Sabbatical programs offer staffers chance to recharge, grow

Firms with sabbatical programs are finding that they not only allow staff to develop personally and professionally, but they also serve as recruitment and retention tools.

Firms with sabbatical programs are finding that they not only allow staff to develop personally and professionally, but they also serve as recruitment and retention tools.

Most everyone would agree that a break from routine is a good thing. In corporate America, that's usually where vacations come in. But a sabbatical is an entirely different story.

Popular in the academic world, sabbaticals offer an extended period of time for one to develop professionally - and sometimes personally. But do they have a place in the fast-moving, competitive world of PR? Some agencies believe they do, that sabbaticals of some kind not only provide opportunities for employees, but ultimately benefit the agency, as well.

Standing Partnership, an agency with locations in St. Louis and Portland, OR, offers a two-month sabbatical on top of vacation time after seven years of service. Employees must take the sabbatical in one-month blocks. Beth Champlin, an account manager at the agency, is using her time off to write a book about her grandmother to celebrate her 100th birthday.
She took the first part of her sabbatical this July and is taking the second part this month.

"Sabbaticals serve a couple of different purposes," she says. "It's a great recruitment tool to ensure you're getting the best and brightest at your agency, and it's also a great retention tool."

So far, Champlin says, the experience has provided her with an opportunity to regroup and gain a new appreciation for her job. "You come back with new energy and new ideas for clients," she says.

As far as what employees do with their time off, the only request the agency makes is that it is something creative. "Since this industry is so focused on strategic, creative ideas, they want to make sure you're using that time to do something that is important to you and is also creative," she says.

William Mills Agency, based in Atlanta, considers its recently implemented sabbatical program a way to reward employees for their service, as well as a retention plan. "We want employees to be here for a long time," says Scott Mills, president. "If [agencies are] really interested in maintaining long-term relationships with employees, they're going to have to work at it every year." The agency now offers a three-week sabbatical to employees in their fifth year of service. "It is really something to look forward to," he says. "It's rare for anyone to find a chunk of time to do something that they've always wanted to do."

Lou Hoffman, CEO of The Hoffman Agency in San Jose, CA, says he implemented a sabbatical program upon founding the firm 18 years ago because it fit in with the Silicon Valley culture. While some programs require a longer tenure, Hoffman says, he
made four-week sabbaticals available to staffers after four years because any longer can "feel like an eternity"- especially to younger people. "Four [years] is long enough to be meaningful, but it's within reach," he says.

While sabbaticals offer employees the opportunity to re-energize, Hoffman says, they provides firms with benefits, as well. While an employee is on sabbatical, it allows the agency to "figure out how to get the job done without that person," he says. "A lot of times, with great performers, you want to keep them going a certain way." Often, once an employee has returned from a sabbatical, it will be easier to move him or her to a different account.

Some companies offer sabbaticals that are geared toward professional development. Lewis PR, an agency with 16 offices around the world, offers two similar programs that give employees some time away from their usual offices. Each year, one member of an account team is invited to spend a week in another location of the agency, regardless of his or her tenure. "It's definitely something that allows the staff to feel part of the global agency," says Tim Wheatcroft, director of business development. The agency's MOO (month out of office) program gives employees who have at least two years' tenure with the company the opportunity to spend a month at another location or take part in an activity that will help further the agency's development.

Clifford PR, which has locations in New York and LA, gives employees one week a year to visit the other office to get acquainted with colleagues who might be working with similar clients. "[Employees] really enjoy it," says Mike Clifford, president and CEO. "Clients like that we are seamless."

Benefits of a sabbatical program

  • They can be used as a recruitment/retention tool
  • They provide staff with opportunities to recharge and get excited about their jobs
  • They give agencies a chance to reassess personnel issues
  • In-office sabbaticals give employees chances to explore other sides of the agency

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