You’d like to take time off work — maybe to take on a fellowship, go on a long trip, or spend time with family — but you don’t have the vacation days to cover the time away. How do you ask your boss — and HR — for an unpaid leave? How can you find out if others in your company have done this before? Does the purpose of the break need to be work-related? What would make your case more appealing to your manager?
What the Experts Say
In most companies, if you want to ask for extended time off, it needs to be done delicately. “This is a complex negotiation, in some respects more complex than negotiating a salary,” says Jeff Weiss, author of the HBR Guide to Negotiating and president of Lesley University. You have to be especially thoughtful and “get creative” because your request may fall outside of the company’s stated benefits and policies. But just because it’s out of the ordinary, doesn’t mean it’s not possible. “People negotiate unpaid leaves a lot,” says Denise Rousseau, professor at Carnegie Mellon’s Tepper School of Business and author of I-Deals: Idiosyncratic Deals Workers Bargain for Themselves, “and they do get them.” Here’s some advice on how to successfully ask for your unpaid leave.
Know your value and the risks
Before you make the request, make sure you understand the value you bring to the organization. It’ll be easier to get people on board if they are keen to keep you. At the same time, if you are indispensable, they might be hesitant to let you step away. Reflect on any long-term goals the company may have for you and how they would be affected — positively or negatively — by this time off. Consider, too, the personal risks: You might miss out on opportunities while you’re away, and an extended leave could count against you when a promotion is on the table. If you conclude that you’re in a good position to ask for the leave, it’s time to proceed.
Define your objectives
It’s important to be clear about the details. “Get to the granular level of what you are hoping to achieve” with the time away, says Weiss. Are you hoping to acquire particular skills? Do you need to get away to avoid burning out? “I find that more people are more successful when they frame the unpaid leave as developmental,” says Rousseau, “because it’s seen as something that could actually bring value back to the employer.” Knowing exactly what you hope to get out of your time makes it more likely others will support your goals.
Look for precedents
Investigate whether there’s anyone in your company or industry who has done something similar. “Part of your preparation is to say, ‘Has this been done before? What made it work? What didn’t work?’” says Rousseau. Reach out to industry colleagues to understand the specifics of arrangements you may have heard about— particularly so you aren’t inflating the benefits or time off others have received — or discreetly ask HR whether there are any company policies in place that allow for unpaid leave. Knowing what’s happened at your own firm and others will help you argue that there’s a “legitimacy that distinguishes this from other situations,” says Weiss. That said, don’t be discouraged if you can’t find a precedent. Just because no one at your company has taken an unpaid absence before doesn’t mean you won’t get yours approved.
Consider potential objections
There will be lots of reasons for the decision makers to say no, so “you need to make this as ‘yes-able’ as possible,” says Weiss. “Think carefully about the objectives and concerns of the person with whom you’re negotiating.” What hesitations will they have? Will your boss be concerned that it sets a bad precedent? Will higher ups be concerned that you’re never going to come back? Then consider how you’ll respond to those objections if and when they’re raised. “You want to frame this as a positive opportunity, for you and your company,” says Rousseau.
Make the business case
Sit down with your boss and explain what’s in it for them. Come prepared with a negotiable plan for what you want to achieve and why it might be viable and a benefit to the organization. You might outline the new skills or ideas you will come back with, or the professional connections you might make. If you need a breather, explain why you believe being refreshed will improve your performance when you return. Some managers understand that these arrangements can actually help “provide more of a retention path for some employees,” says Rousseau. Use that to your advantage. Have numbers at the ready if possible and bring multiple options to the table for how it might work. Does the time off need to happen all at once? Could it happen in phases?
Choose the right time but be flexible
If you can, time this conversation for when your manager is feeling positive about you and your performance — maybe right after a glowing review or a big win you’ve secured. And choose the timing of your leave to minimize the impact on work flow. “You want to sort of grease the skids and choose a window that is not burdensome for clients and coworkers,” says Rousseau. Be flexible and responsive if your manager feels another time would be preferable. “Maybe there’s a big order coming in, a new project, a shift in personnel, or another transition you don’t know about,” says Weiss. Be willing to listen.
Be ready for the “no” — or the “yes”
Not every negotiation will go in your favor. Be prepared for any response you might get. A “yes” is certainly possible and would be great. But you might get push back from your manager or other decision makers. “Know your walkaway,” says Weiss. “Are you at a point where you really say to yourself, ‘I need to do this, and if I can’t do it, I’m open to looking for another job?’” Above all, maintain an open mind — and don’t be afraid to ask.
Principles to Remember
- Keep in mind, just because no one at your company has taken an unpaid absence, doesn’t mean you won’t get yours approved.
- Think carefully about what you want to achieve during your leave and frame your request around how those objectives will also benefit the company.
- Plan your leave to minimize the impact on coworkers and clients.
- Wing it. Come to the table prepared knowing what you want, the objections your manager might have, and whether there are any precedents.
- Ignore potential objections. Think them through in advance so you are prepared to address them.
- Assume there’s only one solution. Being flexible will increase the likelihood you’ll get at least some leave.
Case Study #1: Focus on your passion and be flexible
Paul Ronto, chief marketing officer at shoe review site RunRepeat.com, is passionate about river rafting, and years ago, had his sights set on a trip down the Grand Canyon’s Colorado River that would take three to four weeks. At the time he worked for a nonprofit focused on helping injured veterans and at-risk or disabled youth experience the outdoors, but, despite a generous vacation package, he didn’t have enough paid time off.
He’d previously passed on the trip before because of work obligations, but this time he really wanted to go. So, after some analysis of the risks and his value, he decided to make the case. “This trip was important enough to me that I would have quit had they said no, but I figured the amount of time it would take to rehire my position would not be worth the effort for a three-to-four-week hiatus,” he explains.
“My attitude about it was [that] the worst thing they can say is no, [and] then I have a choice to make.”
In talking with his manager, the executive director and the HR person, he focused on his excitement. “We were a passion-driven company, so I just went in with my passion,” he explains.
But he also came in with a concrete plan, volunteering to work extra days before his trip during the organization’s two-week Christmas holiday, when people were still needed to take phone donations, collect the mail and process checks. “I was willing to cover most of that break [when] no one else was to [accrue] more PTO for my trip,” he explains. He suggested that he would also coordinate with the HR manager to take unpaid days as well.
Paul’s bosses agreed to the proposal. “They understood that this trip was a true passion of mine and it would be beneficial for them to let me go [because] I’d come back motivated,” he says. And he did. “In the end, the trip was so amazing, it changed my life.”
Paul’s current company has unlimited vacation time, and he’s actually going back to the Grand Canyon this coming March. “This time it wasn’t even a question, my CEO encouraged me to go!”
Case Study #2: Rely on your value
Matthew Ross is the co-owner and COO of RIZKNOWS and The Slumber Yard, which operate multiple internet properties. When one of his employees approached him last year with a proposal to take eight weeks off, he was initially hesitant.
“I wouldn’t normally allow an employee to take such an extended period,” but the employee came in with a “defined strategy” and made a good case for his leave.
He started by noting that he’d been one of the company’s top performing employees over the previous two years, which made Matt “willing to be a little more flexible.”
Then the employee “laid out his motives for the trip.” He was traveling on behalf of a humanitarian organization and would be working in several African villages. It was a cause that Matt and his business partner wanted to support. In fact, they offered to make a donation to the nonprofit.
Last, and most importantly to Matt, the employee “volunteered to train up other employees to handle his responsibilities while he was gone.” Knowing that critical work would be covered eased any remaining concerns Matt had.
Matt and his business partner decided to grant the leave. But they did have one stipulation: “We told him he would have to work his tail off when he got back from the trip,” Matt says. The employee agreed. He “assured me that he would go above and beyond once he got back,” and he made good on the promise.
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