Extended Leave Gains Acceptability

SAN MATEO (04/18/2000) - Taking extended time off appears to be one of those appealing ideals that has not quite caught on.

There is still little clamor for unpaid leaves in many traditional IT shops, although that's starting to change in Silicon Valley where the joke is that someone might leave for lunch and never come back because he or she got a job offer too good to pass up. Offering extended time off is seen by some in Silicon Valley as one more perk to improve retention.

"Most companies in California are so desperate for IT people that they are pretty compliant about granting leaves," says Karen Jorgensen, president of Jorgensen Human Resources, a consulting firm, in La Canada, California. "And big companies such as Microsoft and Hewlett-Packard grant leaves of absence to IT people to do all kinds of personal things, such as doing community volunteer work."

Some companies might be more likely to grant a leave for education rather than just for having fun, but others don't care.

"They just want to keep good people, and they are much more flexible than they used to be," Jorgensen says.

Federal law mandates an allowance for some types of extended leaves. For example, it requires that employees be given as much as 12 weeks off per year to deal with personal or family illness. In addition, many companies offer parenting leaves of as long as a month. But no law requires that a company provide an extended leave for the multitude of reasons an IT worker might want one, such as to deal with job burnout, cope with family problems, or just go mountain climbing.

In the absence of a requirement for unpaid leaves -- or even a resounding demand from IT workers -- the sabbatical hasn't yet become a widely sought-after benefit.

Job requirements limit options

At American Century Investments, a mutual fund company in Kansas City, Missouri with more than 420 full-time IT employees, the question of extended leave has never come up, says Kim Wade, director of corporate human relations.

"We do not have a program that would allow for that. But no one has asked for anything like it," Wade says.

It's the same story in Texas. "Dallas is the No. 2 technology corridor after Silicon Valley, and we don't seem to have that kind of demand for extended time off yet," says Dave Loeser, senior vice president of human resources at the IT outsourcing company CompuCom Systems, in Dallas.

Still, he'd provide a leave to a valued IT person who wanted one.

"I think companies increasingly need to accommodate IT people," Loeser says.

Silicon Valley companies aren't yet offering unpaid leave to all of their IT workers, says Beverly Goldberg, vice president at Century Foundation, a nonprofit economic research organization in New York. Instead, it's usually the employees who are considered creative spark plugs in writing new software applications who get the time-off perk, whereas the programmers who write the code are encouraged to take only an occasional day off.

"Companies don't want coders to take time off because there is too much work to do and a huge shortage of trained employees," Goldberg says. In place of offering leaves to the coders, Silicon Valley companies tend to offer them on-site services including doctors and launderers, Goldberg says.

But an exception may be made for education. For instance, at the end of a large software project, a coder might be given time off to upgrade his or her skills.

"If you're doing coding for a larger software project, having you disappear gets to be a real issue," Goldberg says. "Because who is going to take over for you? No one knows the code you are writing the way you do. So how willing a company is to let you take any time off depends on what stage the project is in."

Benefits may provide payback

Although extended leave is still uncommon for IT staff, some people passionately advocate it. One such advocate is Ann Price, president and CEO of Motek, a Beverly Hills, California-based developer of e-commerce fulfillment and warehouse software.

"We force people to take 30 days off a year, and we give them $5,000 for vacation expenses. We pay for hotel, airfare, cruise ships, and Club Med, and we pay it directly to ensure that they use the money," Price says. "They come back refreshed, feeling different about their environment and feeling very loyal to the company. And it shows in our retention rate. I've never had to pay a recruiting fee. We hire people who know people who work here."

But even more importantly, people who take extended time off get in touch with their own lives, Price says.

"People in the industry said this was an experiment, but I've been doing it for 10 years," Price says. "The first year a lot of people went to Tahiti to take the vacation of their dreams. Then two or three years later, one guy was taking a week off to be with his girlfriend and two weeks to go on a fishing trip with his father. Suddenly the whole relationship people have with taking time off changes; I see them spending time in ways they never did before."

Industry observers say Price isn't alone in her belief that extended leaves are important to IT people. Goldberg says that Silicon Valley has discovered that granting extended leaves is good business.

"They would rather people go for a while and come back if it will make them better employees. The company's plea is: 'Don't take too long.' But companies are not averse to it," Goldberg says.

Far from being just a retention perk, extended leaves for IT people are necessary to keep the workforce healthy, says Roger E. Herman, CEO at The Herman Group, a management consulting company based in Greensboro, North Carolina.

"In a lot of IT companies, there is a serious risk of burnout," Herman says.

"If people work day and night and burn out, the company has lost a valuable asset."

So more IT executives outside Silicon Valley are also warming up to the idea of granting extended leaves -- provided they come at the right time in the cycle of IT projects.

For instance, don't ask to leave in the middle of a project vital to the organization, warns Jim Amaral, CIO of the Chicago Board of Trade (CBOT).

"Make sure your timing is acceptable to the organization, because organizations do hold grudges," Amaral says. "A leave could certainly cast doubt on someone's professionalism and dedication if her or she doesn't work the timing of it right."

If timing is taken into consideration, taking a leave won't stigmatize an IT worker as "undependable," Amaral adds.

"I think leaves are acceptable, and I think those people will be able to come back to work and pick up where they left off," Amaral says.

CBOT has no formal policy covering IT leaves; Amaral considers each request individually. So far, he's had IT workers take leaves for medical and family issues and just to enjoy the summer. At this point, he's more willing to accept three-to six-month leaves rather than those of a year or longer.

"We're living in the age of Internet years that are three months long," Amaral says. "So clearly the shorter a leave is, the better."

Tight market-turning attitudes

Even IT managers who haven't been besieged with requests for employee absences say the idea makes sense at a time when IT people are in high demand and short supply.

"I think the idea of extended leaves is not widely accepted, but the culture is changing," says Jack Williams, senior vice president of product development and technology at ComputerJobs.com, an IT-jobs Web site based in Atlanta. "Five years ago, I would not have considered giving anybody half of the kind of core benefits we offer today. For example, nobody would have gotten stock options -- and that has become an expectation."

Extended time off has not traditionally been considered a viable option, "but that doesn't mean it won't become one," Williams adds.

Williams should know. In March, he had his first run-in with extended time off as a retention device. A Web developer who had lost a parent needed time off to reassess his life, and Williams offered him a three-month unpaid leave.

Yet Williams is still a little wary of the idea. What would happen to the company if lots of IT people suddenly wanted extended leaves?

"If you openly espouse the idea of sabbaticals, there is a risk of it being a widely used benefit when you don't want people to use it that much," Williams says. "We don't have the luxury of having a lot of people out on leaves."

But if the employer appears to be going out on a limb by offering unpaid leaves for employees, the risk may work both ways. An IT worker who takes extended time off may miss career-advancement opportunities or risk falling behind in technology.

"In three months you might not see a radical change in technology, but if you choose to return to work in six months, you might see a significant change," Williams explains.

Century Foundation's Goldberg says IT workers who take extended leave need to devote some of their free time to keeping up with technology.

"The career ladder won't go away if you come back from your leave with the right skills," she says. "What that might mean is that if you take six months off, you should use four months to play and two months to learn new skills."

Not everyone agrees that IT people risk falling off the career ladder by taking an extended leave.

"While one career ladder disappears, others appear just as quickly," Herman says. "It's easy for someone in IT to take a sabbatical and go right back to work again."

Steve Alexander (sorion99@yahoo.com) is a freelance writer in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

IT approves, but doesn't take, time off

Are IT workers taking extended time off from their jobs today? Almost 80 percent said "no" in a recent Internet poll conducted by ComputerJobs.com, an IT-jobs site based in Atlanta.

The poll results, while unscientific, suggest that although more companies are agreeing to let IT workers take unpaid leaves of absence, the trend hasn't caught on with the bulk of the IT population.

But the study, which tallied the responses of 2,871 IT workers during the week of March 26, also indicated that most IT workers don't believe taking a leave would hurt their careers.

When asked "Have you ever taken extended time off?" about 76 percent said "no," 9 percent said they had taken one month, 7 percent said they had taken three months, and 9 percent said they had taken six months (all percents are rounded up).

The site made no distinction between answers from full-time IT workers and contractors.

However, when asked "Do you feel that your chances for promotion are hindered by taking an extended leave?" 77 percent said "no" and 23 percent said "yes."

Although taking extended leaves in IT isn't becoming a trend, these poll results indicate that the idea is gaining acceptance in this typically high-volume workload community.

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