Sustainability: Corporate sabbaticals

Corporate sabbaticals refresh tired executives, and are an underutilized strategic tool for improving bottom line results, says Rita Foley


Corporations who offer sabbaticals don’t do it as a nicety. They do it because it’s downright good for bottom line business results. It’s good for employees, for the company, and for customers. I’ve been on all three sides. I’ve taken four sabbaticals and each time, I came back to work as a better contributor, employee, and leader. I have granted sabbaticals to my employees and I have seen the rise in creativity and benefits for customers and the corporation.

No one had ever asked for a sabbatical at the company where I worked as a sales manager. My boss nearly fainted when I did. I explained the importance and assured him I would be back. Then I pulled out my plan of how my sales team would be managed while I was out and how sales would not suffer.

When I returned, sales had grown and customers were happy, but it felt as if I had never left. That was a tribute to my team and pre-planning. A manager of another group took on responsibility for my employees, but we also named two sales supervisors who did the day-to-day coaching. I returned refreshed and more committed than ever to exceed our goals. There was more cross-fertilization of ideas between my colleague’s sales team and mine. The company had tested two young people in the role of supervisor who went on to become sales managers themselves. Everyone gained.

Most of us have worked since we were in our late teens or early 20s, so of course it’s natural to crave some time off. Gary had been contemplating quitting and trying something new. After talking it over with his wife, he decided since he was only one year away from his sabbatical, which his company grants after seven years, that he should wait. Gary’s wife shared that Gary used to moan about work but since returning from his sabbatical, God forbid anyone say anything negative about Intel now. He realized his itching wasn’t the company or the work. He simply needed a reboot break.

What happens on the other side to the person who has to step in for the sabbatical taker? I spoke with Tami Graham, director of global benefits design. When her peer for HR delivery took a sabbatical, Tami stepped out of her job completely to run the delivery group. Tami explained that she can create the most wonderful programs in the world, but if they can’t be rolled out in the field or easily implemented, they are for naught. Doing the delivery job gave her first-hand experience of what it was like to receive programs from her team and the challenges of implementing them. It made her a better leader as it did the person who stepped in to do her job during those three months.

So why don’t more companies implement a formal sabbatical program? Let’s examine a few of the most commonly heard objections:

Employees won’t return:
I know of over 100 companies and organizations that have experienced the opposite. Companies offering formal sabbatical programs have close to 100 percent of the sabbatical takers returning to the company with a higher level of engagement, loyalty, motivation and appreciation for their employer. Follow-up research shows a high percentage of promotion and improved performance levels of those sabbatical takers. Companies that provided sabbaticals on an informal or exception basis had more sabbatical takers who did not return to work or remain employed with the company.

Our clients won’t allow it. 
I heard this one especially from law firms. “You don’t understand we’re different. We have a very intense one-on-one relationship with our clients.” Then how come there are many law firms--small to ones with over 900 partners--who offer sabbaticals?

One partner from Cleary Gottlieb told me that sabbaticals actually help neutralize the ego factor. “It’s not healthy for the firm if a client gets too dependent on just one person.” They have proven that there are ways to serve that client well while the person is out for a couple of months. From our interviews with sole proprietors to managers of thousands of people and clients, they said that their customer/clients actually cheered them on.

It’s too costly
This is another one that is especially hard for lawyers or firms who share their profits. But, if everyone takes a sabbatical then, at one time or another, you will each be covering for another and the profit washes out. Some companies offer only partial pay for sabbatical leavers but for even those who offer full pay, a sabbatical program shouldn’t cost you. Maybe at a clerical level you might have to hire a temp once in a while but with some careful preparation and juggling, work can be covered by existing employees.

It’s too hard to administer:
It’s all in the preparation. The companies I spoke to have a very simple and effective system. Upon approaching the sabbatical year, an employee writes a memo to their boss requesting the specific time off. They then meet and outline coverage.

Too many people would be out at the same time:
If you decide to implement a formal program, one of the main concerns is how to start the implementation with tenured employees who have passed the five- or seven-year mark and some many times. There are many ways to address this and most simply stagger the leaves over a three-year period.

The bottom line:
Our nation will lose its innovation and creativity if we don’t invest in our most important asset: our employees. We tune up our PCs, our cars, and our home heaters. Why not encourage our people to give their minds and their spirits a tune up? Time and time again sabbatical takers return as more interested and engaged employees, more loyal and more creative. Sabbaticals broaden a company by bringing in new ideas.

Loyalty alone should be enough to justify implementing a program. The cost of hiring and training a new employee can be 1.5 times a departing worker’s salary. Sharon Allen, Deloitte’s chairwoman, said that her firm’s sabbaticals and flexibility policies had saved more than $45 million a year by reducing turnover.

Companies gain because offering a sabbatical program is a wonderful tool for checking and building an organization’s depth and breadth. Sabbatical programs force managers to proactively focus on developing their staff, complete succession planning and provide training and exposure to teams, thus encouraging “readiness” in terms of bench strength. It is a chance to evaluate the potential of employees who stand in for others in a real, not hypothetical, situation. Sabbaticals promote teamwork and better decision-making.

Twenty per cent of the Fortune 100 Best Companies to Work For offer fully paid sabbaticals. If you want to be a workplace of choice while still adding to the bottom line and the company’s future, then consider implementing a sabbatical program. Since the inception of its program in 1979, Intel has granted over 64,000 sabbaticals. Intel had $661 million in revenue in 1979. Last time I checked this $43 billion company wasn’t doing too badly.

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Rita Foley writes on behalf of the Sabbatical Sisters, four executives who have spoken to hundreds of individuals and companies about the benefits of sabbaticals. Together they have taken 12 sabbaticals and have grown and flourished in their lives and careers. Their book: Reboot Your Life. Energize Your Career and Life by Taking a Break, was published in April.