Companies in competitive industries are stepping up paid sabbaticals.
Imagine taking six months off of work.
And getting paid to do it
Along with unlimited paid time off and video games in the office, one weapon growing more prevalent in the arms race of company benefits is the paid sabbatical. Tech companies, law firms and other employers in the tight labor market are offering senior employees anywhere from one to six months of paid time off with few strings attached.
The word “sabbatical,” from the same root as “sabbath,” traditionally refers to a break extended every seven years. It’s a longstanding tradition in academia, usually for professors to complete research. Some European companies offer unpaid sabbaticals to workers seeking a retreat from modern life.
Left: Abby Engers, recruiting consultant at Boly:Welch
Recently, however, the term has come to apply to extended paid breaks for senior staff at private-sector employers. Some companies view the sabbatical as nothing more than an extended vacation, but others attach a sense of purpose to it, says Abby Engers, a consultant at Boly:Welch. Patagonia falls on the latter end of the spectrum with a program that encourages employees to take months off to volunteer at an environmental nonprofit of their choice.
Other employers let their staff enroll in a class or immersive experience, or volunteer abroad, then give a presentation when they return. Travel is a popular activity: Some people live in France or undertake mission trips to Africa.
Sabbaticals mark a larger shift in the type of benefit that today’s employees value. Workers used to be attracted more to financial offerings like 401K matches, bonuses and healthcare coverage. While those benefits are still important, money is becoming a lesser currency than time.
“Companies used to take care of you in a different way,” Engers says. “Now people prioritize different things. Companies are saying ‘if we’re not going to give you a pension, we’ll give you time.’”
“Companies used to take care of you in a different way. Now people prioritize different things. Companies are saying ‘if we’re not going to give you a pension, we’ll give you time.’”
—Abby Engers, Boly:Welch
For technology companies, this stand-out benefit can lure talent in a tight labor market, recruiters say. With developers and programmers in short supply, the sabbatical is becoming industry standard.
Vernier Software & Technology has offered sabbaticals to senior employees for around 20 years, but over the past few years the company stepped up its program. One reason is competition with other local tech firms. Vernier aimed to match the industry standard of a one- to three-month sabbatical for every seven years worked.
“We’re looking to try and be competitive, although being a smaller company we might not be able to do as much,” says Ami Freeman, HR manager at Vernier. “It’s maybe more of an expectation now in tech to offer things like sabbaticals or paid volunteer time.”
In the legal field, the same pressures arise. Steve Hedberg, chief operating officer at Perkins Coie, describes an “intensely competitive” market for top talent. Seeking to stand out, the firm offers paid sabbaticals of up to three months to firm partners, senior attorneys and staff who have worked at least seven years.
Employees earn the benefit through a point system that rewards years with the company as well as achievements. Other salaried staff can take two-month sabbaticals after 10 years and non-salaried staff after 13 years. The sabbaticals are simply extended vacations with no strings attached.
At any company, letting a senior employee take off for months can be a burden. Engers says it can raise fairness issues if managers are jetting around the globe while their employees toil in their cubicles. Freeman says juggling multiple requests for sabbaticals is the biggest drawback. The company can only dole out one at a time. Perkins Coie has to make up for some lost income.
Boly:Welch is thinking through these issues right now as it crafts its own sabbatical policy. One challenge is figuring out how to compensate salespeople who are paid on commission if they take a sabbatical. They also need to consider the level of communication they expect from vacationing employees—once-a-week check-ins or radio silence?
Most managers, however, say the benefits outweigh the costs. “Reduced turnover creates significant savings in personnel costs and consistency in our client relationships,” Hedberg wrote by email. “It also improves culture, engagement and client service.”
Besides refreshing employees and fighting turnover, it can offer younger recruits a chance to step up while their boss is gone. At Perkins Coie this challenges younger employees and creates opportunities for professional development.
Surprisingly, sabbaticals are a relatively affordable recruiting tool. Everyone wants to work at a company that offers them. But in high-turnover industries like tech, workers probably won’t stick around long enough to use the benefit. In particular, millennials are serial job-hoppers. “It’s a nice carrot,” Engers says, “but most people don’t actually get a chance to take it.”
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