Academic journal article Journal of Accountancy

The Virtues and Challenges of a Long Break: Firms Find Sabbaticals Are Worthy Investments

Academic journal article Journal of Accountancy

The Virtues and Challenges of a Long Break: Firms Find Sabbaticals Are Worthy Investments

Article excerpt

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

* Sabbatical programs are relatively rare in accounting, but firms that incorporate them as part of their benefits package may find that they act as a powerful recruitment and retention tool, help develop talent, serve as a visible statement of corporate values, and engender client approval--all in addition to re-energizing those who take the extended time off.

* Keys to a successful sabbatical program are top-management support, a well-crafted policy, unambiguous objectives, and clearly defined communication and re-entry processes.

* Sabbaticals are appropriate for any size firm. Small firms as well as large firms can benefit with proper planning.

* The cost of a sabbatical program depends, in part, on the level and function of the person going on extended leave. Commonly costs are calculated in terms of the salary paid and the revenues lost.

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Some people do solo retreats for personal development. Others provide volunteer services. One CPA firm partner took his two adopted children back to their homelands--Korea and Vietnam--where his 21-year-old son was reunited with his birth mother, brother and sister after 14 years, and discovered he had six nieces and nephews. Such powerful sabbatical stories are becoming increasingly common.

Historically, sabbaticals have been associated with academia, but businesses began adopting them as early as the 1960s, with fast-food giant McDonald's Corp., computer chip maker Intel Corp., and some U.S. law firms among the trailblazers.

Although they are still relatively rare in the accounting sector, sabbatical programs have been tapped by firms ranging from small to large as a robust retention and recruitment tool. They provide a platform for invaluable talent development that exposes individuals to growth opportunities. They also encourage a team approach to client service, since sabbaticals rely on collaboration to make sure service is never compromised.

Offering sabbaticals is not without challenges. Many overachievers have trouble letting go of work and fear the implications of an extended absence. For those left behind, a sabbatical means developing a plan to seamlessly pick up a colleague's work. For the firm or employer, sabbaticals require an investment in scheduling and planning, and may result in lost revenue. But some accounting firms have found that the benefits outweigh the costs.

"There's a real business case for this," says Chris McCoy, CPA, human resources director and a partner at Plante & Moran PLLC. "It's great for recruitment, and it's an excellent succession-planning and colleague-partnering tool."

"The sabbatical program helps us strengthen our client relationships from a team approach," says Hugh Frisbie, CPA, who, as managing director of the RSM McGladrey Network, works with CPA firms across the country. On his own sabbatical, Frisbie climbed Mount Kilimanjaro in Africa.

WHAT DEFINES A SABBATICAL PROGRAM?

Because they reflect the firm's goals and culture, sabbatical programs are as varied as the firms that offer them. The majority of programs allow unrestricted time away, meaning that eligible employees or partners can do anything they desire--from painting the house to traveling abroad. Many, in fact, choose to travel, either alone or with their families, but others use the time to accomplish a professional goal, such as enrolling in an executive education course or fulfilling a family need or personal priority, such as being a stay-at-home parent for a time or helping an elderly parent transition to assisted living.

Consulting giant Accenture recently roiled out a self-funded sabbatical program that offers all employees with at least one year of service up to three months of unpaid leave. Similarly, General Mills Inc. has instituted a personal unpaid sabbatical leave as well as a paid "innovation" sabbatical that restricts leave activities to those that can benefit the company. …

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