The Art of Negotiating a Sabbatical: How to Quit Your Job Temporarily

In the midst of the economic meltdown of 2009, my career was at a standstill.  I worked as a recruiter at an IT management consulting firm and as expected, hiring wasn’t exactly at an all-time high.  I had taken on other projects in order to supplement my workload but I felt an existential crisis was looming.  Simply put, this was not how I had envisioned myself upon graduating five years earlier.

Around this time, and perhaps fortuitously, our HR leader sent a message to all consultants that encouraged them to take career breaks of up to six weeks.  Personally I thought this was a fine idea; instead of decimating the workforce due to declining revenue, our leadership decided to cut costs through a practical program that would appear attractive to its staff and more importantly, benefit the business at large.

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I should highlight that the communication wasn’t actually directed at me because I’m not a consultant, though I have learned over the years that it is far more difficult for management to tell you “no” when someone else already has heard “yes.”  So I sat down with a pen and paper and began to list my achievements from the prior five years.  I had advanced considerably since being hired as a post-college grad, and intended to illustrate that when I finally conjured up the courage to broach this so-called “break” with my manager.  I also realized how significant it was to repeatedly reinforce that I was not quitting, but instead sought to undergo a physical and mental recharge while evaluating the direction of my career.

I would be lying if I said that I wasn’t at least somewhat apprehensive.  Would my manager view this as a lack of dedication to her team?  Would I have a position upon my return?  If not, how would I sustain myself, and more importantly, how would prospective employers view my decision at a time when the unemployment rate was approaching a twenty-five year high?  But I collected myself and repeated what I tell my candidates whenever they ask for more money – the worst someone can tell you is “no.”

Once I had a convincing case, I scheduled a meeting with my manager at a time when I knew I would have her full attention.  I started by expressly stating that I had no intention to part ways with the firm – I had worked with some amazing talent over those five years and felt as though it was an organization in which I could grow for years to come. I delineated my accomplishments, underscoring that my previous production level had been quite high and most recently, I had to take on additional responsibilities to reach a forty-hour workweek.  Then I dropped the bomb – I’d like to take off for a few months.  There was likely a bit of stammering on my behalf so I immediately launched into how this extended holiday would potentially benefit the business.

First and foremost, the leave would be unpaid; at a time when all companies were keen on cutting costs, this was paramount. Second, while I hoped that my role would be available upon return, I acknowledged that it was solely up to my employer as to whether or not I would have a position at the end of this leave.  I found this to be particularly important because when making a request, I believe that others appreciate if you recognize the risk involved, especially when you’re the one who has initiated it.  Ultimately, the discussion transpired over no more than 15 minutes; my manager was receptive to my reasoning and said that while we needed further approvals, I had her undivided support.

As I mentioned, six weeks had been prescribed but I knew that I’d require more time for the travel I had in mind.   I decided a more diplomatic approach would work best so I asked my manager for her input – How much time could I take without negatively impacting the team and others’ workloads?  Fortunately that wasn’t a dilemma in 2009, but not everyone requests time off during a recession.  In that case, I’d recommend raising the discussion sufficiently in advance, e.g. if it’s September, ask if you can leave in January, or perhaps opt for a time of year when business is slower than usual.  The project I’d been working on was slated to go-live in early January; I made sure my departure date coincided seamlessly with the portion for which I was responsible.

In the end, I was granted four months and I spent three of them traveling throughout Southeast Asia and Japan.  I’ll refrain from the trite testimonials – “It was the best experience of my life” (it was) or “I’m incredibly grateful for having the opportunity” (indescribably so).  What I can tell you is that upon my return, my position was indeed eliminated.  Instead, I was offered a role within our Executive Recruiting group, arguably a better position than my previous role, and where I still am today.  Six months following the break, I was asked to travel to India to train our Offshore team on various recruiting methods.  I’m certain my penchant for travel played an integral part in the invitation.

I realize that some consider the notion of a career break as completely frivolous, but I also think it’s telling that a quarter of the companies on CNN’s list of America’s best firms not only offer sabbaticals, but paid ones at that.  Employers are growing increasingly aware that people sometimes need time off and a ten-day jaunt to Costa Rica won’t always suffice.  This obviously isn’t a dialogue to have within the first six months of your tenure, but if you’re confident of your merit and feel like you could use some time to revitalize, it certainly wouldn’t hurt to open the floodgates and have the conversation.  At worst, the request will be denied.  If not, however, there are few endeavors in life as gratifying as quitting your job temporarily.

Paul Fusco is an avid traveler who works as an Executive Recruiter at an international management consulting firm in Manhattan.  He took his first career break in early 2010 and recently achieved a personal objective of visiting thirty countries by the age of thirty, celebrating in both Israel and Jordan.  In his spare time Paul writes, maps out future destinations, and enjoys New York City for all it has to offer.

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