Risks of Hiring Interns and Students

By , March 29, 2012

Over the past 15 years, I’ve often heard clients suggest that they intend to hire “interns” or “students” as temporary workers, and I’ve always offered warnings. The problem isn’t really hiring the interns or students, but instead assuming that they understand and respect “the rules.”

Students and other temporary workers “assign far more value to [their own] potential short-term earnings than to the merchant’s long-term reputation” (quoting myself).

For me, the topic usually arises in the context of “affiliate recruitment,” in which the client suggests that the recruitment process can be accelerated by hiring students to quickly identify and solicit web publishers, to grow the affiliate program quickly.  Often, the idea is to pay the students a “bounty” for each new affiliate enrollment.

To me, the result seems obvious: some students will “cut corners,” seeking to increase the volume of their activity, at the cost of quality; some will send spam emails or spammy blog posts; and some will even create fraudulent enrollments.

Of course, these problems aren’t unique to students, but can apply to any temporary employee or independent contractor. But for me, the issue usually arises when a client suggests “hiring students.”

The real problem here is that the company’s goals and the student’s goals are in conflict. The company seeks to increase its profits from product sales, which it can accelerate by recruiting appropriate web publishers to carry the merchant’s advertising on a “pay-for-performance” basis (typically, collecting an advertising computed as a percentage of sales to consumers who’ve clicked on an ad on the publisher’s site). But instead of evaluating and paying recruiting staff based on “sales” performance, they’re paid for “completed affiliate applications” or “approved enrollments” — certainly a relevant intermediate measure, but easily manipulated to distort value.

Recruiting staff might be warned not to “spam” nor to solicit affiliate applications from web sites that aren’t relevant to the merchant’s product offerings. Staff might also be warned not to solicit web non-profit sites which don’t carry any outside advertising, and especially not to solicit web sites which directly state that they do not carry outside advertising. Staff certainly should be warned not to solicit specific types of web sites which the merchant doesn’t want to be associated with (generally excluding sites with explicit adult content, hate speech, or extreme political commentary, and sites which promote illegal activities including software or music piracy).  And staff should be warned that before posting any message on any web “discussion forum” on behalf of the merchant, staff must review that forum’s rules.  Likewise, staff must be warned not to post solicitations through social media, such as by posting messages on a web publisher’s Facebook wall or as comments.

But if students are paid based on “signups,” then they’re going to look for the quickest and easiest ways to identify and recruit web sites. Instead of carefully reviewing the information available on the “about,” “contact,” and “advertising” pages on web sites, they may simply race to find an email address and stop there.  They might rely on web search results to obtain lists of relevant sites, not realizing (or caring) that many sites in the result list are not appropriate for recruitment. They might even rely on “web crawler” software to find web sites and extract email addresses, never actually viewing the web sites at all.

Anyone paid on a “bounty” basis will likely be tempted to modify any approved “solicitation language,” possibly adding claims of easy profit, or perhaps misrepresenting the terms of the affiliate program to make it more appealing to publishers.

And of course, some unethical students might choose to fabricate affiliate applications, by filling in forms with information found on the web sites, even though the web publisher never expressed any interest; some might even create “fake” web sites to enroll as affiliates, to earn more bounties.

In this example, the student’s goal is to earn as many “bounties” as possible. That goal conflicts with the merchant’s primary goal (profits from product sales), because the student’s activity will not generate relevant, high-quality advertising relationships that attract customers, and will likely draw criticism that will require the attention of other staff. Certain spam activities could also result in the company’s email domain being “blacklisted.”

Hiring students isn’t a bad idea; hiring temporary workers isn’t a bad idea. But you must always take affirmative steps to insure that the goals of your employees or contractors are aligned with yours, and you must “think ahead” to identify potential abuses. And after you’ve properly instructed and trained your staff, you should “trust but verify.”



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