9 November 2011

So you want to ask your employer for a sabbatical. But you are afraid he or she will say no!

It's a realistic fear - you really feel that you need some time away, but if you make a mistake when requesting your sabbatical, you might be turned down. That's why we've written this blog post to help you.

Here are 5 steps telling you how to ask for a sabbatical, which are guaranteed to work (unless your boss is a psychopath).

Step 1: Do your research

It's no good steaming in asking for a sabbatical when you have no idea what the company policy is. They might not even know what a sabbatical is! (Yeah, really). So finding this out is really important.

Speaking of which, it's important that you know what a sabbatical is so you know how to ask for a sabbatical. A sabbatical is an agreed period away from your job, and you are guaranteed to return to the same (or a very similar) job. Legally, you're still an employee even though you're not being paid (unless there are exceptional circumstances, like your employer being very generous!).

Many employees we talk to say they don't want to be very obvious about it before they know where they stand. So here are some tips on researching sabbaticals quietly:

  1. Work there for a while. Most companies won't give you a sabbatical until you've been there for at least 2 years (although this is not universal). Also, the longer you're there, the more you'll understand the company's culture and attitudes - and the more valuable you'll be.
  2. Find the stuff in writing. Whether it's online, on the intranet or in an old school HR manual, the sabbatical policy - if there is one - will be written somewhere. It's less likely to be in your employment contract but it's worth checking there too. If you want to read up without causing suspicion, make something up about wanting to check on travel expenses, or the IT policy, or something (or come in early or stay late, so there's no-one around). You have a right to a copy of your employment contract but if anyone asks, just tell them it's for your records.
  3. Have a chat with a colleague at an equal or lower level. Tell them how your friend asked for a sabbatical to do volunteer work and has anyone at this company done anything like that?
  4. Have a casual chat with the HR manager and/or your boss. Again, bring up the subject about someone else, rather than you. You should get an idea of their attitudes by how they react to the idea.
  5. Have a less casual chat with the HR manager and/or your boss. Once you're on surer ground, make the conversation about you, but still theoretical, eg "How would you feel if I went away for 6 months?"

Step 2: Make yourself valuable

We get a lot of callers worried that if they ask for a sabbatical and get one, they won't be missed! You need to ensure that you are truly, sorely missed while you're on sabbatical, but that no-one notices before you go (in case they think they can't do without you).

Making yourself valuable:

  • Build up relationships with colleagues, suppliers, and especially clients
  • Go the extra mile for clients - they will tell your boss how valuable you are!
  • Volunteer for tasks that aren't strictly in your job description - especially a task that everyone else hates
  • Pitch in with charity or community events that your workplace organises
  • Always give credit where it's due - both to yourself and colleagues
  • Make the tea! Seriously, it's the little things that count.

Read more in our post How to make yourself indispensable at work.

Step 3: Show the value of a sabbatical

Before you dive in to asking for a sabbatical, you need to think about how it's going to affect your company. Most importantly, what will they get out of it? All organisations ultimately need to care about the bottom line.

You will need to tailor your case to yourself, your job and your company, but to help you, here is a list of common benefits to giving an employee a sabbatical.

  1. They won't have to pay you. Saving money is always popular with employers! Sabbaticals are the perfect way of a company saving money without having to make anyone redundant.
  2. They will save even more money. While this isn't so good for you, it's another bonus for your company - they won't have to give you a pay rise if you're away at annual pay review time, and they won't have to contribute to your pension because it'll be frozen. These things aren't carved in stone (or law), but they are common practice.
  3. They won't have to pay for whatever you learn. If you take a course (eg a language course) or you do volunteer work, you will be learning valuable skills on your sabbatical, which the company won't have to pay for. The skills can be soft skills and transferable to your job (eg problem-solving, communication or teamwork) - many companies value soft skills above qualifications these days.
  4. They will be getting a more loyal and refreshed employee back. Unless something dramatic happens, or you are a mercenary, you're likely to stay with the company for some time after you return. And a loyal employee is a valuable employee.
  5. It's cheaper than hiring someone as a replacement. You might not want not to bring this up, as you don't want them to consider this as an option. However, if you're faced with "why don't you just leave and we hire someone else", it's worth knowing that recruiting a new member of staff can cost thousands, and, as we've mentioned above, giving you a sabbatical will save them money.
  6. Everyone's doing it. Again, not something you want to bring up too blatantly, but organisations that pride themselves on investing in people might like to know that one in five companies now offers sabbaticals, so they will be in good company.

Step 4: Consider cover

As outlined above, when asking for a sabbatical you don't want to put too much emphasis on who will cover for you, but you need to consider it. Here are the options, with the benefits and pitfalls.

  1. Your colleagues cover for you while you're on sabbatical. If you work in a big team, your work might be able to be shared out amongst colleagues. This saves the company the time and expense of hiring a temp, and means your cover already knows the ropes. However, your colleagues might be resentful, and in the worst case scenario, it could look like you're not needed!
  2. A temp or contractor is brought in for sabbatical cover. Similar to maternity leave, your company brings in someone on a fixed-term contract to do your job while you're away. This does swallow up a lot of the money that they're saving in your absence, although they won't need to pay benefits or redundancy. On the plus side, it does mean the work gets done! Your biggest worry is them being better than you, but with a sabbatical agreement in writing, the company can't automatically get rid of you for this reason.
  3. Your work is put on hold while you're on sabbatical. This will only work in specific organisations and jobs - for example, if your work is mainly project-based and your project can be delayed. You can help here by being flexible about when you go away.

Step 5: Ask for a sabbatical!

The big step, how exciting! By now, you should know:

  • The company's policy on (and attitude towards) sabbaticals
  • How valuable you are to the company (and how to prove this)
  • What's in it for your organisation
  • Who will cover while you're away

You will also be asked why you want, need and/or deserve a sabbatical, so make sure you have sensible and well-thought-out answers to these questions too.

Who you ask depends on your company and your relationships. In a small company, arrange a meeting with your immediate boss. If s/he will need to ask someone else, have the meeting at lunchtime, so they can talk to other people in the afternoon. If your boss will make the decision, have the meeting near the end of the day, so they can chew it over.

In a large company, you will probably go to your HR person - in this case, try to have your meeting in the morning so you are alert and not distracted by work issues. If you have a good relationship with your boss, I would suggest telling them your plans informally and briefly before you go to the HR manager. They need to hear it from you first.

Next steps

Now you know how to ask for a sabbatical, and if you've followed the steps above, they should say yes!

The next step is to get the agreement in writing (super important), then start planning your experience. The rest of this site can help you with that - you can start by having a look at all the things you can do on a career break.

Good luck!