A Rest for the Best

Sabbaticals Help Employees Regroup, Reorganize, Revamp

Kim Fogel

World Vision

Gode, Ethiopia

Accenture consultant Samir Parikh got an unexpected opportunity this summer. Thanks to the sabbatical program his employer announced last month, Parikh got to design his work life for a year. He now shares his days, nights and weekends with three nonprofit organizations in Washington.

"I couldn't have been more enthusiastic," Parikh said. "It was a good point in my career to take a one-year break to reflect on what I've learned, and to work in areas where I otherwise wouldn't have had the opportunity."

Parikh is sharing his business acumen with the National Community Reinvestment Coalition, which promotes fair lending laws; helping adults learn to use computers through Byte Back; and assisting Horton's Kids, which provides tutoring and recreation to children in Southeast Washington.

While aiding these organizations, Parikh hopes to improve his leadership skills so he can become a manager upon returning to Accenture.

Accenture, a management and technology consulting firm based in Hamilton, Bermuda, employs 30,000 in the United States. A thousand of its U.S. consultants accepted the firm's offer to take six months to a year off. They can do almost anything except work for a competitor.

Other consultants are backpacking in the Himalayas, learning to cook and returning to school. The company pays 20 percent of the employees' salaries and all of their benefits.

The economic slowdown and the company's lowest attrition rate in years led Accenture officials to develop the voluntary program.

"It enables us to balance our talent pool and cut costs in the short term while retaining highly skilled people we've spent a lot of money and time training," said Larry Solomon, managing partner of U.S. geographic operations. "We are extremely pleased with the results. We plan to consider whether we can continue offering this on a more permanent basis."

Many technology firms have long-standing sabbatical programs, but they're usually designed to retain employees and prevent burnout, not reduce staff, said Chris McGee, a partner with Chicago-based Andersen, Accenture's former parent company. McGee advises clients on human resources issues.

The publishing industry is most likely to offer sabbaticals, followed by the education sector and high-tech firms, according to the Society for Human Resource Management in Alexandria, Va. Other technology firms that offer sabbaticals include American Management Systems Inc. of Fairfax, Va., Gartner Inc. of Stamford, Conn., and Silicon Graphics Inc. of Mountain View, Calif.

"I know it's been a big draw for us. It's helped a lot of us through the rough times at SGI," said Jean Fritz, a marketing representative who's on her third sabbatical.

For 21 years, AMS has offered eight-week, paid sabbaticals to titled employees ? principals, senior principals, vice presidents and some technical specialists ? after they have worked for AMS for seven years and have been titled for three years. Employees are eligible for an additional sabbatical every six years.

Because the sabbatical is meant to get "creative juices flowing again," employees can't work elsewhere, said Joanne Horgan, AMS vice president of human resources administration. They don't seem to mind, though. Each year as many as 200 of the firm's 2,100 titled employees go on sabbatical.

"This particular program has helped retain our best people and also really helps make them productive members of our work force," Horgan said. "People not only come back [after the sabbatical], but they are raving about the experience, and they start looking forward to the next one."

While Accenture's approach to the sabbatical is unusual, it's not unheard of. Telecommunications giant AT&T Corp. of New York paid for employee education and health insurance, but not salaries, during a downsizing in the early 1990s, said researcher Helen Axel, who wrote about sabbaticals during that time for the Conference Board Inc., a nonprofit business research organization in New York.

A sabbatical such as Accenture's does have risks, McGee said. Workers on sabbatical, McGee said, will find the pace of their interim jobs significantly slower than what they're used to. Some will like the change so much, they won't return to their employer. In some cases, though, that's not a bad thing, he said.

"If the objective was to reduce staff, it's exactly what [the company] wanted," McGee said.

Despite their benefits to employers and employees, the number of employers offering sabbatical programs has decreased from a high of 33 percent in 1996 to 19 percent today, Bowl said.

"It's hard to speculate about why that might be," she said. "To some degree, the tight labor market affected employers' ability to let employees go for long periods of time. But then again, the tight labor market may have highlighted the need for work-life balance, and employers responded with other benefits."

McGee has seen increasing interest in sabbaticals, but few employers implementing them because other benefits are easier to manage, such as flex time and part-time work.

Palo Alto, Calif., computer manufacturer Hewlett-Packard Co., for example, allows employees to negotiate work arrangements, including flex time, job sharing and part-time work. The company doesn't have a sabbatical program.

HP business development manager Kristy Ward calls her work arrangements "a longer-term solution than what a sabbatical can be." Ward's schedule allows her to shuttle three children to practices and games of four baseball teams.

Ward has worked part time for 11 years, first in a job-sharing arrangement and now in a position solely her own. She supervises 11 people around the country, including three at another site and one telecommuter. She's had multiple new jobs and promotions, evidence that "HP is getting the contribution they need and want from me," Ward said.

Employers who want a sabbatical program must first define the objective of the sabbatical ? employee retention, for example ? and consider the effect on the company, McGee said.

"It's got to work within the context of the organization and drive the business purpose," he said. "If it affects the company adversely, it's not going to last very long."

Employers must consider a host of details, including the length of the sabbatical; payment of salary, benefits, bonuses and 401(k) contributions; distribution of work to other employees; what employees can do while on sabbatical; and the effect on employees' careers and client service.

Accenture's program, for example, is open to consulting personnel at the senior-manager level and below with more than a year of service. Like other employees, consultants on sabbatical receive profit-sharing allocations, equity awards in connection with the firm's recent initial public offering of stock and can contribute to their 401(k) accounts. They can use their laptops, e-mail and voice mail and will receive invitations to company events.

It's essential to design the sabbatical correctly the first time, McGee said, because like retirement programs, sabbaticals are difficult to change.

Tim Ogden witnessed staying power of sabbaticals firsthand. Ogden joined technology consulting firm Gartner Inc. six years ago, shortly after the Stamford, Conn., company canceled its sabbatical program, a paid month off every five years to employees at the director level and above. There was such a backlash that company officials almost immediately reversed their decision.

"They very quickly realized the benefit to the psychology of the employees was far greater than the cost to the company," he said.

Ogden, vice president of strategic research, spent his first sabbatical in Ethiopia last year, volunteering with relief organization World Vision Inc. of Federal Way, Wash.

"I would go back in a second. It was hard, but I loved every minute of it," said Ogden, who helped with record keeping, communications, grant writing, crisis assessment and food distribution.

Ogden, in fact, is already thinking of his next sabbatical. He plans to return to Africa, either to help with famine relief in Ethiopia or to work on an AIDS orphans project somewhere on the continent.

"It becomes harder and harder to think about leaving [Gartner]," he said.

Although corporate interest in sabbaticals is declining, some firms are just beginning to explore the benefit. When Kim Fogel, marketing director for Ventera Corp., an e-business solutions provider in McLean, Va., approached her manager for suggestions on achieving better work-life balance, the conversation led to a two-month sabbatical.

"Being at Ventera is extremely important to me, but my kids and husband are tops on my list," said Fogel, whose children are 3, 5 and 8. "I'm taking a couple of months at home to spend quality time with my kids and to get some processes in place in my house to get in order. If I truly feel ready to come back, I'll feel a sense of accomplishment."

Fogel's benefits are paid for, and she earns an hourly rate for a few hours of work each week. It's the first sabbatical for the 5-year-old, 45-employee firm.

"I do support 100 percent the concept that work can be flexible," said Robert Acosta, chief executive officer. "If Kim is able to come back maybe even with a redefined schedule and things more in control all the way around, that's a good thing."

"I have three kids myself," Acosta said. "It's very difficult to manage. You have to make some important choices."

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