MLMs, Unpaid Internships, and Love Bombing

The summer after COVID-19 hit, I didn’t have a job.

I’d originally planned on working for a summer camp, but nothing panned out due to the pandemic and travel restrictions. My attempts to find research on campus also failed, cold emails returning absolutely nothing. I almost gave up—until I found an unpaid internship with a startup that sounded like it matched some of my interests.

The application process involved filling out a formal application and then going through two rounds of interviews. Based on the many hoops I had to go through to get the unpaid internship, I initially believed that it was difficult to get a job with this company. But once I was accepted and brought to the first group meeting, I was a bit surprised to find that there were nearly 40 other unpaid interns in my exact same position. It was a startup that most people had probably never heard of, which raised some concerns on my end.

There were a few other red flags early on while working with that company. For one, I came to realize that since the startup was so new and hadn’t even launched its product yet, the employee base had very few actual paid workers. I also found out that despite there only being one general application for all internal, certain applicants were given seemingly higher–up positions, working as “group leaders.” While it’s fine to have hierarchy in a startup like this, I was blindsided that the company hadn’t at the very least posted a separate position that people could apply for.

But the biggest red flag that I unfortunately ignored early on in my work at that company was the love bombing.

“Love bombing” is a term typically used in romantic relationships. According to Chitra Raghavan, a psychology professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, “One partner … showers the other person with attention, affection, compliments, flattery, and essentially creates this context where [the other partner] feels like [they’ve] of [their] soulmate … The reality is, the person who is doing the love bombing is creating or manipulating the environment to look like [they’re] the perfect mate.”

In short, love bombing is mainly a manipulation tactic meant to keep people in some kind of relationship.

In the corporate world, it can refer to a boss or members of the company being overly affectionate and welcoming to encourage newer members to stay involved or feel like they’re special. In my unpaid internship, they would act overly excited to have us, constantly ask for our opinions, and have an overwhelming, almost fraudulently optimistic attitude, likely as a way to keep us involved since we weren’t getting much from the internship—especially financially.

More often than not, corporate love bombing occurs in multi–level marketing schemes, or MLMs. An MLM is a pyramid scheme where anyone can join as long as they pay an expensive starting fee. After they pay that fee, they typically receive a package containing whatever product that MLM sells, which they are meant to sell to others to make money. But unlike regular companies, an MLM’s core profit does not come from the products that it sells—profit comes from recruiting other sellers, as each member makes a commission off of each recruited seller beneath them.

Similar to my internship, the higher ups in MLMs shower new members with affection as a way of making them feel excessively welcome to cover up any doubts that person may have from joining their company. And from what I’ve seen, companies use this love–bombing tactic when they know that the deal they’re giving you is a lot worse than they initially made it seem.

Since the goal of MLMs is to recruit as many people as possible, recruiters will use any tactics they can to make people stay. With love bombing, MLM representatives will seek out people who are seemingly isolated and suck them into their company with promises of affection, friendship, and community. As explained by HuffPost, “MLM members will shower prospective recruits with warm welcomes and excitement, saying how wonderful it is that they came, what an exciting opportunity it is and congratulate them for joining. It’s almost as if the recruit is being seduced―they feel special, important and like they’ve uncovered a precious secret no one else knows about.” Many YouTubers, such as Hannah Alonzo, have posted video recordings of MLM Zoom calls, where love bombing is clearly seen in action.

This doesn’t mean you should run any time a new company you’re working for shows the smallest amount of positivity. Not all displays of affection are inherently evil. The reason love bombing is manipulative is because the person initiating the love bomb often has an ulterior motive.

I ended up quitting my unpaid internship after that one summer, and I’m glad I did. I wasn’t getting paid and didn’t even put it on my resume. From now on, I plan on listening to my gut a bit more, and I think everyone else should too. If that group you’re considering joining—whether it’s a club, company, or unpaid internship—seems a little too excited to have you, be wary.

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