Briefing Update on working with Interns and Volunteers


1.     Interns:

There is growing controversy about working with Interns and it is as well to be aware of this if you are considering using them in your project. There is no legal definition of an Intern. The term is used a lot but often with no clear understanding. The term originated in the USA where it is a prestigious role usually linked to entry into politics. It does not translate to UK employment law. There are three employment terms you need to be aware of: employee, worker, volunteer. An intern could be either one of these depending on how they are treated and what is required of them.


Interns are a very useful source of free or cheap labour but please be mindful that if you use them you are:

a.     very clear with them about what is being required and on what terms

b.     not excluding other people from the opportunity of working with you (Interns will often work for free – because they have supported income often from parents, and with the hope, sometimes expectation that they will get favourable treatment if a paid position become available)


So what do the three terms mean?


2.     An Employee:

There are four core elements that determine if someone is an employee:

a.     They have a contract which can be verbal or even implied,

b.     They are an integral part of the organisation, and the organisation depends on their work

c.     They are controlled (i.e. supervised) and have control over the work they do

d.     There is a mutuality of obligation i.e. they have  a duty to turn up, and the employer has a duty to provide work.


An employee has a number of legal protections because their work is considered integral to their self-esteem.


3.     A Worker:

This is a more transient relationship. There will be a contract but for a specific service, usually short term. A worker is not carrying on an independent business.

The mutuality of obligation is differently balanced. The employer has a duty to provide work but the worker can delegate . So for example an IT specialist with a contract to an organisation could send in someone else to do the work.

The rights of workers are less than those of employees but things like Health and Safety requirements still apply.


4.     A Volunteer:

This role is fundamentally different from the employee and worker. There is no contract, written, verbal or implied. People volunteer because they are motivated by and for a particular cause. Not to earn an income.

The employer has no legal rights to discipline or reward the volunteer.

The relationship is characterised by hope and aspiration

The organisation is reliant on the volunteer not the other way round.

The volunteer has no legal rights.


5.     Taking good care of Volunteers

Volunteers bring energy, enthusiasm and commitment to your cause.  They are a huge and valuable resource. This needs to be respected so that they are not taken for granted, or worse.


While there is no contract of any kind you can have a letter or statement of agreement which sets out the hopes and aspirations of any task a volunteer undertakes.  There is no need for the volunteer to sign this document, but if used you should update it if the volunteer takes on new tasks.

If you do use a letter or statement be careful to ensure:

a.     it contains no legal terminology

b.     it does not imply obligation or mutuality

c.     it is a guidance document only


It is acceptable and may be necessary for a volunteer to sign a separate confidentiality statement if they are dealing with confidential information in the course of the volunteering. It is acceptable to carry our CRB checks if required. It is acceptable to ask volunteers to give as much notice as possible if they are going on holiday, if they are sick or if they choose to end their volunteering.


6.     Payments

While you cannot pay volunteers you can and should provide out of pocket expenses. However there are strict guidelines about paying volunteers under the Minimum Wage Act 1998. As a rule of thumb only pay or provide what is necessary, and only pay on presentation of receipts. If possible larger payments should be paid directly by the organisation (e.g. overnight accommodation).Expenses can be claimed for:

a.     Travel

b.     Subsistence

c.     Care costs – child care, care of an elder.

d.     Resource to support the tasks

In all cases these should be reasonable and should be recorded with receipts.

Always keep very clear records of expense payments along with the evidence.


7.     Training

Volunteers should be given the opportunity to train for the tasks they are undertaking, but be careful that this training does not exceed the need related to the task, otherwise this becomes a benefit in kind which is not permitted. Occasional events that celebrate and thank volunteers are permitted, for example an annual meal for volunteers.


8.     Contributing

It is important volunteers have a voice in the organisation. Their experience and insight is very different to paid staff and will help to develop your work. They should know how to raise concerns and have someone they can talk to.


While a volunteer role is not legally binding you still need to care for them, so policies and procedures such as health and safety, and operational practices apply. You may wish to lift these from your staff handbook to create a separate one for volunteers. If so it is wise to check you have not used language that could have a legal meaning in employment law.

Jane Winter March 2012