Current schemes to support the cost of employment (such as the ‘furlough’ scheme) during the COVID-19 pandemic may end before your business or organisation is ready to return to full, normal working. One way to allow you to retain staff in the longer term is to offer a period of sabbatical or unpaid leave.

A sabbatical has no legal meaning but is often used to refer to a prolonged paid period of leave, most commonly used in the education sector. If you offer a sabbatical there may well be an expectation of payment (even if less than full salary). Unpaid leave in contrast is exactly that. Someone is not paid and not required to undertake any work for you, but the employment contract remains in force.

Both are likely to only be of interest to a minority of employees, but neither should be automatically excluded as an option when planning your immediate requirements, especially if it can help avoid or minimise redundancy. If you are thinking about offering either option, here are our top tips for managing it effectively.

  1. Decide on how long the leave will last for. Whether it is a month, three months or longer, it’s important for both sides to understand how long the sabbatical/unpaid leave will last.

  2. Who will you offer it to? Will you offer this option to all staff? Or just within certain teams or locations? And if you do get too many requests, how will you decide which to grant?

  3. Get agreement. You cannot force anyone to take a sabbatical or unpaid leave. Either arrangement must be voluntary. If you have a lay-off clause in the employment contracts can enforce a period of unpaid leave without seeking agreement (although this will have a negative impact on employee relations).

  4. Clarify employment benefits. Ensure that you and the employee both know what will happen with issues such as pension contributions, company car, death in service, health schemes or insurance etc. This is particularly important if the leave is unpaid – this doesn’t mean people will automatically lose other parts of their reward package.

  5. Keep in touch. Make sure that the person is kept up to date with any changes in the business or anything else that might affect them while they are away. During the current circumstances, don’t just focus on work; make sure to ask about their mental health and well-being.

  6. Offer support. In the case of unpaid leave in particular, people may need to claim benefits or other financial support. If you can, provide advice or signpost them to experts, and make sure that you deal promptly with any queries from the DWP, HMRC, mortgage companies or landlords, or other financial organisations.

  7. Have an early recall option. If circumstances change, you may want the person back earlier than you agreed. Make sure you include arrangements on how to do this, which will probably require a short period of notice (say a week).

  8. Remember the employment contract remains in force. Individuals will continue to accrue holidays and service while they are away from the business. Equally however, you can still expect the same standards of conduct – so unacceptable behaviour (eg around social media postings) can still be dealt with via your normal procedures.

  9. Decide if anything is prohibited. Whether on sabbatical or unpaid leave, individuals may want to do many things, such as undertake training (work-related or not), volunteer, write a best-seller or - less likely just now - travel. If there’s anything you specifically don’t want them to do (such as do paid work for another company in the same sector) make that explicit.

  10. Be clear. Set down ground rules at the start so that both you and the employee understand what is expected. Not only will this avoid disputes later, but also allows you to manage the process more transparently.

Use the COVID-19 workforce planner to help you navigate other complex workforce planning decisions and for more resources visit the Coronavirus Hub.

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