough valuable work to justify training. In other words, employers aren’t expected to take a loss for having interns.

The biggest ethical problem in internships, however, is that some employers require interns to do extra work beyond the requirement of the internship. Interns are treated as "free slaves." The extra work can take many forms:

Students are powerless in the relationship. The employer can say, "We’ll fail you If you don’t do the extra work." "You’re single. It’s easy for you to do extra. We have families." "You can see how committed we are. Why aren’t you as committed as us?"

Unfortunately, it’s not as simple as that. It is to some extent a matter of perspective, and the employers' primary interest is in running a successful business. It’s realistic for an employer to be able to ask interns to help in something outside their job descriptions in extraordinary circumstances, the same as any other employee with a job description. "Joseph is sick this afternoon and had to go home. Can you teach his class?" The question is then "How does one define 'extraordinary circumstances'?"

Related problems

The ethical conflict has several related problems. The first is passing the buck. Staff can say, "We won’t teach; that’s the college’s job." The college might say, "We won’t supervise on-job learning; that’s the employer’s job." This occurs when guidelines have not been put in place beforehand and enforced later on.

Second, employers should not give interns tasks before they are trained to perform them. This is unfair on clientele because the risk is high that students’ services are below standard. Interns themselves contribute to the problem if they willingly accept those tasks because they have more confidence than ability. Supervisors might "throw people in at the deep end," which results in a few spectacular successes and many drownings. Supervisors might also treat it as an initiation rite, where the gatekeepers deliberately inflict an unpleasant experience on an applicant as condition of acceptance. They justify the approach thinking, "It was good enough for me, so it's good enough for them."

This raises the question, "When must interns operate at a professional level?" The answer is simple. Almost all job roles have a set of skills that an intern must have before they can even be on the worksite or commence basic tasks. Some tasks can only be done under supervision. They can be asked to operate at a professional level at least during assessment. If they can’t, they fail the assessment.

Again, there's a gray area. Even when the intern has been prepared, part of any learning experience is the risk of taking on new tasks and perhaps failure. People are working at the limits of their abilities. In other words, people can't be so prepared that all risk is eliminated.

(R. Woods. Practicum best practice, 2018)

Other ethical problems

Space has not permitted discussion of two other issues. First, while it is clearly unethical for supervisors to ask interns for payment for a favorable reference, the point is how can the employer and the college prevent it? Second, some interns might expect employment at the end of their internship, based on an implicit promise from the employer, but there are no job openings when the internship ends. The employer gets other interns to work for free. (This is also a problem for internships that are volunteer programs for recent graduates to gain work experience.)


Banda, Grace Mkandawire. "Students’ perceptions of the open and distance learning mode for initial primary teacher training in Malawi: A case of Lilongwe Teachers’ College" Journal of Research in Open, Distance and eLearning Volume 1, Issue 1 (2017)