Let me preface this by noting, I put the quotations around bad because it's how I feel about the experience, I understand this may be a "good" opportunity for someone else.

I started working this internship at the beginning of the semester (in September), it's a web design unpaid internship for a fashion house. During my first week, I was thrown into the website revamp project without much guidance. I am the only individual in the company with technical knowledge so I am often given tasks without the knowledge of how it could be done, "just make it work" kind of mentality. I don't mind that kind of work, but this reminds me more of freelance rather than apprenticeship or interning. Especially when I'm the only person who even knows what HTML is.

My current mindset is that I have the knowledge and skillset to work on real projects and make real money. The website I'm working on is a Squarespace site and I feel gross every time I log in. I do all my work with attaching custom scripts, style sheets, and HTML code blocks on top of Squarespace's code (since you can't just edit pages), this leads to a lot of overlapping which is a fundamental failure in web design architecture. My code is riddled with !important just because I need to change tags I have no access to.

I'm to the point where I work more than half the week there (for free) then go to school the other half. I've lost time to work my minimum-wage retail job (actually make some money), time to hang out with my girlfriend, and time to work on my personal projects.

How can I gracefully depart with 6 months left in my commitment? I would obviously need to give a 2-week notice, but I already know the kind of energy I will have to endure in those 2 weeks. Is there a way to quit and avoid making my last 2 weeks unnecessarily difficult?

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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – Neo
    Commented Dec 20, 2019 at 14:15
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    Do you think that your arrangement with your employer would be considered an internship under the Fair Labor Standards Act? It doesn't sound like it to me. Commented Dec 20, 2019 at 15:58
  • What country? There may be laws in this regard. What contract, if any, did you sign? What did you perceive as the benefit of taking this position and what made you think that? Did somebody make promises? (Advertisement, verbal promises, emails,etc.) Why did you take the position?
    – puppetsock
    Commented Dec 20, 2019 at 20:44
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    The question here is are you getting college credits for the internship, and if so what are the details. Our local community college has internships you get college credits for, and it is stated in the fine print how many hours your committing to. After that commitment is met you may leave at any time. However, I don't know if any of this applies to you.
    – cybernard
    Commented Dec 21, 2019 at 16:37

7 Answers 7


The appropriate thing to do here is to ask to be paid. They're not training you in web development (or the fashion industry), they're just using you for free labour. Look up contract web developer rates and start from there.

I see comments about how you could cripple the company - use this to your advantage to get a fair deal. At this stage they have placed an onus on you to deliver without recompense. Haggle for pay stating your experience with their codebase, and how much more quickly you can deliver for them.

If they refuse, you could start looking for a paid junior web development job (which you clearly have the skills to do), or an internship that will actually teach you something.

If they don't pay you, they'll have to pay someone else, and you know their codebase and tools. That makes you more valuable than new professional, who would take a few weeks to learn their way around.

If you want to quit, just quit. Normally you work your notice in order to get your back-pay and to be paid for untaken holiday days, which doesn't apply to you. If they aren't giving you anything, they can't take it away.

If you need to finish an internship for your degree, talk to your tutor first. See if what you've done will count, or if you can move elsewhere.

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    I would argue that if a company cannot stand on their own without an intern there is a different core problem. @aLeekProductions Commented Dec 18, 2019 at 16:25
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    If you're valuable, they'll pay you (or pay for a professional to replace you, eventually). It's not your fault they don't have a proper IT team. Commented Dec 18, 2019 at 16:26
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    I don't see the morality problem. They gambled with an unpaid internship and hope to find free work instead yo make the right thing. If the company will be cripped will be a lesson for them. Commented Dec 18, 2019 at 16:26
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    @aLeekProductions an important thing to understand (when quitting any job, not just an internship) is that the company's future is not your responsibility. They were fine before they hired you, and they'll be fine after you leave. You owe them nothing beyond what you've contractually agreed to.
    – Player One
    Commented Dec 18, 2019 at 21:13
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    @aLeekProduction The only ethical problem here is the company exploiting youngsters who don't know better and actually think "working free for the exposure/experience" could be a sane thing to do (it simply isn't)
    – Voo
    Commented Dec 19, 2019 at 12:42

I read through some of the comments and it sounds like you don't quite understand what's going on here.

They are not compensating you. Therefore you have no reason to be there. If you call them one day and say "hey, I quit" and then just stop showing up, what are they going to do? As an intern, you have no benefits. You have no salary. You have no statutory vacation or bonus or pay-in-lieu. This is a one-sided contribution relationship: you give them work and they give you nothing*. And because they give you nothing, they can't take away anything if you choose to not work.

So this is what you should do: You should call them and say "I quit, effective immediately". And then hang up the phone. And then don't pick it up if they call you back. And then go spend time with your girlfriend.

Another answer suggested going into work and taking all your IP (work that you have done without being paid for it) off their servers before you quit. You can do that. But I wouldn't; in addition for it being a seemingly legal grey area (is this sabotage?), it's probably more effort than it's worth. You have to go into the office and actually take an action to do this. If you're not planning on taking this any further (e.g. suing them for unpaid work), then just walk away and leave them with whatever you built. If you are planning to take this further, then consult a lawyer before determining what to do with your IP.

* Ok, there is a possibility that this company may give you a work reference down the line for when you go and get a real job. However, it seems like this company is going to be very hard to get a reference from; if you don't work unpaid overtime, they don't give you a reference. If you don't work full-time hours for zero salary, you don't get a reference. If you don't work with their crappy system instead of using a better one, no reference. This seems like way more effort than it's worth. Cut your losses and get out.

  • Just to clarify, I did not suggest removing company code, only removing OP's own code. This implies restoring the original code (if there was any). Denying someone else to use one's code is not sabotage, but merely the exercise of one's copyright. "Just walking away" might actually be more of a legal grey area, especially if OP removed or modified company code. Commented Dec 18, 2019 at 17:57
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    OP's "own code", produced with company equipment using company resources on "company time" (such as it can be defined in an unpaid internship situation) for the benefit of the company, seems like a grey area to me. Removing that code could cause all sorts of issues, system failures, and so on and impact the company's business. I don't know how the law would find OP in this situation, so I'd suggest OP just not get involved.
    – Ertai87
    Commented Dec 18, 2019 at 18:55
  • @Ertai87, there's also a fine line between the OP being an employee or in an educational role, with the law leaning for this case to be a paid role, so they would be an employee and removing the code would turn out very bad for the OP. I agree that removing the code would have significant repercussions, even if this wasn't the case. Commented Dec 19, 2019 at 0:38
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    I fully agree regarding the question of IP ownership. I seriously doubt that the poster has developed anything substantial or ground-breaking enough in his/her 3 months' worth of unpaid volunteer time to be worth potentially having to defend actions like that in court. Consider this a valuable learning experience (hey, that's what internships are, right? ;) and move on.
    – spuck
    Commented Dec 19, 2019 at 0:48
  • "unpaid overtime" -- they will likely claim that they pay time and a half for the overtime Commented Dec 19, 2019 at 1:17

It is not clear from the question how you got into this internship. Was it through your school? Or did you answer an advertisement for an internship that would give you "great experience", etc.

A sibling of mine had a similar experience once in a different field. A few students were placed in an internship by their school. Unfortunately, the place into which the school put them was just looking for free labor. The supervisor insisted that the interns do work in ways that conflicted with how they (the interns) had been taught at school. Given the nature of the work, that was a potentially life threatening situation. The supervisor was also abusive toward the interns. My sibling went back to their school, told them what was going on, and was placed in a different internship.

With the above in mind, if you got this position through your school, it would probably be best to talk to someone there (your school) about the situation. It seems you aren't learning what the school expects you to be learning. Furthermore, the company you are supporting is taking advantage of you. The school should be made aware of these facts; it probably won't want to send interns to this office in the future.

On the other hand, if you found this internship by answering an advertisement, the best approach - IMO at least - would be to have a discussion with your boss. Tell them that you aren't getting the experience and skills you were promised when you took the internship. Also tell them that the extra time you're putting in is impacting your studies and ability to pay your bills by keeping you from your paying job. (I'd leave out the details about your girlfriend, as they might respond with something like "That's not our problem.") Tell them that you want them to provide work more in line with what your learning expectations were both in terms of skills development and time. TBH, they will likely tell you something like "the work we have is the work we have". (If not, great! You should be getting a better internship going forward.) If they do say that what you're doing is the only work they have for you, tell them that since it isn't a proper internship, you should be making whatever the going rate is for your field, skill level, and geographic location. If they agree, you've landed your first paying job. However, it's likely they won't agree to pay you. In that case, you need to know what you want to do going forward; however, I would recommend that you ask if they want two weeks notice, or if you should just leave and not return.

Going forward, don't sell yourself short. You have the education you've completed up to this point and are continuing it. Now you have three months of interning. You don't need to put on your resume that you didn't complete the nine month internship you initially thought you were getting. If asked about it, be honest, but make it sound good for you, something like "While I gained some valuable real world experience, the internship was not teaching me the skills I expected and was taking time away from my studies and paying job, thus I needed to leave early." (Assuming you leave early.) Also, look at any ads for unpaid internships with a more critical eye, as many are just attempts to get free work from folks who are unsuspecting and inexperienced.


What's in this relationship for you? You're not learning anything about the fashion industry, and you're not learning anything about web development (if anything, you're teaching them).

If you are attending this internship as a requirement for a course, then contact your school's internship contact, and ask them to set up a different internship for you. (I can't think of any other reason why someone would do unpaid work apart from volunteering for a charity).

I agree with the answers which warn you against removing any work you've done; that can get messy legally. Just chalk that up to the cost of learning about bad employers, don't do any more development work for them, and move on. Do, however, feel free to use it as an example on your resume if you want to move into web development as a career.

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    Note: If you put it on your resume, then expect a prospective employer to ask you about it. Be prepared to give a careful response if they ask why you left. My advice would be to frame your answer in terms of the positives - e.g. "I did the work they were asking, but it became clear that I wasn't building my skills any further by being there, so I left to pursue other opportunities to learn and take my development skills to the next level." (That is, I probably wouldn't say "The company didn't know what they were doing and they were taking advantage of me, and I couldn't stand it anymore.") Commented Dec 19, 2019 at 16:47

This is not an internship as defined by the legal standards in the US for an internship. They are not teaching you any skills you didn't already possess prior to working for them. The point of an internship is either a "trial before offer" scenario or to gain real world experience in a development shop.

You have 3 options:

  1. Ask for and provide them with guidance on a per-diem or weekly basis. Relabel this as a contract job with defined deliverables.
  2. Quit and find a real internship. Don't list is on your resume.
  3. Report them to the labor department. This is a nuclear option. I don't recommend doing it.

Let's be clear. You are not being taught, so you are not an intern. You are producing something they should be paying for, but you are not so you are not an employee. Instead, the best word to describe your current position is volunteer. You do not mention where you are, but in most places in the world, this work relationship would be illegal.

So go to your "workplace" and remove the code that you wrote (your intellectual property) from their servers. The next day, call your manager, and say that you're not getting anything out of this so-called "internship", and that you will not be showing up any more. There is no need to serve a two-weeks notice.

Then find an internship where they actually teach you things and pay you for any productive work that you do. Given your skills, they should not be difficult to find.

EDIT: There seems to be some confusion over copyright, so let me clarify. Firstly, code is copyrighted. Secondly, if you write the code, you automatically own the copyright. Thirdly, this copyright is transferred to the employer if the code is written within the scope of employment. Finally, since OP is not legally employed, they retain their copyright. It therefore poses no legal issue to remove one's own code contributions.

SOURCE: https://asp-software.org/www/misv_resources/business-articles/who-owns-the-code/

Third, and most significant, a commissioned and copyrightable work will only be considered "work-made-for-hire" owned by the client if the parties have a written agreement signed by the developer that explicitly states that the work is "work-made-for-hire."

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    -1 because removing code, whether or not they're morally or legally in the right there, is a really bad idea. You'be be asking for all sorts of legal/career trouble for no benefit. Just give notice or quit on the spot and that should be more than enough.
    – Kaz
    Commented Dec 18, 2019 at 15:13
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    I am not an attorney, but I could imagine legal or contractual issues that would come with removing this code that was created under an internship agreement. I do not recommend this course of action.
    – Jim Kiley
    Commented Dec 18, 2019 at 16:57
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    @Kaz, no legal trouble ensues from exercising your copyright. If OP was employed, it would be a different story. Commented Dec 18, 2019 at 17:07
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    @aLeekProductions, one does not need to work for free to find employment, nor does working for free make paid employment more likely. Rather the opposite! As long as there is a supply of free workers, it will be difficult to find paid employment doing the same work. Additionally, doing work that is normally paid for free sends a signal that the quality is sub-par. There is no question that having a portfolio of projects to show would benefit you, but you don't need your current "internship" to develop a portfolio! You can do this by yourself, as you are actually already doing! Commented Dec 18, 2019 at 17:46
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    @perenniallydisappointed Getting sued is legal trouble, regardless of whether you end up winning the suit or not. Especially if you're an intern just starting out in a career who may not have the financial resources to fight it. You get no benefit from removing the code (other than perhaps a sense of righteous satisfaction) and so I wouldn't recommend it as a good idea.
    – Kaz
    Commented Dec 19, 2019 at 10:23

The other answers here are interesting and I don't disagree, more or less. But just as a counterpoint, I'd suggest: why not work the internship through if you can afford to?

I'm guessing that when starting first jobs, people with no internship start out at a "totally inexperienced" pay level and have to stay there for a year at least. You'll be starting out as an experienced worker. And just the same time the non-internship students are finally moving up a step, you'll be moving up a second step.

If we say each step you're ahead is $10k, say, and the effect wears off in five years, you're going to be making an extra $50k from this internship sooner or later.

And that's if you even CAN get on the job staircase without an internship. Being able to talk for 30 minutes about your work as an intern may be the difference between programming and running an espresso machine.

I'll also note that working on the fashion house issues for six months is more impressive to a potential employer than doing the same type of work on your own. A huge part of a job is putting up with the crap, the jumping through hoops, just proving you can put trousers on five days a week, etc. After a many-year hiatus I found it hard to get another job just because people wondered if I could even stand sitting at a desk 5 days a week. Your internship shows you have that ability.

Since you're not being paid and won't be fired based on productivity, you can consider any learning experiences you can provide yourself with. For instance if they're asking something and you know a quick solution and a longer-term solution that would be slicker, no reason not to learn the longer-term solution.

Finally you may find the firm, (or if it's poorly managed the people it's probably shedding) to be potential employers or customers (if you do consulting or a software company) going forward. No-one's going to move to a new company and say, "oh, we need a web guy? Well I know a guy that worked three weeks at my last place then simply quit." Those work contacts can all be potentially quite valuable so keep that in mind if you burn bridges purposefully.

Personally I had no internship option, but I did do a senior thesis which was 100s of hours of work, that gave me ample material to motor-mouth through my first job interviews (three interviews, three offers, I took one of those.. and that was during a recession).

You sound negative about the firm and its vendors. I'm happy to believe you're right about all that, since I'm not facing the decision to hire you. However to anticipate your graduation and job search, I'd recommend totally concentrating on the tech and not mentioning the unfairness of the situation, how they were dumb bloodsuckers or whatever... when a company doesn't know an applicant but that applicant has anything negative to say about the previous workplace, the interviewer will wonder if the application will be knocking the prospective employer equally hardly (whether fairly or unfairly) in a year or two time. Likewise, no matter how stupid (say) Squarespace may strike you, your interviewer may not know that or agree with that, so best to simply factually state, "currently Squarespace doesn't let you do xxx, so my workaround was yyy." Everyone wants to hire a guy who just ignores pain and powers over obstacles, whether coworkers or technical problems, like a monster truck.

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    If he continues with this company, he will remain somewhat inexperienced. SquareSpace is like Microsoft Word for the web. It's a tool for the non-technical admin. If he puts that on his resume, he will be perceived as unqualified for most technical jobs. Now granted, a small business non-technical owner may be impressed with that kind of experience, but to be honest, at his age, with his experience, and at his level of assertiveness at getting paid, he'll continually be taken advantage if he continues to work for small business owners (at this current stage in his life). Commented Dec 19, 2019 at 9:36
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    Frankly, this answer sounds like an employer that is trying to rationalize to himself/others why the "exposure" of an unpaid "internship" is anything other than detrimental. Commented Dec 19, 2019 at 16:31
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    +1 This answer is among the best here, has the correct strategic vision.
    – gregn3
    Commented Dec 20, 2019 at 1:38
  • oh gosh, haterz, you're right and I'm wrong, OP whatever you do forget about the future context and live for the now! I'm sure you'll get farther with no internship at all than powering through a suboptimal one, lolz Commented Dec 20, 2019 at 2:25
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    @SwissFrank The OP said that he's stuck with it. As an unpaid intern, you're not exactly going to be given carte blanche to start the entire website from scratch. The OP also mentions "personal projects". I've aced an interview for a well-paid contract entirely on the basis of experience gained from a personal project, so the alternative is NOT just "flipping burgers". I'd rather interview a candidate who can show an entire site they built on their own, instead of one who's just spent 6 months changing the background of the company Facebook page for their manager's latest whim.
    – Graham
    Commented Dec 20, 2019 at 16:44

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