First of all, I'm not technically an intern.

I'm in my final school year and to pass it, I have to program an application for a company with a partner. This is a seperate project, so we're not working with the other employees on the same things, but we do share the office building and receive our own workspaces. We basically have to treat the boss/project leader as our client, and we iterate every 2 weeks to discuss new features for the program.

But is it unethical to come 5-10-15 minutes later on avarage despite receiving 0 payment? In my mindset it seems simple; 0% company payment = not 100% input from me.

In this question I would like to ignore the factors of, "Do you want to get a job after the project?". I also don't think the late-times affect my production because we're finishing project features in a proper pace.

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    You missed a key piece of this. Professionalism. This internship will be listed on your resume later, and future prospective employers will contact them for a reference.
    – Brian
    Commented Apr 24, 2015 at 15:13
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    Another thing you didn't mention, WHY do you need to be 15 minutes later frequently? For example, suppose you take public transport and it's difficult to get there at exactly the right time (because it's often 5-15 minutes late). In that case, the right thing would be to let your manager know and make sure it's clear.
    – Brandin
    Commented Apr 24, 2015 at 15:17
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    This question is very similar - my answer is nearly exactly what I'd write here, as well.
    – enderland
    Commented Apr 24, 2015 at 15:25
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    How firm is the arrival time? How was this expectation set with you? In some jobs I've had, the boss would make sure everyone arrived before 8:30 and this was a firm rule, in other jobs there was no set time but you may get funny looks if you got in after 10.
    – MDLNI
    Commented Apr 24, 2015 at 17:27
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    You should get this clarifies with your supervisor in the company. Ask if it is OK to arrive by 9:15 or is the 9:00 requirement a firm one.
    – MDLNI
    Commented Apr 24, 2015 at 17:29

9 Answers 9


It depends on the goals of the partnership between industry and your school. If the goal is purely the deliverable then they shouldn't even care if you are working from home at 2 in the morning. If the goal of this endeavor is to offer you an emulation of what it's like to work in the industry then whatever rules govern the behavior of the employees should also govern your own.

Best course of action is to make sure that all parties (you, school and company) have the same understanding for the goals of the program. You will be the one who looks bad if your understanding doesn't align with theirs.

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    I think you're the only person in here who actually understood that there's a clear difference between an internship and my situation. And yes, most programmers also spend time on projects outside of work. The point of this whole operation is to deliver a desired product to a client and that's what I'm doing. (Also, why did my question get downvotes? It seems like people are taking this question as if one of their coworkers is asking it and they want to blow off steam on that person...) Commented Apr 24, 2015 at 17:12
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    @SpaceCadet You probably shouldn't have used the word intern in your question title as that doesn't really seem to be what you're doing. Commented Apr 24, 2015 at 17:16
  • @RichardDalton I didnt know the word for my situation and intern came closest to it. Commented Apr 24, 2015 at 17:19
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    While you may not want to call yourself an intern, that may be splitting hairs, as you are getting some value from the company's time and effort, namely, your degree. And by the way, they are spending on you also, so be respectful of that.
    – cdkMoose
    Commented Apr 24, 2015 at 17:38
  • @SpaceCadet Before you take action on this you should probably confirm with the school and the company that everyone's understanding of the program goals aligns. You are the one who looks bad if your understanding of the point of the program is off from theirs.
    – Myles
    Commented Apr 24, 2015 at 17:44

The really important part you're missing here is that by being late you are setting the impression the manager/boss has of you.

Two major factors of an internship are:

  1. to allow the company to determine whether or not they want to hire you.
  2. to be able to have a solid reference for when you seek further employment.

By coming in late you are destroying those possibilities. I wouldn't hire someone that was consistently late. If the internship isn't important enough to be on time then likely a full time job wouldn't be either. Further if I were contacted to provide a reference about an unreliable intern then I would have no qualms telling them "Space Cadet doesn't know what 'on time' means". And, yes, a large number of companies believe that being at work on time is just as important as delivering your work on time.

At this point in your life there are far more important things than whether you are being paid. You are setting a precedent for your future by establishing a fairly risk free work history. So don't blow it by thinking it doesn't matter.

Finally, "payment" in this case is in the form of providing you on the job training that goes beyond what you learn in class - and you are throwing it away but not being present on time.

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    I just can't get on terms with considering myself an intern. Since we're not getting guidance or training, I look at this more as a freelance job for a company. And when I think freelance, I don't think strict worktimes. Does that maybe change your look? Thanks for your detailed answer either way! Commented Apr 24, 2015 at 15:28
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    @SpaceCadet: No, it doesn't change my outlook. If you don't care about the internship then quit otherwise you are wasting everyone's time AND it will cause you problems later on. If you do care about it then start showing up and putting in the effort. It's really that simple.
    – NotMe
    Commented Apr 24, 2015 at 15:55
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    Also, the very fact that you iterate and talk to the boss every two weeks means that you are in fact getting some level of guidance or training whether you realize it or not.
    – NotMe
    Commented Apr 24, 2015 at 16:04
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    I definitely agree with NotMe. Having an internship (even an unpaid one) is a great opportunity; you should feel lucky and take it seriously. If the paid employees and your fellow intern generally show up on time, you need to do the same. Even as a freelancer, it is important to be on time in situations where you are working with another person.
    – Keiki
    Commented Apr 24, 2015 at 16:11
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    @SpaceCadet If there's a legitimate reason you need to be late, the professional thing to do is to discuss this so that everyone knows when you can actually be there. But if you just leave people guessing when you will show up, it is not good for anyone.
    – Brandin
    Commented Apr 24, 2015 at 16:26

By all the definitions of an unpaid intership I have ever seen, this is an internship. You are there to learn how to navigate the workplace and gain some professional experience. And you need the job completion to pass. So you are being paid just not in money. It is counterproductive to blow this opportunity off as unimportant because you are not being paid money. If you make them annoyed enough at your lack of professionalism, you very well may not pass. You certainly won't get a job offer from the place and you will likely get a bad reference. In other words, you will have wasted your time and made your personal situation worse rather than improved.

Professionals don't just wander in whenever they want to. If they know they are coming in later than the normal hours, they tell their boss. They may have an agreement about what hours to be there (I could be expected to show up by 11 not 8) or they may have flex time (which certainly gives you more latitude but not total control generally), but the real problem is in not letting people know when to expect you. Especially as you get more senior, you will need to coordinate with others and it is very annoying when the person you need to talk to about something just wanders in whenever.

Some places are more flexible than others about lateness of the 10-15 minutes variety if it is occasional.

However, the flexibility may well depends on how flexible other parts of the organization are. If people in other departments don't have the flexibility to be late, then lateness anywhare is less acceptable because HR will want to make sure that all employees are treated equally.

The worst place I ever saw for this was a call center that had some dev support people. People there even had to take breaks at a set time and get permission to go to the bathroom. People not on the phones who didn't follow the same rules got called in to HR because the call-takers complained. Was this stupid? Indeed it was. BUt as long as you worked there (and believe me almost everyone got out as soon as they could find another job), you had to follow the rules and there was a zero % chance they would change. You need to discuss this, not with us, but with your boss to find out what is acceptable where you are working.

One of the main things you need to learn at an internship of this type is that the expectations of the company will be different at every company and you have to meet that company's expectations; they will not change to be what you would prefer. This is part of being junior, you have less leverage than a senior well-respected colleague in either getting rules changes accepted or in being able to get an exception made for you.

More than likely when this company provides feedback to your school (and they will if you have to do this to pass), they will not only be evaluating the technical merit of what you built but your attitude. Get used to this now - it is part of what you are there to learn. In school, no one grades on attitude. In business is is often significantly more important than technical skills. From what you wrote, you are intending to blow this off as unimportant. If you can't take it seriously because you are not getting paid, you deserve to flunk. And taking it seriously includes following their policies even ones you personally consider to be stupid like caring about lateness.

In all jobs there are things that you won't agree with. Nobody gets their way all the time and people who try to often are the first people the managers get rid of. No one wants to employ a prima donna who won't fit in the corporate culture. Especially not at a junior level. Top notch seniors, being much more rare, are given much more leeway because they are harder to recruit. At the junior level, they will probably have 100 or more applications within hours of an announcement. So if someone tells your your lateness is a problem (and I would guess someone did or you would not be asking this), then take that seriously and fix the issue even if you don't agree with the fix.


I wouldn't spend too much time worrying about a name for what you are doing. More important is why you are doing it and why your school and this company are involved. You may not be getting "paid" but you are getting compensated. This company is participating as part of you getting your degree, and I would think that has some significant value.

The company and your school probably have some expectations as to how this program works, so you should start with them to identify those expectations. You chose to use the term late which to me implies that there was an expected time in someone's mind and you missed it. I would expect that this reflects poorly on you to both your advisor and company sponsor. This may not end up costing you anything, but when you try to apply for a job or graduate schooling, having either of these people give you a strong recommendation is important, so consider that.

Unethical is probably the wrong question to ask, but in my view, since you seem to know there is some expectation of arrival time and you are missing it, then that shows a lack of professionalism.

Added based on additional comments above:

Since 'the boss said ''from 9:00 to 17:30''', clearly there is an expectation of the start of the workday. Showing up repeatedly late unless there is a good reason shared with your on-site manager is definitely unprofessional.


I think one thing is missing here from a dev point of view is what value do you add. I was known as the most strict yet lax boss at my company. Our shit got done first but then it is your time.

So my guys would have to do whatever we had on our project plan. Then if they finished 2 hours before they were due to go home, well that might be movie time.

We had a big boss in from out of town and he happened upon my group in unison watching Star Wars (with popcorn) at 2 PM. He started yelling at me... I said, "well we are 3 days ahead of the project plan and you are yelling at me? Mike's team has been causing us delays and is 2 weeks behind and they have more people." His attitude changed instantly.

But... and big but...

I got better employees because the good ones would generally take a little bit less money and worked their way into my group. And they for the most part didn't just sit and watch movies when they were done early. I ran quarterly "best idea" contests and they were working on something like that or an enhancement for one of our apps that was out of scope.

You just don't work or add anything beyond what is stipulated. That is cool because you got your work done. But you are average at best. Just a guy that skates by and gets his basic amount of work done and adds little to the team. You didn't ask if you could do anything else or more or anything. That is average. Don't expect anything more than average things happening to you and then coming in late is cool.


Provided that you are honest, I don't see any ethical problem with what you propose.

Sure there are some deeply company-centric views of the world that would say as soon as a company does you the immense favour of permitting you to do work for them, paid or not, then it is your primary moral duty to obey them in every respect, never to question or negotiate their terms, to protect their interests at all times, and show them grovelling gratitude, until such time as they cast you aside or you quit. I exaggerate this POV, but in the worst cases only slightly. You don't owe them all that, so figure out what duty you you really do owe them, and if you change your mind as to whether you want to fulfil that duty, tell them.

Honesty means not lying about when you arrived, and it also means not concealing that you're in breach of any agreement you might have made with them as to when you will arrive. If you're doing neither of those things, you're not cheating them out of anything.

As everyone else has said, it might not be to your maximum personal benefit to be unpunctual, for a variety of different reasons. But it's only unpunctual if you're later than you're supposed to be. You are entitled to ask for or offer different terms (including start time) from what they're initially expecting. You have no ethical obligation to wring every single moment of time on-site out of this internship, neither for that matter do you have an ethical obligation to get the best possible reference from your mock-employer at the end of it.

Regardless of whether or not you're getting anything of value out of this internship, you have an assignment as part of your studies. Unless you get explicit agreement otherwise, part of the assignment is to follow the routine of a genuine employee, which usually means turn up on time. You're free to complete your assignment in full, or not, and your decision has more consequences for you than anyone else. They probably won't fire you for repeatedly being up to 15 minutes late, and almost certainly not without a warning, so if you're happy to give the impression of being a little lazy and/or disorganised and/or disrespectful, then I suppose it's all part of the learning process to find out what (if anything) happens to people like that in this particular workplace ;-)

If there's some specific reason why starting at 9.15 is better for you than starting at 9.00, then the smart thing to do is probably to discuss this with your boss at the company. Some people will be quite flexible, especially given they aren't paying you, and even more so if they're getting valuable work out of you for little supervision. Others won't be flexible, but at least you'll know the score. On the other hand, if you just want to be "15 minutes late", no matter what time you're supposed to be there, as a protest against the fact you're being used for unpaid labour, then I would suggest it's smarter just to get over it, and accept the terms under which your degree is awarded despite not liking them.

In some industries, it's a simple fact (at least in the US and a handful of other countries) that unpaid internships are the payment you're expected to make up front, in order to get a real job in the industry later. It's not unethical for you to offer them less than full payment, that's called "haggling", it's just less likely to be accepted. Even if you never want to work in the industry, and therefore don't care about the experience or the reference, if it's required to graduate then it's likewise part of the payment you make for your degree.


The question you need to ask yourself is whether you, in the same situation, would write a favorable review for your intern if they frequently came into work late without prior notice.

If your answer is "I would write a favorable review" then you are kidding yourself. You would not. And you should not. It is unprofessional to show up to work late without notice.

Note, however, that if you have a legitimate reason for showing up late (morning classes, feeling sick, personal obligations) and work it out with the boss ahead of time, it would not only be acceptable, but show that you're holding yourself accountable for your actions - which is a good way to appear more favorable for the eventual evaluation they're going to have to fill out.

Now, don't use this as an excuse to show up late just because you feel like it (few real workplaces will do that, and your internship isn't likely to be different) but if you have a legitimate reason you need to show up late, there's no reason not to bring it up so you can work something out. You could even, if pressed, offer to make up the time at the other end of the day (staying late to make up for coming in late).

Ultimately though, it's all about what your boss and the company you're interning for will think of your behavior - so if they say no, then the answer is no.


You may not feel you're getting paid, but the company is certainly spending time and money on you and this project. If they perceive showing up on time as a demonstration that you care about this project, they may hold your tardiness against you. They're either going to give you harsh and unconstructive feedback or very limited feedback. Neither is going to help you be a better programmer.

Again, this is predicated on their value of people being on time. Others may just as easily put more emphasis on your clothing, personality, speaking skills and the quality of your questions. It's not just about the code.


We basically have to treat the boss/project leader as our client...

But is it unethical to come 5-10-15 minutes later on avarage despite receiving 0 payment? In my mindset it seems simple; 0% company payment = not 100% input from me.

Without knowing the specifics of your "contract/school expectations" there's no real way to comment on the "ethics" of your actions.

You have concluded that your job is to deliver a project on whatever terms you choose.

You have also concluded that you don't need to show up "on time". But if that were truly the case, there wouldn't be any time at which you could conclude that you were late. So I suspect you know the real answer.

You have missed an opportunity to fully understand the expectations of your client, and to deliver them exceptionally well. That's unfortunate. Your client is giving you a great learning situation, and it doesn't sound as if you are making the most of it.

If you are graded on "ethics" you may be in trouble. Even if not, you have missed a chance to demonstrate professionality - to others, but more importantly to yourself.

Talk with your client. And talk with your school adviser. Clarify and fully understand their real expectations. Promise to deliver fully from now on. You will be better for it.

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