How to negotiate a sabbatical

Tribune Media Services

The fledging economy has created an interesting dichotomy when it comes to sabbaticals. While companies struggling to fill certain jobs are offering sabbaticals as incentives to reel in talent, employees elsewhere are so desperate to keep their jobs that they'd never consider asking for several months off.

And then there are workers who have kept jobs they loathe throughout the recession for fear of ending up with no job at all, and now they're desperate to take a break.

How do you negotiate that break if your company doesn't have an official sabbatical program?

First of all, "you'd better be a valued, high-performing employee," says Elizabeth Pagano McGuire, partner at, a company that helps businesses implement sabbatical programs, and author of the e-book Negotiating Your Sabbatical. "Don't go and ask [your employer] unless you are."

Just as important is knowing what qualifies as a sabbatical or career break, and having a plan for how you'll spend the time, McGuire says. Most sabbaticals average about three months, and anything shorter than a month is more like a vacation. "[A sabbatical] is not just an extended vacation," McGuire says. "It has intent with purpose."

Which brings us to our first point:

Be purposeful. Particularly if your company will consider paying your health benefits during your time away, don't expect to sit on the beach for six months. Maybe you want to travel. Or take a class. Or complete a certification, raise your kids, or write a book. However you want to spend this time, come up with a plan for how you'll make the most of it. "The most successful sabbaticals are planned ones," McGuire says.

Show how your time away will benefit the company. Returning as a refreshed, re-energized employee is a perk, but that might not be enough, says Rachel Platt, who grants leaves for employees as human resources director at Reznick Group, an accounting, tax, and business advisory firm. What will you learn during your time off? What skills will you bring back? How will you share that knowledge with your colleagues? How will you become a more valuable employee? Sell your proposal just like you'd sell yourself if you were looking for a job.

Think carefully about your timing. Your manager is more likely to accommodate your request if you go when it's convenient for the company. Of course, the timing may never be right, but certainly try to avoid your company's busy season if it has one. It makes most sense for Platt to grant requests in the summer, she says, after tax season. "The summer is a much lighter time of year," Platt says, "[so] it's a win-win for the individual and the organization."

Consider how long you've been with the company. There's no hard-and-fast rule on this, but McGuire says you should expect to be with a company for at least a year before asking for a career break, enough time to prove yourself. The more valuable an employee you've become, the earlier you can afford to ask.

Be prepared to quit. What happens if your employer doesn't budge? You have more leverage if you're willing to quit your job to make your career break happen. This requires more planning, especially on the financial side, but if you have savings to fall back on, it might be an option to consider.

Leaving the job worked out for Jeff Jung, who quit his position as director of marketing for a medical device company to travel around the world. While in Botoga, Colombia, he met his now-spouse, and ended up moving there to launch his website, Career Break Secrets. He now helps others make similar transitions.

If you quit your job though, you'll probably need a new one after your break, whether you work for a company or create your own career like Jung. Your sabbatical experience can help you in that realm, too.

Play it up on your resume. Don't make the mistake of down-playing what you learned when you return. Own it. If you've given your career break purpose, it shouldn't be a gap on your resume, Platt says. It should add to your experience, making you more marketable to employers.

Marlo Gaal, who hires employees as corporate human resources director for Hyatt Hotels Corporation, says a sabbatical on a resume has the potential to make a candidate more interesting. "It's an upside [for a candidate] because I appreciate the diversity," Gaal says. "To me, [what you learn during a break from the traditional workforce] are transferable skills, and I appreciate people who are non-tradition in their thinking. I think it brings a refreshing and new way of doing things into a team environment."

Having talked with others who returned from sabbaticals, Jung agrees. "What people are telling me is that if they have a challenge, it's more with the recruiter than with the employer," he says.

If your boss says no, consider a company that does support career breaks. McGuire's company keeps a list on its website. This in itself might not be a good enough reason to look for employment with a certain company, but it certainly sweetens the pot, especially if you know you want a break-filled lifestyle in the long run.

It can't hurt to ask. Some companies simply aren't open to the idea of career breaks, but it can't hurt to propose one, especially if you adhere to the ready-to-quit mentality. If you're going to take this leap anyhow, why not try to get your company on board? It may end up benefiting youand your employer.

Above all else, recognize that taking time to do something productive other than working your day job won't drag your resume down. Instead, it has the potential to take your career to new heights.

"[Seeing a sabbatical on a candidate's resume] is not a deterrent," Gaal says. "It's more of a conversation-starter. But it needs to be time well-spent."

(c) 2009 U.S. News & World Report; distributed by Tribune Media Services

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