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The Ethicist
October 25, 2010

Randy Cohen writes "The Ethicist" column in The New York Times Magazine. If you'd like help with a moral dilemma you're facing at school, at home, or at work, send your question to: ethicist@nytimes.com or The Ethicist, The New York Times Magazine, 620 Eighth Avenue, 6th Floor, New York, NY 10018, and include a phone number.

Is It Wrong to Ask Unpaid Interns to Pick Up Coffee?

I work for a media company. We're quite busy lately, and I would like to send our interns, who are unpaid college students, on the occasional coffee run, but it seems wrong somehow. I know they wouldn't be learning anything, but isn't it better for the company to have an unpaid intern rather than a paid employee do this?
NAME WITHHELD, Dallas, New York

IF ONLY "better for the company" were synonymous with "ethical," I would have an easier job. Many employers and colleges justify paying their interns little or nothing by reasoning that the students will earn college credit and their experience will be essentially educational. Having made that bargain, both employer and college are bound by it. Interns should be assigned tasks that are at least potentially illuminating. If you want to hire people to run errands, do so but be candid about their duties.

Some flexibility is called for. Much can be learned just by hanging around an operation, and newbies must expect to do some scut work. (And, of course, learning coffee lingo could be regarded as professional training for those whose first post-college job is at Starbucks.)

So when tasks pile up and deadlines loom, interns may be sent on coffee runs. Such chores can teach them how co-workers help out in a crisis, but shouldn't become routine.

(The New York Times Upfront, Vol. 143, October 25, 2010)