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Could Former Condé Nast Interns Jeopardize Their Careers by Filing a Payment Claim?

Last week, Condé Nast invited former interns to apply for compensation for past underpaid work — the result of a class-action lawsuit settlement. But could doing so damage their career prospects at the publisher?
Photo: Imaxtree

Photo: Imaxtree

As anyone who's worked her way up in the fashion world will tell you, it's an industry that leans heavily on work carried out by interns — the vast majority of whom work for free or for college credit. That boat got rocked in a big way back in 2012, when a former Harper's Bazaar intern sued Hearst for violating state and federal laws for not paying her for her time when she was doing as much work as a full-time staffer. Not long after, Charlie Rose had a similar legal situation on his hands, as did Condé Nast.

Condé ultimately settled for $5.9 million, and last Wednesday, the company sent out notices to those who had interned between June 13, 2007 and Dec. 29, 2014, letting them know that they could file a form to receive compensation of somewhere between $700 and $1,900.

You'd take the money, right? Me, too. But we talked to two former interns who said they weren't sure they wanted to take the settlement, because they were worried it would hurt their chances of getting hired by Condé Nast in the future — never mind that the sums are legally owed to them. So we figured it was worth looking into.

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Thankfully, the short answer is that they can likely take the money without any problems. If you're one of thousands of former interns, filing a payment claim after the settlement probably won't cause serious repercussions, says Fordham Law professor Susan Scafidi, who specializes in fashion law and has been following the intern cases since they came up. It's a safety in numbers thing.

But a former intern would actually have something to worry about had she filed the suit herself. If you sue your employer, you can bet they're not going to want anything to do with you, and that aversion can translate into getting blacklisted from other companies, too — especially in a business as tightly woven as this one. 

"Diana Wang, who served Hearst, is going to have a hard time in this industry," says Scafidi.

And that's because she's trying to change the entire culture of the industry. At Fashionista's annual conferences, we hear panelist after panelist stress the importance of rolling up your sleeves and paying your dues as an intern: They did it, and you can make it work, too. Even if a whistleblower's intentions are good, they can wind up stigmatized or perceived as a legal liability.

Reps for Condé Nast and Condé Nast HR did not respond last week to questions about whether past interns could be penalized in future job interviews for filing a claim. Then again, filing the claim, even if HR will see it in the future, could be a good thing. In a way, it means you know your worth.