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The Single Best Practice for a Company Sabbatical Policy that Rocks

Let’s say the company announces a new program to allow time out from work – a sabbatical program. Immediately after a shock and awe moment, employees have a few questions.  Do you know what they are?

They want to know:

  1. Do I get to go?
  2. For how long?
  3. Will I be paid?
  4. Can I do whatever I want?

At the onset, this is all that’s on the minds. Soon enough, they’ll ask other questions that include:

  • Who will do my work?
  • Is this career suicide?
  • How much is round-trip airfare to Mongolia?
  • Why are they doing this?

Important questions, yes.  And there will be more to be answered as part of the roll out.

Sabbatical design, the roll out and a well written policy rely on different skill sets. For example,  individuals charged with the challenge to design and implement a successful sabbatical program will that find innovative and creative thinking are crucial.

What program design best fits our company’s values, culture and expectations?

But when it comes to writing the sabbatical policy, best to rein in creativity and opt for simple, straightforward communication.  Begin with what matters most to those involved.

Unless it’s a top-down ritual to confuse your workforce and take their focus off productivity, keep in mind the first four concerns of individuals and place that in your policy at the beginning.

Of course human resource professionals will have all sorts of ideas about what to include in a sabbatical policy. (And much of this is important to convey.) But in our experience, the HR people can flex and be happy with much of this incorporated at the elsewhere in the policy.

So whether you end up with a one-pager or 5000 word document, tell your workforce what they really want to know with clear, concise language  – and up front please.

Write Sabbatical Policy with a Focus on Five Elements

You can’t have a successful sabbatical program without policy and guidelines. But your audience want’s to know the answers to those four questions about who goes, for how long, money or no money, and what’s the deal I”m cutting with the company.

The following critical components should be clarified in every career sabbatical policy. We included useful information to guide those of you may soon be designing your company’s sabbatical program as well as for information for individuals who may be negotiating their own.

‣ Length of sabbatical.

Four consecutive weeks is generally seen as a minimum, but two to four months are popular. Be sure to address whether vacation or other PTO or unpaid leave may be added to lengthen the sabbatical.

‣ Length of service required.

This element varies widely – some companies allow sabbaticals after only one year of service, while others require seven to 10 years.
The average of seven years is decreasing as the younger generations fill the workforce. This section of your policy should also address whether sabbaticals are recurring – i.e. every five years.

‣ Other eligibility requirements.

Beyond tenure, what will you require? Perhaps you’ll state certain performance-based criteria. Perhaps you’ll require an application with
an outline of the sabbatical-goer’s work coverage plan.

‣ Compensation while on sabbatical.

Will compensation be full, partial, or unpaid? Some companies provide full pay for a certain period of time (i.e., first month) and then reduced or partial pay thereafter. If yours is a “self-funded” sabbatical, will the company provide a financial “withholding” plan prior to the sabbatical? If not, then perhaps it’s more accurate to call it an unpaid plan.

‣ Company’s expectations of sabbatical-goers.

Some companies pride themselves on not asking employees to provide any information about what they’ll be doing while on sabbatical, wanting the time away to be “reason blind”. Others ask employees for a detailed and thoughtful plan for what they intend to do. A few companies require activities to have an educational, charitable or research element. Almost all companies state that a sabbatical-goer cannot work for a competitor during time away.

For sure while some aspects of a sabbatical initiative are straightforward (i.e., paid or unpaid,the length of time off), others issues can be more complex:

  • What percentage of the workforce can be on sabbatical at the same time?
  • What are the criteria for approving a sabbatical?
  • What are the obligations of the sabbatical-goer upon return to work?
  • If the company implements more than one sabbatical program (an increasing trend), are the programs independent, interdependent or overlapping in some areas?

That content is all a part of a good sabbatical policy. But the single best practice?

Answers the questions most important to your employees f-i-r-s-t.

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