Yasmine El-Ramly
Yasmine El-Ramly

Sabbatical programs: Which approach would work in your firm?

Compare five models.

October 18, 2012
by Yasmine El-Ramly, CPA/CITP

CPA firms large and small are developing robust sabbatical programs that pay them back through strengthened client relationships, team service, talent development, employer brand reinforcement, and retention, among other benefits.

Career or business sabbaticals are planned, strategic job pauses during which an employee takes time to travel, do research, volunteer, learn a new skill, or fulfill a lifelong dream before returning to regular work. Sabbaticals can be paid or unpaid and typically last from four to 10 weeks. The most successful programs involve measurable objectives that enable the employee to grow in a key area that can benefit the company upon his or her return. Eligibility, restrictions, and benefits vary. The costs depend, in part, on program design and the level and function of the individual going on extended leave. Commonly, costs are calculated in terms of the salary paid as well as lost revenues.

Five Sample Models
There are many possible approaches to sabbatical programs. These five models highlight just a few options.

    Linked to firm values. Some programs require sabbatical-goers to participate in certain activities during their leave, such as volunteer work or executive development. An example outside the accounting profession is Patagonia, which requires sabbatical participants to volunteer for an environmental nonprofit.
    Self–funded (or unpaid). Some companies have had success with self-funded sabbaticals that involve savings programs to pay for the time off, but keep in mind that these savings programs may prove to be a chore to manage.
    Aligned with firm objectives. Sabbatical programs can be designed to enhance and/or strengthen firm objectives, focusing on areas such as leader development, career growth, succession planning, and enhanced client relations. For example, a firm may wish only to offer sabbaticals to high-potential contributors and require that part of the time be spent in a global management course.
    Multiple programs. Firms may consider offering more than one sabbatical program, each with unique objectives. General Mills, for example, recently rolled out two. One is a personal (unrestricted), unpaid sabbatical in which, after seven years of service, employees who have at least a “satisfactory” performance rating can apply to take an unpaid leave of four to 12 weeks to do whatever they need or desire to do. The second is an “innovation sabbatical,” in which, after seven years of service, high potentials and/or high-performing employees may apply for a paid leave of up to six months to do something (i.e., research) that allows them to bring new ideas back to the organization.
    Application/selection process. Another adaptation involves limiting the number of sabbaticals available and requiring that staff or partners apply and be selected. Firms of any size can have successful programs by determining the number of sabbaticals they can support each year, setting clear goals and structuring a transparent, fair application process.
Which fits your needs?           
To get started, practitioners can begin by considering the models discussed here and determining if and how one or more would work in their firms. If nothing else, this can open a dialogue that can set you on the road to developing a successful program. Want to learn more about the options for your firms? The AICPA Private Companies Practice Section (PCPS) Human Capital Center contains resources on creating a firm sabbatical program and establishing the business case for one. The related tools include a sabbatical ROI worksheet, a sample sabbatical program application, and completed samples. They’re among the many PCPS resources designed to help CPA firms be more successful.  

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Note: This article is adapted from original material in the AICPA Private Companies Practice Section Human Capital Center sabbatical section that was created by yoursabbatical.com.

Yasmine El-Ramly, CPA/CITP, is a project manager in the AICPA’s PCPS—Firm Services group.