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A Sabbatical Program Launches and No One Wants to Go. What’s Up?

In an initial consulting conversation this week with Jennifer, an individual who is gathering information to design and implement a sabbatical program for a global company, Elizabeth and I re-emphasized the importance of the roll out of any sabbatical program.

“What you don’t want to have happen is to launch a sabbatical program and then have individuals refuse to go,” I said.

“That happens? Really?,” Jennifer replied.  “Must be because the sabbaticals are unpaid.”

Nope, that’s not it.

When a new sabbatical program rolls out, stakes are big. If the sabbaticals aren’t successful for the individuals who go first, don’t expect enthusiasm for the idea of taking time away from work. And if the first people eligible don’t want to go period, this is a little like “build it and they will come”…and then they don’t. Big waste of time and energy … and a big fat mess.

Why would anyone refuse an opportunity for a paid break from their career? People are always going to be a little nervous leaving their work for an extended time. Who wants to think of coming back to a mountain of problems or angry clients because your work was botched?

But when a program rolls out with a six-week paid career break and individuals refuse to go or there’s a “you go first” mentality, then something bigger is at play.

If you are planning a sabbatical program for your company, avoid a bad beginning and address the issues below in the design phase.

Three reasons sabbatical programs don’t get takers:
They don’t get it. In other words, whoever rolled this out didn’t do a good job educating people about the growing trend of sabbatical programs embraced by companies and the benefits derived. More importantly, everyone (even those not eligible right away) needs to know why are “we” doing it and why it matters.

Not enough lead time. One or two months for those first eligible individuals is not adequate. We recommend a 12-month lead time. First, some of what people like to do on a career break requires cash.  Cash for those plane tickets or maybe the price of admission to your dream experience. (The June 2013 TED Global Conference in Edinburgh, Scotland costs $6000.) Lead time is necessary when people choose an experience such as a global leadership experience, a fellowship or a cultural immersion. Time for the application process and  waiting to hear if you’re accepted. Lastly, some individuals can quickly articulate exactly what they would do with six weeks off, while others find it daunting – the kids, spouses, family time, my time, enhancing career skills – how should I spend this time for the best return?

The company culture is scary bad. Would you think of taking a sabbatical if your boss draws frowny faces on his notepad when you brought it up?  If your colleagues who are itching to shine look gleeful and greedy when you talk about your time away? If people sense that leaving their job for a while feels risky, they won’t go.  A cut-throat, competitive culture and no support in the senior ranks is a death knell for a sabbatical program.

Momentum and enthusiasm, along with positive outcomes, are critical to your company’s sabbatical program. The stories of those first sabbatical-goers easing back into their careers after an extraordinary experience is what you want.  Make others say, “I can’t wait for my sabbatical.”

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