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Keeping the seat warm

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SeatWith increasing numbers of senior employees contemplating career breaks or sabbaticals, many UK companies are introducing policies for this, yet there are some employers that are unwilling to implement such a scheme. Chris Phillips argues that they can prove beneficial in revitalising ‘burnt out’ staff.




With an increasing trend of senior employees considering career breaks or sabbaticals, some companies are growing wary – believing this to be a resignation in gap year’s clothing. But, more forward-thinking organisations view the experience as invaluable to the personal growth of employees and are actively catering for those looking to pursue other endeavours. However, the challenge for employers is to implement a policy which strikes the right balance between allowing an employee freedom to take an extended leave of absence, while protecting its own interests by ultimately seeing the valued employee return to work.

“The eligibility criteria for an extended leave period must be carefully thought out if a company is to avoid allegations of discrimination.”

At a first glance, sabbaticals and career breaks can appear disruptive and a means for an employee to disengage from a business, perhaps indefinitely. If they are to be applied correctly and remain as an attractive and beneficial incentive, they should be set down clearly in policy documents.

For example, sabbaticals would most often be given as a reward for a certain period of continuous service, mostly allowing the employee to be paid for the duration and spanning a shorter period of weeks or perhaps six months at most.

Career breaks, on the other hand, give rise to more issues, as they will tend to be for a longer period over six months up to a number of years, are almost always unpaid and usually involve the employee resigning in order to commence their break.

Career breaks should not be expressed as an entitlement, but as a benefit which employees can apply to take advantage of. Assessment of such an application should then be made against objective criteria. When setting the criteria for career break eligibility, it is crucial to think about the purposes for which you might wish to allow staff to take an extended break. Employees consider these breaks for several reasons – fulfilling caring responsibilities, entering further education, carrying out charity work, or to simply travel and broaden their horizons. Business must consider whether to allow a career break for only some of these categories, or leave the reason for the request completely open.

The eligibility criteria for an extended leave period must be carefully thought out if a company is to avoid allegations of discrimination. Age discrimination legislation allows service-related benefits for up to five years of service. Beyond this, they become increasingly difficult to justify. The longer the period of continuous service required, the more likely it is for a business to encounter challenges under both age and sex discrimination laws. Requiring employees to achieve a certain level of grading at regular appraisals can provide an effective gateway for entry to a career break scheme.

Notice period

Business and operational requirements will obviously be a factor in determining whether or not to grant a request for a career break. Companies must establish a firm notice period for making a request and should ask the employee to suggest ways in which their workload could be managed while they are taking leave.

This process of managing workloads in another employee’s absence can prove beneficial in the training of other workers. Should a company wish to use the opportunity to allow another individual to train in the absent employee’s role, it should be made clear at the outset this is a temporary promotion, with the worker’s expectations carefully managed throughout the process. Similarly, if a fixed-term employee is brought in to provide cover, their contractual notice provisions should mirror any notice provisions which might be provided for the career break employee to end their leave period early.

“To minimise the risk of losing an employee during their career break, their commitment and intention to return to work should be sought.”

While there are benefits in allowing career breaks and sabbaticals, employees may use part of the time to seek or take other paid work. A business may, therefore, wish to impose a complete restriction on taking other paid employment. However, other options include a ban on working for competitors, a system requiring prior permission before taking up other work, or allowing part-time work to fund study. Prior to the break, an agreement should also be reached as to whether the employer will recognise the individual’s previous continuous service upon their return.

To minimise the risk of losing an employee during their career break, their commitment and intention to return to work should be sought. Employers should also state the level of their commitment towards the worker’s right to return. This can include a return to work either in their original role or another job on the same or no less favourable terms and conditions. Alternatively, this could simply mean their right to apply for re-appointment and the provision of job opportunity lists during their break. Whatever the terms, both the employer and employee’s intentions must be made clear from the outset.

When an individual comes knocking at their manager’s door considering a career break or sabbatical, the request may be met with scepticism and reluctance. However, when managed correctly, a rest from work can reinvigorate senior employees who are, perhaps, in danger of being ‘burnt out’. Ensuring the employee remains committed to returning to their role is half the challenge. Reassurance that there will still be a job or opportunity available to them upon their return is equally as important. Collaboration, communication and a great deal of forward planning are the key factors to success.


Chris Phillips is a partner in the employment, pensions and benefits team at Maclay Murray & Spens LLP

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