Herbies defends decision to sell work placement at auction

Herbert Smith has confirmed that it sold a work placement for £1,150 in a charity auction, despite following a policy of social mobility and equal opportunities for candidates of all backgrounds.

Insolvency and restructuring partner Stephen Gale, who is a member of the Pilotlight charity, which aims to alleviate disadvantage, organised the week-long work placement to be offered for auction by the charity last November.

The firm’s head of resourcing Peter Chater said Gale had organised the work placement as a one-off informal arrangement for charity.

“He’s a member of Pilotlight, a charity that recruits senior business figures to help a range of charities working to alleviate disadvantage,” he said. “They hold auctions of art, travel, sport and work experiences, among other things. They approached him about a year ago and asked us to provide a week of informal work experience for auction, which we agreed to.”

Gale is currently on annual leave and was unavailable for comment.

A spokeswoman at a London-based diversity organisation said the trend towards firms placing a monetary value on work placements, even for the purpose of fundraising, was a worrying one.

“I don’t imagine it would be the fairest way to go about allocating these opportunities,” she said. “Work placements should be allocated based on socio-economic background, skills and merit, not industry contacts or financial advantage.”

A spokesman for Herbert Smith said the firm remained focused on social mobility and inclusivity, despite the controversial sale of the placement.

“Herbert Smith is committed to fair access and social mobility,” he said. “We also take our corporate responsibilities as regards charity work seriously and in that context agreed to this one-off informal placement, created specifically for Pilotlight and unrelated to our graduate recruitment programme, as a fundraising aid for a worthy charity.”

The spokesman said the firm had recently launched a bespoke programme called ‘Networked’, which provides support and business experience to five A-level students at local colleges each year.

The firm also runs a community investment programme that works with hundreds of young people from disadvantaged communities and offers mentoring, careers advice and training.

The news comes after HSBC group general counsel Richard Bennett was dragged into the ongoing ’informal internships’ row after sending a rejection letter to a student who had sought unpaid work experience in the bank’s legal department (27 May 2011).