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To Keep Your Best Workers, Let ’em Leave

Sabbaticals—a longstanding tradition in academia—are becoming increasingly popular in business and nonprofit organizations as effective tools for recruitment, engagement and retention of employees, especially top performers. In 2005, the Society for Human Resource Management reported that just 6% of U.S. organizations offered a paid sabbatical program, but 17% offered unpaid leave programs, and 13% paid for volunteer work by their employees (Bolch 2006).


Employees are refreshed

Public relations firms and other businesses that rely on their employees’ creative abilities to drive their products and services find that providing occasional timeouts from work is a valued way to help their employees refresh, regenerate and remain committed to their jobs. “We want employees to be here for a long time,” comments Scott Mills, president of the Atlanta-based William Mills Agency. The PR firm makes a three-week sabbatical available to workers after five years of service and considers the benefit part of its employee rewards programming and a component of its retention strategy. Mills observes that agencies “interested in maintaining long-term relationships with employees [are] going to have to work at it every year” (Iacono 2005). Organizations across a variety of sectors seem to share Mills’s opinion and are experimenting with leave and sabbatical programs in a variety of incarnations.


Goodwill is generated

The Accenture consulting firm illustrates how some companies use leave times to offer employees opportunities for personal growth, while also generating goodwill for the employers. The company’s Accenture Development Program pays workers half their usual salaries to consult with nonprofit organizations around the world on specific projects. The nonprofits pay reduced fees for Accenture expertise (helping to make the program self-supporting), and Accenture taps only high-performing employees for the assignments, which may last six months or more. The company’s program director reports that employees enthusiastically vie for the positions and credit the program with boosting their desire to remain with Accenture. Other organizations with timeout programs that utilize employee efforts include the technology firm Cisco Systems, pharmaceutical manufacturer Pfizer and the financial services firm Wells Fargo & Company. (Chao 2006).


Criteria may differ

Unlike those companies, many organizations forgo structured sabbaticals, simply offering employees time off to pursue personal goals, address family needs, augment their education, travel or engage in creative endeavors. Most companies require that workers be on staff for a specified number of years before they become eligible for the leave programs, and some firms mandate how the time may be taken—in one-month installments, for instance. Further, organizations may limit availability of sabbatical or other leave programs to employees who consistently perform at or above specified levels.


Benefits are numerous

Although sabbatical programs can be expensive or inconvenient for employers—and the argument can be made that exposing workers to outside experiences could open them to tempting employment offers from those organizations—there are significant benefits to be reaped. Attracting and retaining top talent, preventing burnout, maintaining employee productivity and providing workers with opportunities for personal and professional development are leading reasons that organizations institute sabbatical programs. Such programs also are cited as valuable tools for retaining Baby Boomers and other workers who are considering retirement (thus helping to retain the organizational knowledge of those groups). At the same time, experts point out the appeal that leave programs hold for Generation X and Y employees seeking better work/life balance. In addition, when workers are away on sabbaticals, companies are challenged to create new ways to fill the gaps left by the employees’ absences – situations that can facilitate innovation or reworking of operations that might otherwise have gone unnoticed.

In the UK, says Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development advisor Angela Baron, sabbaticals and paid leave programs remain rare. However, relating to HR professionals (though her observation is just as relevant across other disciplines), Baron speaks to the value of experiences like Accenture’s work program: “If you can get work experience in business functions outside HR, you can come back to the HR department with new abilities and valuable knowledge. Employers often look more favourably on HR staff who have life experience … you come back to work a more rounded individual” ( Redford 2006).

Clearly, sabbaticals aren’t yet a mainstream answer for attracting and keeping top talent, but in the right circumstances, granting a little leave may help employers gain an edge in appealing to high performers and in keeping them from leaving permanently.


References

Bolch, Matt. “Time to Refocus.” HR Magazine. ProQuest. May 2006, pp. 89+.
Chao, Loretta. “Theory & Practice: Sabbaticals Can Offer Dividends for Employers; Backing Volunteer Sojourns Helps Firms Retain Talent, Gives Workers Sense of Pride.” Wall Street Journal. ProQuest. July 17, 2006, p. B5.
Iacono, Erica. “Sabbatical Programs Offer Staffers Chance to Recharge, Grow.” PRweek. ProQuest. October 10, 2005, p. 12.
Lank, Avrum. “The Value of Rest: More Firms Seeing Benefits of Letting Workers Take a Step Back from Labors.” Knight Ridder Tribune Business News. ProQuest. August 7, 2006, p. 1.
Redford , Kirstie. “Trends … Sabbaticals.” Personnel Today. ProQuest. January 10, 2006, p. 33.