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Selling a sabbatical: Few companies let workers take lengthy vacations, but some make exceptions

June 2, 2008

If you were to approach your boss about taking a prolonged leave of absence-say, for seven weeks-would he or she respond with understanding, or amusement?

One particular boss, Matt Haab, founder of the south-side financial planning firm Veros Partners, was faced with that very decision. He chose to let wealth management adviser Charles Miller take his family on a lengthy trip to Honduras earlier this year.

Miller, 46, joined Veros in 2004 and had been to the Central American country on previous mission trips. This one, however, would be much longer, and it presented additional challenges, particularly for clients whose investments Miller manages.

Yet Haab, who has done similar work in Mexico, didn't hesitate to grant the unpaid sabbatical. A team-like structure the company employs made it easier for colleagues to pick up the slack and helped alleviate any fears.

"I guess it's different than if [Miller] said he was going to Vegas for six weeks; that might be a harder sell," Haab said. "But if someone wants to do something like this every two to three years, we could do that."

Veros is among the minority of companies willing to accommodate such unusual requests. Just 16 percent indicated in a 2007 survey conducted by the Virginia-based Society of Human Resource Management that they allow unpaid sabbaticals, down from 22 percent the previous year.

"Kudos to the company that allowed him to do that," said Melissa Boggs, vice president of human resources and consulting at locally based Human Capital Concepts LLC. "You typically don't see that unless you're in the academics."

To be sure, what helped make the trip possible is that Miller's wife, Ellen, is on a six-month paid sabbatical from the University of Indianapolis, where she is executive director for the Center for Aging and Community.

More workers, though, are valuing a work-life balance more than money.

Nearly one-third of U.S. employees now consider flexibility the most important factor in considering job offers, according to a national survey conducted in January by the New Jersey-based Rasmussen Reports research firm.

Compensation still matters, but finished second (23 percent) among the roughly 1,600 workers surveyed.

Pros and cons

Karl Ahlrichs, a local human resources consultant, suspects the drop in the number of companies offering sabbaticals is temporary and has much to do with the sluggish economy.

"We're seeing a work force that values time more than money," he said. "We're going to see more of this, not less."

That's partly because more members of Generation Y-born from 1982 to 1997- will be entering the work force, Boggs said.

"They are extremely communityfocused and are about giving back," she said. "If employers want to attract and retain good people, they're going to have to act that way."

Companies that do will discover their workers are more engaged and loyal, Boggs said. The progression of technology and the ability to stay in constant contact may be playing a role as well.

Miller always carried his cell phone while in Honduras so Veros could text him if problems arose. He also walked into the nearby town of Talanga about once a week, to one of the few Internet cafes, to monitor a special e-mail account the firm activated to accommodate Miller.

Allowing leaves of absence has its pitfalls, however, Ahlrichs said. Such benefits sometimes create animosity among colleagues and contribute to the perception of favoritism.

Roughing it

For Miller, the trip presented a "once-ina-lifetime" opportunity to instill in his children-ages 17, 14 and 11-the concept of giving back. The fact his wife was off work helped as well.

"It doesn't need to be in a foreign country," he said. "Just go give back. Go do something to help other people out."

The Millers lived at Project Manuelito, a 30-acre complex and group home for 18 orphaned children. Crammed into a 12-foot-by-15-foot room with an attached bathroom, their day began at 5 a.m. getting the kids ready for school and ended with bedtime at 8 p.m.

The Millers' children attend the Center Grove school system and were homeschooled during the trip.

Before leaving, they loaded up on medications to protect against malaria, typhoid, hepatitis and tetanus. The complex had one water faucet equipped with a filter.

Meals consisted of rice, beans and tortillas, and occasionally meat and vegetables. Seldom was there fruit, and milk was nonexistent.

In a roundabout way, the trip also may have provided a wellness benefit: The skimpy diet caused Miller to lose 12 pounds.

On one of the last nights in Honduras, the Millers took their children to the capital city of Tegucigalpa, to see how many of the kids who come to the orphanage had lived on the streets. Many are addicted to toxic glue they sniff.

Because so much crime exists, three armed guards accompanied the family to the roughest neighborhoods in the city.

The Millers saved money to help pay for the trip and also benefited from a few fund-raisers that helped offset costs. Despite the financial strain, Miller is grateful Veros gave him the opportunity to go.

His absence from the office went so smoothly that Miller jokingly surmised that he either planned really well, or the firm doesn't need him. On a more serious note, he said: "It's OK for employers to champion [a] cause. That's what I hope people would get out of this."
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