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Keep superstars on board with sabbaticals—even during tough times

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in Career Management,Hiring,Human Resources,Workplace Communication

by Barbara Pagano

During a time of layoffs and budget cuts, you might not think a lot of organizations would be encouraging their employees to take lengthy sabbaticals—or that employees would feel secure enough to accept the offer. Yet six-week to six-month job pauses remain as common as ever.

Nineteen of Fortune’s 2009 list of the “100 Best Companies to Work For” offer some form of sabbatical to at least some of their employees. Consulting firm Hewitt Associates has named sabbaticals as one of a few flexible arrangements that will increase in popularity over the next three years. In fact, 24% of small organizations and 33% of large ones allowed paid or unpaid sabbaticals of six months or more in 2008, according to the Families and Work Institute.

Some organizations, such as General Mills, have offered them for years. Others, such as Deloitte & Touche, are just rolling theirs out.

The Deloitte program is designed to enhance what execs there call “career customization” while emphasizing its commitment to “career-life fit.” The firm offers two sabbatical programs: One grants a month of unpaid leave with no restrictions. The other allows three to six months off to top performers, who get 40% of base pay—and must pursue career development or volunteer.

Yes, people are stretched thinly already without having to deal with another empty desk while a colleague is off earning a degree or traveling the world. But there are good reasons why the sabbatical is enduring even as other benefits become expendable. Here are five:

1. Sabbaticals can circumvent layoffs. As a short-term strategy, sabbaticals provide a means for companies to keep their talent and save money on recruiting and training.

2. Sabbaticals preserve and protect human capital. In a knowledge economy, companies that take the focus off programs that motivate, engage and nourish the workforce are not just shooting themselves in the foot, but in the brain.

3. Sabbaticals nurture innovation. The right talent generates innovative ideas. A career break equates to rejuvenation—a critical component for the creativity needed to innovate. Typical “flex” programs don’t truly reinvigorate talent.

4. Sabbaticals are a talent magnet. Even in a weak economy, businesses compete for talent. Keep in mind what economists call “adverse selection”: The least-productive workers are the ones who are most likely to stay when wages are cut, while the best workers start looking elsewhere. As pay increases dwindle, time has become the new currency.

5. Sabbaticals increase loyalty. How companies treat their staffs in tough times will reflect the amount of good will their employees will return to them through loyalty.

When you take smart, successful people out of their daily grind—and often their safety zones—and give them an opportunity to expand in real life, they return pumped with new vigor, which translates to higher performance.

Sabbaticals are not a perk. They allow employers to rejuvenate and reward top performers at a time when budgets are under siege. They are strategic programs to hold onto your hotshots, to care for and feed your superstars—now and over the course of entire careers, with significant benefits for both the employees and the organization.

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Author: Barbara Pagano is a founding partner of yourSABBATICAL, a consulting firm that helps companies and employees plan sabbaticals. She co-authored The Transparency Edge: How Credibility Can Make or Break You in Business. Contact her through Jennifer Kardian at (678) 352-3652.

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