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Issue: How to avoid the often-overlooked liabilities of using interns in your workplace.

Risk: Courts view interns the same as employees, as "agents" of your organization. Plus, you face extra wage-and-hour liabilities.

Advice: Follow these four steps to identify and manage your legal risks.

If you use interns or plan on doing so, advise supervisors to manage them as closely as employees, if not more so, and apply your workplace policies to them.

That's because your organization can be held responsible for the actions of anybody, including unpaid interns, while they perform work for you. Interns' activities are under the employer's control, not the school's.

Some courts have ruled that employment-discrimination laws don't apply to unpaid interns. But that doesn't mean you can allow intern harassment. Reason: Interns may be able to pursue claims under Title IX, which bans sex bias in education programs.

Also, if your intern program reaches out to high schoolers, remember to follow federal child-labor laws. Youths ages 14 and 15 can work in certain nonhazardous jobs during limited hours, while 16- and 17-year-olds can work unlimited hours but not in certain dangerous jobs. For details, visit www.dol.gov/dol/topic/youthlabor, and check your state child labor law.

4 steps before hiring interns

To help structure a legally sound intern program, follow these four steps before bringing them on board:

1. Define supervisory roles and supervisor/intern evaluations. Reliable supervision is the key to preventing problems, including injuries, discrimination and poor performance. Make sure all supervisors know who oversees each intern's work.

2. Draft an 'intern policy.' It can reduce misunderstandings that can lead to lawsuits. The policy should define the program, such as compensation structure (or the fact that interns won't be paid), eligibility requirements and the intern's at-will status. Provide a job description outlining the duties and your expectations. Never imply the promise of employment for a specified period.

3. Pick up formal documentation from the intern's college or high school that explains the educational relevance of the internship if he or she will earn credit.

4. Ask whether the school provides liability insurance to cover damage caused by a student. Many schools carry the coverage. If your organization carries employment practices liability insurance, check whether it extends to interns.

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