I just started an internship and while I'm enjoying myself I've spotted a few areas where efficiency and productivity could be improved. I am also not very busy (read: overqualified and bored) so it would be nice to see if I could develop a product to help solve it. Here's the hitch: I've just ended my first week and I'm only at the company for another 2 1/2 months. Then I'm back to university.


(Just since people are questioning implementation, I'm not too concerned about that bit myself. Just wondering about the ethics bit)

  • The product is somewhat innovative (towards Human-computer interaction). It is technically completely possible, but not quite a walk in the park to make and would involve a fair bit of effort. Mostly software, capital costs are very low.

  • This product however could potentially be used in many other industries. The company could probably sell it on.

  • The product would help to prevent damage/loss of my employer's sensitive products, I imagine potentially scales of two magnitude more than the cost of acquisition.

  • Team I work in is small and informal organized. Could be easily tested. They aren't expecting anything from me and I don't think they would question me doing it.


For a short internship, I'm wondering if it's worth the trouble to do the stuff just for this company and loosing ownership over it afterwards.

  • It's beyond expectation and I'm paid a fairly marginal salary. They don't hesitate to buy (even expensive) commercial products otherwise if it helps them. If I would I been there for a year I wouldn't have questioned it.

  • As an alternative, I could make it on my own and in my own time, but I'm concerned this is a conflict of interest with my employer. It will make me look bad.

Is it unethical to go with personal development of this idea and then to sell it back to them? (although perhaps give it to them for some time span for free perhaps or similar benefit, but I retain ownership over it)

Field: Engineering, Central Europe

  • 1
    You should check your contract on ownership of ideas and products. And if that is your real name you just admitted to coming up with the idea while employed by them and it was based on a problem you observed at work.
    – paparazzo
    Commented Nov 13, 2015 at 16:40

4 Answers 4


Generally, companies love ideas which would add value to the company, and when it is an idea which would add a lot to the value of it's engineering, they might be interested.

An intern at my company, sometime back had been in a similar situation like yours:

He proposed a deployment system for code, which would be much faster and fault-tolerant than the current system. So, we were very impressed by the idea and how it would help the company.

He completed his intern project a bit earlier than the allotted time, and got started on this project. As this is a very ambitious project, it required a lot of time and he didn't have enough time left at the company as his intern period is coming to a close.

So, we negotiated with him about working part-time from college for a fixed salary, for working on the project. This was a win-win for both him and us.

So, after completing his college, he can come and work at the company full-time (optional, but we'd love to have him here).

So, that can be a nice option for you too. Just inform about your idea to your manager during your intern period and the company would work out a way for you to get involved, or you can also suggest the above option.

Is it unethical to go with personal development of this idea and then to sell it back to them?

The idea of working from home on the project for a salary sounds better to me than personally developing and selling it to them (which they may or may not buy.) In the former case, you can also earn during the development process.


Revised answer based on your new information:

Making an impression

If you're looking to make an impression there, or maybe get a job later on, then you will probably benefit from coming forward with your idea.

If that's the case, then don't work on it in secret. Approach your manager and speak to him/her about it. Say that you understand that you're only there for 3 months, but that your idea would improve a number of processes, and that you would be willing to work on the implementation part-time even after you return to university.

You'd be demonstrating maturity, professionalism, smarts, initiative, and probably impressing the leadership. After all, they have more senior team members who've worked there for years, but they didn't come up with your solution!

NOTE: It's important not to get upset if you do all this and they reject your changes. There may be a lot of politics involved with adopting your solution that you are not aware of. Don't worry, you will still have been noticed.

Keeping the idea to yourself

If you really think that your idea could be marketed to many different companies, then you may want to play this closer to your vest. Don't tell anyone at the company about it.

Check your employment contract - many companies claim rights over anything related to their field that employees create, even in their spare time. Since you're only an intern this may not apply to you, but why risk it?

You could easily develop this solution on your own after your internship is over (and they can no longer claim it as their own - check with a lawyer about the details), and then start your own company.

This decision could well be a defining moment in your life, so keep this in mind:

**It is absolutely your right to profit from your own work and ideas. There is nothing unethical about not providing your innovative ideas to your bosses on a silver platter. **

Always remember that the company may greatly benefit from your work, but may hardly even thank you, let alone compensate you for the work you put in. You have to very carefully judge both the company, and the managers/decision makers before you put yourself at their mercy like that.

Good Luck!


I don't see this as an ethical dilemna, your foremost responsibility in the workplace is to yourself.

I'm a bit biased on this because I actually had an idea I thought was saleable and struggled to develop it myself and now make about 30-40k USD a year out of it totally unrelated to my other sources of income.

It depends very much on how unique and/or hard work your idea is. If you think it's something that will eventually have you making money while you sleep, then keep it to yourself.

You're just an intern, but remember that Amateurs built Google and Apple, Professionals built the Titanic.


First you own your ideas. It is almost impossible for a company to prove that your idea came at work. No countries I know have a provision that they own your ideas outside of work so something like this would have to be iron-clad in your contract - and even then it is hardly feasible without you putting it in writing when you actually thought of something. So you own your ideas, unless you tell on yourself. It is really your word against you.

The only question you have to ask yourself here is where do my decisions take me?

  • If the idea is solely for that company then you will have to go back to them with a sales-pitch. So now you have to answer... Can I complete this technology by myself and in an amount of time that it is still sellable? And then is my insight into the technology so great that they won't just duplicate it after hearing your sales pitch. Do you really think you are the first person that this dilemma hit? You could spend 1000 hours coming up with the GREAT technology. The company might be drooling at the GREAT technology during your sales pitch. Then after smart people at the company talk about it they realize that we could have 10 guys work on this times 50 hours a week and be done in two weeks. Nullifying the need to be taken hostage by some former intern. So really unless you are absolutely sure you are bringing some wisdom or expertise that this company cannot match then I would try to work with them, starting with your internship. If you think you aren't being paid well you can ask to speak to them about your idea with the caveat that the company will pay you a certain higher wage if they accept the idea.

  • If the idea is more commercial and can be used across many industries or companies then there is no way I would give this to said company during an internship. Some ideas you can sit on for 5-10 years and it is still a great new idea. You have to think how does telling them help me? If you told them you would automatically be assuming that all of the people you tell and this company would treat you properly - too many unknowns unless it was an extremely small company. Your manager could fire you a week later and pitch your idea for a promotion. You could get cut out of the project the first time you digress with upper management on a direction. There is just no real reason you would bring this idea up during an internship. This is something that you could more likely copyright and take back to them or competitors.

  • Actually in many countries ideas "related" to your work do belong to your employer.
    – Pepone
    Commented Nov 15, 2015 at 13:30
  • @Pepone - So there is a country that monitors the ideas in your head? Or are there laws in some countries that state that expressed ideas belong to your employer?
    – blankip
    Commented Nov 16, 2015 at 16:53
  • err yes thats how employment law is in many country's Anglo Saxon law descends from the original masters and servants acts
    – Pepone
    Commented Nov 17, 2015 at 9:07
  • "First you own your ideas" - This is not true in all cases. There was a famous court case years ago in the UK where someone did just what the OP mentioned. The company brought him to court and won. Commented Nov 20, 2015 at 7:46
  • @SimonO'Doherty - He hasn't told the idea. What are you talking about? Please show me a case of someone getting sued for an idea in their head.
    – blankip
    Commented Nov 20, 2015 at 13:58

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