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Breaking Away

Set your employees free -- with paid sabbaticals.
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Last March, Eric Granberg spent three weeks driving his kids to and from school, installing a new sprinkler system in his front yard, refurbishing his grandfather's 42-year-old fishing boat, and attending the Seattle Mariners' spring training camp -- all without cashing in a single vacation day. There's nothing, Granberg says, like a sabbatical.

Granberg works in Seattle, but not for a behemoth tech company like Microsoft or Intel, which are known for generous sabbatical programs. Instead, Granberg is the director of information technology and operations for Ammex, a disposable glove distributor that proves sabbaticals have a place at smaller companies too.

Fred Crosetto, who founded Ammex in 1988, had long been aware of the sabbatical program at nearby Microsoft -- where employees are eligible for time off every five years -- and he liked the idea. But Crosetto was no Bill Gates. Early on, his management team was stretched thin, and he couldn't do without any staffer for more than a few days. By late 2003 though, Ammex had grown to 43 employees and $19 million in revenue. Finally, the infrastructure was in place to support sabbaticals. "My staff had gone through a lot," Crosetto says. "I wanted to give them a chance to recharge."

While Ammex offers the usual perks, such as retirement plans and health care benefits, sabbaticals seemed a sure way to get people excited, says Crosetto, who launched the program last December. Here's how it works. For every five years spent at Ammex, each employee is entitled to a three-week, fully paid sabbatical, on top of the usual vacation and personal days. There's only one condition: Staffers must take all three weeks at once. "We want people to do whatever they want," says Crosetto. "You can see that they're rejuvenated."

Granberg, for his part, returned relaxed -- and full of new ideas, including a way to speed up operations at Ammex's third-party warehouses by mass-printing box labels. "It gave me a chance to get away, then come back and focus on solutions," he says. Sabbatical programs can also give the employees back in the office a chance to shine. At first, Granberg was worried about being away for so long. Though he checked in periodically, he relied heavily upon his direct reports to keep operations running smoothly. Upon returning, he was pleased to discover that they had done just that. "It's a great learning experience," Granberg says.

Still, not many small companies have followed suit. Just 2% of businesses with fewer than 100 employees offer paid sabbaticals, according to a survey of 459 companies the Society of Human Resources Management took this year. One reason may be that it's difficult to quantify the benefits of the incentive, notes Rudy Karsan, chairman and CEO of Kenexa, a human resources consulting firm in Wayne, Pa. But, he says, sabbaticals can be an effective tool for attracting and retaining talent. "It's a powerful reward system," he says. "What employees value most are time and money."

So far, three Ammex employees have taken sabbaticals, and three more are eligible this year. The program costs Crosetto money -- in terms of salary and a slight dip in productivity among staffers forced to pick up the slack. Still, he thinks he can't afford not to offer the perk. "People might get burnt out and leave," he says. "The cost is completely outweighed by what people get out of it -- and what they're able to do when they come back."

Last updated: Oct 1, 2004




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