Publication: New York Times
Section: Career Couch
May 4, 2008
Q. You like your job and want to keep it, but you could use a break that's
longer than a vacation. In academia, professors routinely take sabbaticals
in order to recharge. Could that be an option for you in the corporate
A. Yes. In fact, 16 percent of American companies have formal unpaid
sabbatical programs, and 5 percent offer paid sabbaticals, according to
the Society for Human Resource Management. Corporate sabbaticals are
usually shorter than academic ones, said Elaine Varelas, managing partner
of business development at Keystone Partners, a talent management firm in
Boston. "Unlike the academic world, in the business world it's out of
sight, out of mind," she said. "The longer you're out of touch, the higher
the risk that you will seem less important in your job than you are." Ms.
Varelas suggested taking no more than three months off. Don't consider
asking for a sabbatical unless you are a high-performing employee who has
been at the company for several years. If you are an average or marginal
performer, you risk being perceived as someone who isn't serious about his
or her career, she said.
Q. What's the best way to broach the topic with your manager? If you are
bored or burned out, should you talk about that?
A. If you're burned out you should take a vacation, not a sabbatical. The
best case for a sabbatical is a business case, not a personal one. Write a
proposal outlining how both you and the company will benefit from your
time away, what you intend to do and what you hope to achieve, said
Melanie Holmes, a vice president at Manpower, the staffing firm in
Milwaukee. If you want to take a continuing education class, for example,
or volunteer to work in Africa on a project to fight AIDS, describe how
your efforts will relate to your professional development goals. "Include
information about how you will be a better employee, that you will come
back refreshed and more creative," Ms. Holmes said. You may also be able
to use the current economic downturn to your advantage. If your company is
looking for ways to cut costs, this could be a good time to win approval
for some unpaid leave, she said. You will also need a plan for covering
your responsibilities, one that shows how your work will be seamlessly
handled by others while you are away, so that neither clients nor
co-workers suffer, said Rachelle J. Canter, president of RJC Associates, a
leadership development firm in San Francisco and author of "Make the Right
Career Move" (Jossey-Bass). "Be specific," she said. "Tell your boss,
'Here is what I will do, this is who will cover these tasks, and I have
set up lunches with these three clients to ensure a seamless handoff.' You
don't want your boss to have to figure out how he can do this for you,
because then it's just one more thing on his plate."
Q. Do you need to plan how you will use the time?
A. If you don't, you're likely to waste it, said Rich Gee, an executive
coach in Stamford, Conn., who took a one-month sabbatical four years ago
when he was a product manager at Gartner Inc., the technology research
firm. Mr. Gee had a number of goals: to take a class, to read several
business books, to spend some time with family and to evaluate his career.
"But I didn't plan it effectively and didn't get much accomplished," he
said. "You need to block out time for each activity every day, because you
need structure and a time management system in order to get anything
Q. What do people generally do during a sabbatical?
A. They usually engage in activities that benefit them professionally,
said Stefanie Smith, president of Stratex, an executive consulting firm in
New York City. That doesn't mean you have to enroll in an executive
education program — although you could. But whatever you do, there needs
to be a professional gain. "Even if you spent your sabbatical rock
climbing, you had the experience of successfully tackling a challenge, and
that translates to changes in leadership style and self-perception," Ms.
Q. Is there a risk that your department will function so well without you
that you will appear unnecessary?
A. The worst that will happen is your boss will see that you aren't
indispensable, but if you're doing your job right, you shouldn't be
indispensable anyway, Mr. Gee said.
Q. Your work colleagues will be curious about what you did while you were
away and how you may have changed. Perhaps they will be resentful and
think that you have been idle. What's the best way to handle a transition
back to the office?
A. As soon as possible, have a lunch with co-workers to talk about what you did on your sabbatical, what you learned and how it will let you contribute more to the team, Ms. Smith said. That will help engender camaraderie rather than resentment.
"Come back to the office with one to three professional development goals
and be prepared to articulate how those goals will also benefit the
department and the company," she said. But don't gush about the singing
lessons you took, or how you learned to play guitar. "Keep that stuff to
yourself," she said.
Copyright 2008 The New York Times Company