As many of us ourselves have participated in unpaid work early in our working life, many employers believe that it is reasonable to bring prospective employees on for unpaid work trials to make sure they can do the job. This is another HR myth, and in some cases unpaid work trials can be unlawful.

What is an unpaid work trial?

Unpaid work can take many forms, including internships, work experience, vocational placements or work trials and volunteering.

In some instances, unpaid work is carried out to the benefit of the person, possibly to gain exposure or experience in a job. When the purpose of the unpaid work is to test a person’s skills and suitability for a position, this is considered an unpaid work trial.

When are unpaid work trials a risk?

Depending on the nature of the work being carried out and the duration of the trial, the person doing an unpaid work trial might be considered to be in an employment arrangement, and would therefore be entitled to minimum pay and entitlements as an employee.

The person is more likely to be considered an employee if

  • you’re requiring the person to work unsupervised;
  • they’re doing productive work that would otherwise be done by an employee;
  • they’re working a trial shift that is longer than a few hours;
  • they’ve demonstrated the skills required for the job; or
  • you ask them to return for a second trial shift.

Other risks to consider when engaging someone in multiple or lengthy work trials is that you may not be adequately covered should the person have an accident or be injured on the job. If they are using equipment they are not trained to operate, there is also potential for damage or breakage to occur. For these reasons it is critical to ensure anyone on a work trial is adequately supervised at all times.

Is it an unpaid work trial or an Internship?

Some internships are unpaid, and may lead to employment, however these are not considered work trials as the person is there to learn and develop skills. This is distinct from a work trial where the person is there to demonstrate they have the skills for a role that is on offer.

An internship will usually involve attending the workplace multiple times over a period of weeks or months, and is primarily for the purpose of providing the intern with skills and experience in a role, and the intern is therefore receiving the benefit.

Like a work trial, there are certain factors to be aware of as some internships can take on characteristics of an employment arrangement.

When is it reasonable to NOT pay someone for a work trial?

A work trial can be unpaid if it is purely to evaluate the person’s ability to do the job. The length of the work trial will depend on the type and complexity of the work and could range from one hour to one short shift. As the purpose of the work trial is to assess a person’s skills, the prospective employee must be supervised at all times.

What if you’re not sure and need more time to assess their skills?

Usually an unpaid work trial shouldn’t exceed a few hours – long enough to have them demonstrate the skills that are relevant to the job. If you require the prospective employee to come in for a second shift, they must be paid at least the minimum rate of pay for the job.

If you need more time to assess their suitability then you can hire the person as a casual or employ them on a permanent basis with a probationary period. These options mean that the person is being fairly compensated for their time and effort, and as the employer, you still have flexibility should you determine that the person is not able to perform the role.

If you’re looking for assistance in developing effective recruitment procedures including work trials, don’t hesitate to get in touch with our team, via the chat box here or calling us on 08 6150 0043.

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