The dream of a lifetime has just landed in your lap: the invitation to study sharks in the Great Barrier Reef for six months with one of the leading shark experts in the world. You’re thrilled. You’re honored. You’re also employed and the maximum allowable vacation your employer will allow you to take per year is three weeks. What do you do?
As Fate always seems to have it, opportunities have a way of cropping up when we’re in the worst possible position to accept them. Sometimes it’s a matter of money and resources. Sometimes it’s a matter of family obligations or illness. Other times, such as the scenario described, it’s a question of gambling gainful employment and future security against the chance to experience a travel adventure, which may never come again.
Before you make that decision, you’ll need to take a look at the following questions. The answers will then enable you to frame the appropriate correspondence, which will either enable you to reclaim your job upon returning or align yourself for a different opportunity.
CAN YOU AFFORD TO TAKE THE TIME OFF
The biggest consideration in leaving your job for an extended period of time is whether you’ll be able to support yourself in the interim. Obviously, if the new travel opportunity that has presented itself will be paying for your presence in the form of salary, transportation, and lodging, your short-term considerations will be neatly addressed. It is also possible that the experience could open the door to becoming a full-time employee based on your success and aptitude during the trial period or internship. If the new opportunity is predicated on volunteering your time and energy, this will require you to have squirreled away enough funds to tide you over and keep your creditors happy while you are away.
WHAT IS YOUR EMPLOYER’S LEAVE OF ABSENCE POLICY
While many employers have guidelines in place to accommodate leaves of absence related to serious illness, military service, and educational sabbaticals, they will typically raise an eyebrow at requests to go do anything that either sounds like too much fun or involves too high a risk. Even if they have known from the first day they hired you that your life dream is to go study sharks on the Great Barrier Reef, they are more likely to give you a farewell party than to tell you they’ll keep your desk dusted until such time as you decide to come wandering back.
Only if your reasons for leaving can be plausibly construed as beneficial to the company itself may they consider putting your job on hold. For example, if you currently work at the city aquarium and they are thinking of adding some great white sharks to the exhibit, your schmoozing with the leading shark expert for six months could yield some free insider tips on what makes sharks tick. The fact that the company itself doesn’t even have to pay for this overseas junket is an added bonus. On the other hand, if you flip burgers for minimum wage or push a pencil with a CPA firm, you’ll be pretty hard-pressed to come up with any tangible benefits for your boss.
ARE YOU EXPENDABLE
Employers will always try to accommodate those employees they deem to be invaluable to the company based on years of service, level of expertise, or influence with clients. If you occupy a job that virtually anyone could do, it’s not likely it will be held open for you while you’re off communing with Jaws. The plus side of this, of course, is that yours is a skill that is transferable to a similar company or even the competitor when you come back.
At the other end of the spectrum are jobs for which few people have the right background and talents. Let’s say, for example, that you speak fluent Mandarin in a law firm that has recently started to attract high-profile Chinese clients. Rather than go through the employment search to find someone who not only speaks fluent Mandarin but has the requisite legal expertise, an employer might be amenable to granting a leave of absence for your travels. The determining factor then becomes whether he or she could advertise, recruit, train, and bring someone else up to your level of performance in the same window of time you plan to be gone.
WHAT TO SAY IN A LEAVE OF ABSENCE LETTER
If you are given the green light to take six months off, it is important to compose a letter that delineates the circumstances and your projected date of return. Even if everything has been agreed to out loud, the formality of a letter not only demonstrates your professionalism but provides a piece of security in the event that the company should change hands or the supervisor who granted your leave should vacate his or her position prior to your return.
The opening paragraph of the letter should state that you are taking a leave of absence for such and such dates as well as what you will be doing while you are gone. The second paragraph will address the steps that you have taken to ensure the smooth running of your responsibilities during your absence. Perhaps it’s a situation where you will continue to be in regular communication with the office and its clients via email or phone. Maybe you have even managed your projects to the point that they can essentially run without you for the specified time block.
If you have an assistant or two who will be picking up the slack, this should be stated as well so that everyone is on the same page as far as who will be doing what. The third paragraph should reiterate your date of return. This is also where you should mention the skills and knowledge you are looking forward to bringing back to the organization if indeed such mention is pertinent.
The original letter should go to your employer. Copies of the letter should go to any individuals or departments that have been named in the text and will be impacted by your absence. Don’t forget to give a copy of the letter to your personnel officer, too. The reason for this is that if you accidentally fall out of the system and get registered as a termination, you will need to start all of your paperwork over as a new hire when you come back, a scenario that makes more work for everyone involved.
WHAT TO SAY IN A RESIGNATION LETTER
If circumstances are such that your employer says no to your request for leave or if the travel opportunity does not have a specified end date, you will need to write a letter of resignation. The first paragraph of your letter will announce your intent to resign from your present duties in order to pursue the opportunity of such-and-such. Since extended travel generally requires several weeks of preparation, it is hoped that you will give your employer as much reasonable notice as possible in order for him or her to recruit a replacement.
The first paragraph should also state when your last day of employment with that company will be. The second paragraph is your opportunity to graciously thank your supervisor and co-workers for everything you have learned and that you know you will be able to carry these talents into your exciting new adventure. (Okay, so even if you can’t see any correlation between operating the milkshake machine and studying with the Dali Lama, it’s still polite to stretch your imagination and imply that you are a better person for having worked there.) Your closing remarks will simply be to wish everyone well.
The one thing a resignation letter should not do is to close the door on future opportunities with the same company or a positive referral to a new one. Even if you thought your boss was a total cretin not to say yes to your wanting to go learn Alp-climbing for a year, consider the possibility that you may hate it after the first week and a half and want to come scrambling back. If you’ve burned your bridge by being belligerent in your exit letter, you’ll not only never work at that company again but you’ll have a hard time getting them to say anything nice about you to the next place where you put in an application.
The one thing