To walk Monument Valley, where John Wayne became an American icon, is no longer just a dream for Richard Needles.
A four-week paid sabbatical from Sterling Commerce gave Needles the time to fulfill many dreams, including riding the rails cross-country and visiting Needles, Calif. no relation.
When he returned to Sterlings Dublin office, he settled in with a new perspective on his job that not uncommonly has him working long hours, including weekends.
When I came back, I took a more strategic look at my job, says Needles, who is vice president of human resources for Sterlings Commerce Group, a 650-employee division of the company, and the senior HR person for the corporation.
I was more thoughtful. Right before I left, I was caught up with what I have to do at 8 oclock and 9 oclock. Now I think about what the company is going to look like in two years and how can I make a difference as a corporate vice president.
An uncommon occurrence
Sabbaticals are not as common now as they were in the past, according to statistics from the Society for Human Resource Management. A 1999 survey of 2,500 members of the Virginia-based trade group shows only 5 percent of the 742 employers who responded offer paid sabbaticals, according to society spokeswoman Kristin Accipiter. Another 23 percent said their employer offers unpaid sabbaticals.
Accipiter says the highest occurrence of sabbaticals, both paid and unpaid, comes from the education industry, where sabbaticals have their roots in letting teachers take time off. Sixty-six percent of HR professionals representing an educational organization say they offer paid sabbaticals and 59 percent offer unpaid programs, she says. Some offer both.
With most benefits, typically we find larger companies are better able to offer benefits, whether it be a sabbatical or telecommuting, she adds.
For many companies, a sabbatical may be seen as an outdated benefit, Accipiter speculates.
Today, employees are looking for day-to-day flexible arrangements, she says. Instead of giving me 12 weeks off to join the Peace Corps, what I really need is flex time, job sharing, telecommuting. We are seeing increases in the likelihood of employers offering those types of benefits.
The largest reason for so few companies offering sabbaticals is the labor market.
In the past few years, the labor market has squeezed employers, Accipiter says. They cant afford to let employees go from six to 12 weeks. They are having a hard time filling positions. They cant afford to let them go.
The stress is already on co-workers. Then to let someone go for a nonmedical reason would be deemed by co-workers as unfair.
However, the carrot of having a paid sabbatical keeps employees long term, say Needles and Cynthia Picciano, director of human resources for the Gentran Group, a 450-employee division of Sterling that focuses on business process improvement products.
Our program requires five years of continuous service, Picciano says. Every time you complete five continuous years, you are eligible. Ive been with the company four years and [am] very much looking forward to my sabbatical.
Its an extra months pay on top of a pretty good vacation program we already have, Needles says. From a retention standpoint, industries are finding that three years is a critical time for people staying with a company. Having a sabbatical after five years is a reason for people to stay.
Five years of service is a significant amount in todays economy and should be rewarded.
What are the rules in creating a sabbatical program?
A company has to think through those parameters, Picciano says. What is your culture? What are you attempting to do with the sabbatical program?
The Sterling Commerce Sabbatical Policy was adopted in July 1993, Picciano says. For employees who have prior years of service either at the time the policy was adopted, or because Sterling Commerce acquired the company at which they had prior years of service one month of service credit is given for each full year of service. Total service credit is not to exceed 12 months. When an employees credits and years of service at Sterling reach five, they can be cashed in for sabbatical leave.
At Sterling Commerce, employees have a two-year window from their five-year anniversary to take the four weeks of paid time off, and they must take it in one chunk, Picciano adds. The employees manager must approve the dates, which cannot coincide with the busiest or most critical time for that employee.
Youll get people who decide its very hard to break away, Picciano says. There are people who find a hard time taking a week off.
But the intent of the sabbatical is for employees to get away and come back refreshed and recommitted to their work, she adds.
Granting employees a four-week leave must be managed because of workload and assignments, Picciano says.
But overall, Sterling Commerce is very committed to providing top-of-the-line benefits to its employees, Picciano says. In the high-tech industry, sabbaticals arent all that rare. A good number of high-tech companies offer sabbaticals. In the days of Sterling Software [the companys predecessor], it might have been more leading edge. They saw it as a way to be very attractive as an employer of choice.
People in our company work very hard and this is seen as a deserved R&R, if you will. One of our policies is you take the full four weeks ... Go away, enjoy, travel, be with your family, do something and get away from work.
Approximately 200 of Sterling Commerces 1,900 employees have taken a sabbatical since the first eligibility in July 1997.
In the early days, Picciano says, we were worried that people would use the time to go job hunting. It just hasnt happened.
However, people do quit.
Weve had a couple of people leave after the sabbatical, says Needles.
But thats not for him.
I enjoy the job, he says, adding that he couldnt live on vacation his whole life. I like the fast pace of working in the computer software industry. Ive been working in it for 15 years. Chilling out and getting away from it is nice, but it is my life.
During his time away, from mid-May to mid-June 1998, Needles and his wife of 22 years took 29 days to see the country. He did not check his voice mail or his e-mail. They flew to Phoenix, rented a car and drove to the Grand Canyon, Needles and Los Angeles. They headed north on the Pacific Coast Highway to Pebble Beach, the Hearst Castle, San Francisco and Oakland.
Then they flew to Seattle and took a ferry to Vancouver and Victoria, British Columbia. Finally, they took the Amtrak to Minneapolis through Glacier National Park in Montana. Then they flew home.
Im looking forward to my next one, says Needles, who has been with Sterling for more than seven years. Were planning a trip to Australia.
Andria Segedy (email@example.com) is a free-lance writer for SBN.