On the Job

How to talk to HR about taking a sabbatical

A sabbatical is defined as a period of time off or rest. Many employees want to take extended periods of time off for a variety of reasons – travel, education, family, etc. In some cases, taking time off is encouraged – such as taking a gap year before college or retirement.

Unfortunately, company policies aren’t always clear when it comes to this subject. A study from the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) shows that only 12 percent of organizations offer unpaid sabbatical programs and only 3 percent offered paid. So if an employee is looking to take extended time off, they need to do some homework to determine what the company offers, if anything.

That being said, the absence of a formal sabbatical program doesn’t mean the organization won’t grant one. It just means that the employee must put together a well thought out plan to request one.

Here are a few things to consider:

  • Have details and a plan. This is the type of request that an employee should make during a formal meeting, versus grabbing a couple of seconds with their manager in a hallway or after a meeting. Taking an extended period of time off will not be decided in five or ten minutes, so schedule a meeting to give the discussion the time it deserves.
  • Know the time frame. Employees should have some sense of when they want to leave and how long they want to be gone. It will be one of the first questions that the manager wants to know. It’s equally important to have a specific return date. The last thing an employee should do is tell the company they will be back on a specific date, then call a few days prior to ask for an extension. The employee needs to be accountable for the time they are requesting.
  • Be flexible. It’s not always possible, but if the leave is not an emergency, consider scheduling the sabbatical around the company’s slower business times. Taking a sabbatical during non-peak times could actually benefit the company! The company might want to reduce payroll expenses and it could keep other employees working full-time hours, which might be helpful for them as well.
  • Think about the work. The company may or may not ask this question, but it’s still a good idea to be prepared to answer questions about how the employee’s job responsibilities would be covered during an absence. In addition, if training is necessary, how that will be handled prior to leaving.
  • Discuss reentry. The employee should have some ideas about how transitioning back into work would take place after their sabbatical. Keep in mind, if the organization doesn’t have a policy and is granting this request, it’s possible that the way this situation is handled will determine how other future employee requests are decided. If the employee handles it poorly, it could impact the ability for other employees to take a sabbatical.
  • Put expectations in writing. So there are no misunderstands, expect this arrangement to be documented in writing. It should include both the employee and company expectations. It should also mention topics such as what happens to benefits, etc. during the sabbatical.

Even in organizations without formal sabbatical programs, taking an extended leave doesn’t have to be an automatic “no” answer. But employees looking to take a sabbatical should do their homework and prepare some answers prior to scheduling a meeting with their manager. Preparation will help make the company’s decision to say “yes” a lot easier.

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