Selling the sabbatical

Last summer, I had an entire paid month off. It was delicious. Our firm offers sabbaticals to team members to mark their five-year anniversaries.

Last summer, I had an entire paid month off. It was delicious.

Our firm offers sabbaticals to team members to mark their five-year anniversaries. It's a brilliant perk, but these days, it's also an uncommon one. Sure, you may still find big brands like Adobe or General Mills offering such a benefit. But beyond the behemoths, sabbaticals are scarce.

They shouldn't be.

How do employers benefit from giving away weeks of vacation time? We've seen a lift in multiple categories, including:

Our crew has used sabbaticals for everything from writing screenplays to caring for elephants in Thailand. When I tell recruits these stories, I can almost see the gears turning and springs popping in their minds as they imagine what they would do with such time. Things like 401K matching and cell phone reimbursement appeal to candidates' rational minds, but the sabbatical appeals to their emotions at just the time we want them to fall in love with us.

Retention and loyalty
The allure of a sabbatical on the horizon can keep staffers from becoming loose in the saddle. I live and work in Silicon Valley, one of the most intense talent markets in the country, and our sabbatical program helps us to fend off zealous recruiters looking to poach our people. It also reinforces loyalty to the firm among sabbatical alums. I spent my sabbatical traveling through Australia and New Zealand with my wife and teenage kids. We went diving on the Great Barrier Reef, caving on New Zealand's north island, and rappelling in Australia's Blue Mountains. And we had the opportunity to focus on each other in a way that the frenzy of work and school often makes difficult.

Team development
When someone steps away on sabbatical, others must take on his or her responsibilities. This temporary shift can serve as a top-notch growth opportunity for talent that a company is looking to nurture. Last summer, the head of our tech team here in San Francisco took over much of my work load while I was out. This was a pivotal learning experience for him, positioning him perfectly for the eventual promotion to the GM role earlier this year.

A sabbatical offers an ideal opportunity to reflect, recharge, and reset. We've seen our people return from their break with thoughts on how to do their current jobs better. They've also come back fired up to do entirely new things for us. Ours is a culture of entrepreneurship, and creative thinking about business opportunities sometimes needs time to percolate. We've found that a sabbatical can provide that kind of time and is very well-aligned with our firm's DNA.

If your company doesn't yet offer a sabbatical program, know that it is among the majority. A 2010 study conducted by the Society for Human Resource Management found only 20% of companies surveyed offered sabbaticals. And of those, just 4% offered paid sabbaticals.

But rather than taking comfort in the fact that your company is normal, consider how you might help to drive it towards a more radical position. The benefits of a sabbatical program are outstanding for employers, not just for employees. So forge your argument and agitate for change.

As a PR pro, you're naturally persuasive. With a bit of effort, you may compel your company to make the single most rewarding HR decision it has ever made.

Phil Carpenter is senior partner, West Coast for Allison+Partners.

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