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Sabbaticals

By Steve Jones,

This editorial was originally published on Oct 25, 2005.

Does your company offer a sabbatical? Andy Warren (LinkedIn | Blog | @sqlandy) and I were discussing retention and benefits awhile back and we got around to sabbaticals. He was trying to secure this benefit for his development staff, and I'd had a little experience, so we got to talking. I've never personally had one, but my wife has. She worked for a high tech company in the 90s and after 6 years, she was allowed to take 6 weeks, full salary, as a sabbatical.

I've never personally worked at a company where it was offered, much less stuck around long enough to earn one. But I've always thought they were a great idea, without really understanding the purpose. It seemed like a great reward to let someone get a little extra time off after devoting six or seven years to the company, which seemed to be the norm with my friends.

However I started to research this a little and found that the idea wasn't extra vacation. It was to allow someone to recharge, but in a constructive way. In academia, this usually means working on some defined project, a paper, book, or something else that has a tangible and specific end to it.

That is an interesting idea. When my wife took her sabbatical, she basically took 8 weeks of vacation; the sabbatical and some other PTO time she'd shared. For her it was a project, to try and be a stay at home Mom, but it wasn't something defined with her employer. I've spoken to a few other people that were lucky enough to get them and it was really a vacation time for them, a chance to get away.

I think that setting up a sabbatical is hard. You don't want to just pile up work for someone that takes off for 6 weeks, especially if there's a chance they will not return. And if they return to something like that, it's more of a punishment than a reward. Allowing someone to leave for an extended period, and I'd argue that 6 weeks isn't that long, but it is hard on a company and the other employees. But I think it's almost a necessity given the long hours and extra efforts that many IT people put in.

The idea of setting up a specific project, even something like attending a cooking school or training for a marathon, is a good one. There should be some flexible rules that bound the time, but still make it productive for the employer. Xerox has a great volunteer sabbatical where employees can spend a number of weeks volunteering with some organization, and I think that is outstanding. I think I'd enjoy 6 weeks of pounding nails with someone like Habitat for Humanity.

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