Taking off from the hi-tech grind: sabbaticals

Source: HRMagazine
Date: 9/1/1997
Author: Semas, Judith Harkham

Sabbaticals, or extended paid leaves, are increasingly the trend in many companies, especially in the technology sector. These long vacations with full pay and benefits are one way for companies to show that they care about employee needs, as the break provides employees the opportunity to escape workplace stress and recharge. Upon their return, employees face their jobs with renewed interest and enthusiasm and greater creativity. For employers, sabbaticals have proven to be key recruiting as well as retention tools. Intel is the first company in Silicon Valley, CA, to offer sabbaticals.

Sabbaticals are fast becoming the norm in Silicon Valley. Companies that have yet to jump on the bandwagon - even those outside the hi-tech arena - would be wise to consider the pros and cons of extended paid leave.

Mack Medeiros headed Down Under for a leisurely month of scuba diving on Australia's Great Barrier Reef - something he'd always wanted to do.

Sue Priore and her teenage son took off for a car tour of the California coast. No plan, no agenda - just freedom, relaxed exploration and uninterrupted togetherness for the first time in years.

Patrick Trujillo revisited the province where he served during the Vietnam War - a dream he'd nurtured for three decades.

These three Silicon Valley employees didn't win lotteries or inherit fortunes. They're among the thousands of workers - especially those in the technology sector - who are benefitting from extended periods of paid time off, or sabbaticals.


The first Silicon Valley company to offer sabbaticals to all its workers was Intel, the global high-tech company based in Santa Clara. Every seven years, each full-time, domestic Intel employee qualifies for eight weeks of leave with full pay and benefits - in addition to regular vacations. (Overseas employees aren't eligible for Intel's sabbaticals because their vacation allotment is more generous.)

The policy began with Intel's founding in 1969 and continues essentially unchanged today.

"We see sabbaticals as accomplishing two things - allowing people time for revitalization and giving the employees who remain an opportunity for new challenges and growth," says corporate affairs manager Tracy Koon.

The idea has caught on. Over the past 28 years, sabbaticals have become an accepted part of life in Silicon Valley. (See box.)

Even nontechnology firms are getting into the act. A growing number of law firms offer sabbaticals, and American Express Financial Advisors of Minneapolis, Minn., is considering implementing a policy for its workers. According to the Work and Family Survey, conducted by Buck Consultants of New York, 22 percent of the responding companies offer their employees paid general leaves of absence - in addition to vacation, sick leave and other types of paid time off.

Some people predicted the demise of sabbaticals when employers downsized dramatically in the early 1990s, according to consultant Diana Reach of Hewitt Associates in San Francisco. "But companies are relying on their employees even more now than before," she says. "They want to show they care about employee needs, and sabbaticals are one way to do that."

At private-sector companies, employees usually can use their sabbaticals for any purpose, as long as they don't conflict with the interests of their employers. And workers can extend their sabbaticals by tacking on vacation or other paid personal time off.


As sabbaticals become more common, their value becomes greater for retention than for recruiting.

Sabbaticals "almost never come up in salary negotiations and companies rarely use them as a selling point with job candidates," says Carol Gebet, San Francisco Bay area manager for Robert Half International Inc. in Cupertino, Calif. Candidates usually are more attracted by the type of technology involved in the job than by the pay and benefits. And sabbaticals are typically tied to a company tenure of four years or longer.

"In this market," she points out, "with unemployment at a record low of 3 percent, demand for talent at a 30-year high, and employers scrambling to outbid each other for workers, top-skilled professionals rarely stay with the same employer long enough to qualify for sabbaticals."

But for employees approaching the tenure required to earn sabbaticals, the time off becomes a reason to stay. "I've had Intel employees tell me, 'I received a good offer from another company, but I like my job here and I'm almost eligible for sabbatical, so I turned it down,' "says Koon.

On the flip side, "We've had people leave Intel who negotiated a payout of their sabbatical from the other company," Koon says, "and we've done the same ourselves when the recruiting situation was reversed."


Like most employers that offer sabbaticals, Microsoft Corp. in Redmond, Wash., sees its one-year-old policy as a key retention tool. However, while most employers offer the perk with virtually no restrictions, Microsoft imposes some limits.

"Our program is considered an award, not an entitlement," says Cecily Hall, Microsoft's senior employee benefits manager. "It is structured for key upper-level employees, includes some job/career performance standards and requires final approval of the employee's vice president."

After seven years of service at Microsoft, qualifying employees are eligible for an award of eight weeks. Employees can take advantage of the award by choosing:

* Time off with pay.

* An assignment to another part of the corporation.

* A cash payout in addition to their regular pay.

"If they want to donate the cash to a charitable organization, we can help facilitate that," Hall says.

Microsoft's sabbatical program has been well received, says Hall. "Overall, feedback has been very good, with no complaints from managers or peers," she says. "We're about to start formal polling to secure more direct feedback from the recipients about the short-term impact of the award on their careers and how they feel it will affect them long term. In that way, we can understand and better gauge the effectiveness of our program."

Another hi-tech corporation that recently adopted sabbaticals is Adobe Systems Inc. of San Jose, which began its program in 1995. "We wanted to remain competitive and learned that more companies were offering sabbaticals," says Susan Hall, Adobe's benefits administrator. "We see it as an employee de-stressor and a tool for avoiding burn-out, as well as a means of retaining employees. Everyone here at every level loves our sabbatical policy; we haven't seen any downside at all."


Sabbatical advocates insist that even a few uninterrupted weeks away from the press of work boost productivity by giving stressed workers the opportunity to recharge their batteries. Employees return to their jobs, they say, with renewed enthusiasm and heightened creativity.

"We find that not only are employees more relaxed and better able to handle work stresses when they return, they also come back with new ideas and fresh winds blowing between their ears," Koon says. "Sabbaticals really do give you a new lease on life, both psychologically and intellectually. Because returning employees haven't been immersed in their day-to-day tasks while they've been gone, they tell us their sabbaticals have helped them see work issues and problems in a different - often more effective - way."

Koon also touts sabbaticals as an effective way of broadening the perspective of the employees who pick up the slack for workers on leave. "It helps them better understand what we do here and gives some employees management experiences they might not otherwise have had."

At Apple Computer in Cupertino, Calif., team bonding is another of the company benefits generated by sabbaticals, according to benefits manager Sue Cunningham. "We all stretch to help each other," she says. "Knowing that our teammates will come through for us when it's our turn to take a sabbatical has made our whole team stronger and more cohesive."

American Express Financial Advisors (AEFA) is considering adopting the sabbatical policy of its parent corporation, American Express in New York. One reason is to establish consistency in the corporate family; another is to address the company's commitment to community service.

"Part of the sabbatical program at American Express is to provide long-term enhancements and learning opportunities for employees," says Bonnie Anderson, AEFA's director of field employee relations. "But we have established criteria for participation in the sabbatical pro,am, and we recognize that it is also one way we can help foster support for community service."


Although confirmed sabbatical supporters maintain that good planning and communication limits the downside, not everyone is an unqualified fan.

Bob Smith, former executive vice president of development and chief technical officer of Belfort Memory International of Los Gatos, Calif., has spent about 30 years working for Silicon Valley companies, including Seagate Technology Inc. of Scotts Valley and Magnetic Peripherals Inc. (formerly Sperry-Univac, and Information Storage Systems) in Cupertino.

"A standard comment I heard from some fairly high-level people at Seagate is, 'If I can let somebody go on sabbatical for four or five weeks, I don't need them at all,'" Smith says. "I've heard such comments repeatedly from many, many people throughout the industry."

It's no wonder, he notes, that Jots of employees worry over being replaced or having their jobs downgraded while they are out on sabbatical. "Give someone five weeks to do your job - probably at a lower salary - while you're gone and guess what? You've got an unpleasant surprise awaiting your return," he says.

For companies that swear by sabbaticals, cost is not a concern; most look to the employees' teammates to cover work during sabbaticals. Cost and fear of reduced productivity can he a big issue for firms that don't have sabbatical policies.

Leave Leaders

Firms That Offer Sabbaticals




Adobe Systems 

 3 weeks paid 

5 years

Advanced Micro Devices 

2 months paid 

 7 years (for exempt classes)

Apple Computer     

6 weeks paid   

5 years


6 weeks paid   

4 years

Centigram Computer   

4 weeks paid   

4 years


 8 weeks paid   

7 years


8 weeks paid      

7 years (upper-level key employees) 

Silicon Graphics    

6 weeks paid   

4 years

Storage Dimensions   

2 weeks paid   

5 years


6 weeks paid   

5 years

Tandem Computers        

6 weeks paid

4 years


4 weeks paid or  

4 years


"When you hire a person and pay him or her to produce for you for five years, you've invested a considerable sum in that employee's training and production capability," Smith says. "Can you really afford to let the person go for five or six weeks?"

Smaller companies, especially, can suffer when key employees are out. Few small outfits have the staff to adequately cover for extended absences or the budget to hire temporary replacements.

And even some sabbatical-takers have complained that the difficulty of preparing for their sabbaticals - and the pile of work they face after returning - is so stressful, it's almost not worth it to take the time off.

One engineer with 3Com, which is located in Santa Clara, Calif., tells of returning from his sabbatical to find more than 1,100 e-mail messages queued up on his computer. According to Hicks and others at pro-sabbatical companies, that kind of problem can be easily eliminated.

"Most people put in an e-mail stop on their computers, with instructions to refer their e-mails to someone else," he says. "We think that kind of thing is important because we don't value people being islands. The environment at Silicon Graphics is team oriented, and although some people are missed more than others, no one is indispensable. We think that's as it should be."


Hewlett-Packard (HP), the large, Palo Alto, Calif.-based employer that consistently ranks as one of the nation's best employers, has no formal sabbatical policy.

"We've re-examined the idea from time to time, and concluded that our overall benefits package is already what we want it to be - a good fit for our company philosophy," says Nancy LaMarca, manager of benefits design and delivery. "Our diverse array of work-life/balance programs includes a host of flextime and flexible time-off opportunities that, in essence, allow employees to create their own sabbaticals using other types of paid time off."

Cost is one of the important considerations in HP's decision not to offer sabbaticals, according to LaMarca. "Paid time off is part of the financial package we offer as a benefit to our employees. And it's a valuable and costly benefit to our 65,000-person workforce," she says. "A day off with pay is perhaps one of the most expensive benefits a company can offer, which is why we give it a lot of consideration as we assess our total compensation package."

LaMarca sees sabbaticals as a "trendy thing" but not a hindrance for HP's benefits competitiveness or recruiting ability. "We've been able to attract people away from companies that have sabbatical policies," she says. "So, it's not a real issue in recruitment for us."

The long-term ability to maintain a specific benefit is an important factor in HP's noncash compensation decisions. "When we provide a benefit, we make sure we can offer it for the long term," she says. "You want to be among the leaders, but you can't afford to pay significantly above everyone."

RELATED ARTICLE: Stylish Sendoffs

A Farewell to Work

Some companies have developed sabbatical-related rituals and jargon over the years. Workers at 3Com of Santa Clara, Calif., use the word "sabattitude" to describe the beatific serenity of people who have just returned from leave, says one engineering manager.

Intel has a tradition of lighthearted teasing that often bookends workers' sabbaticals. One manager who spent his sabbatical in the tropics returned to discover his office cubicle filled with sand and a beach umbrella, says corporate affairs manager Tracy Koon. Another couldn't find his cubicle at all - until he checked the parking lot, where company pranksters had transported it.

"One person in our unit planned to spend part of her sabbatical in Europe and the remainder at the beach. So at her going-away party, we gave here a flimsy bathing suit and garish, hot-pink-and-rhinestone oversized sunglasses, plus books of slang expressions in French and Italian," Koon says. "And we really faked out my boss on his return from a nine-week leave. We had him thinking the whole organizational chart had changed in his absence because we'd installed all new people and nameplates in every single cubicle."

Sabbatical fun is the norm at other firms, too. "The day before one of our employees left to spend his sabbatical time in the tropics, we set up a whole beach scene in his cubicle - sand, wading pool, palm tree, the works," says Larry Hicks, director of compensation and benefits at Silicon Graphics, Inc., Mount View, Calif.

Judith Harkham Semas is a freelance writer based in San Jose, Calif. Her first book, San Jose and Silicon Valley: Primed for the 21 st Century (Community Communications, Montgomery, Ala.), was published in August. Her e-mail address is judith-harkham@semas.com.