Starting with a Circle of Contacts

This article accompanies Taking Them Seriously.

Thursday, July 1, 2010
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While the best-laid plans typically make for a successful outcome, great opportunities often arise as a matter of happenstance. That's been the case for the human resource department at the U.S. operations of Vistaprint, provider of online printing services for small businesses, headquartered in Lexington, Mass.

Its burgeoning HR intern program wasn't the result of deliberate planning, but has "cropped up opportunistically," says Senior Director of Human Resources Ai-Li Lim.

In recent years, Vistaprint has had approximately three HR interns in its Campus Recruiting and Learning and Development groups. In some instances, Lim says, the internships grew out of existing employees' ideas -- and recommendations.

"We've had situations where some of our existing employees have said, 'This might be a really great opportunity for us to try and see whether there is an internship possibility here,' and have connected us with people they know," says Lim.

Lim credits the company's "Everyone Here is a Recruiter" program, launched in 2006, for giving employees the courage to come forward and make such recommendations. That's not to suggest the company simply hands internships out to employees' friends and family members.

On the contrary, Lim says, the company employs the same stringent requirements it would have for any new recruit -- intern or otherwise.

"We look at what they bring to the table to see whether there's a good match between what they are looking for in terms of a job experience or an educational experience and what we can provide to them," says Lim. "We also want to make sure they treat this as a valuable work experience and that they are ready to take on work in a professional environment."

Vistaprint's HR interns perform duties ranging from "light administrative work" to more strategic tasks, such as finding ways to "employ learning and development instructional design theory and putting it into practice." The interns are invited to participate in regular HR meetings, as well as Friday afternoon social-networking sessions dubbed The View.

Vistaprint's aim is to ensure all of its interns receive "appropriate compensation" for their work. "In some cases, that compensation is in the form of class credit," says Lim. "If there is no class credit, then we'd look to pay at least minimum wage for their work."

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In one recent instance, for example, an intern working in Vistaprint's Learning and Development area received college credit, rather than monetary compensation, for her work due to immigration restrictions. Specifically, her visa allows her to pursue educational opportunities, but prohibits her from working for pay. "In those particular situations, we can't pay for it -- it's strictly educational," says Lim.

While none of the company's HR interns have been hired on as full-time employees, Lim says she would be open to such a possibility in the future. She is currently in the process of formalizing the program and hopes to have one or two interns working alongside Vistaprint's 30 to 35 HR professionals each summer. She is particularly excited at the prospect of getting interns to help out in the Learning and Development area.

"We are continuing to build our Learning and Development offerings here at Vistaprint, so I can imagine there may be some key areas where either an undergrad or, more likely, a grad student could help contribute, developing a new program," says Lim.

"That would certainly give them the opportunity to get some valuable experience under their belt."

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