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We Pay Out Unused Sabbaticals When Someone Leaves Buffer, Here’s Why

May 1, 2023 4 min readOpen
Photo of Carolyn Kopprasch
Carolyn Kopprasch

Chief of Staff @ Buffer

In 2019, we introduced sabbaticals at Buffer. The concept is to reward long-tenured teammates and invite them to take a well-earned break from work. Most professionals have to leave their jobs to take a break longer than a typical one- or two-week vacation. Sabbaticals allow teammates to take that break and return to Buffer, refreshed and recharged. This is one of our most cherished benefits for this reason.

When a teammate reaches five years with us, they are eligible to take this fully-paid six-week sabbatical from their work, which they can use for travel, a side project, or simply for rest and family time. It starts as a six-week break, but if teammates delay their sabbatical by a year or two, then they can add another week to the break per year delayed, with the sabbatical capped at eight weeks total.

But what happens when someone on the team is eligible for a sabbatical but they don’t get to use it before their chapter at Buffer comes to an end? Maybe they find a new role that’s a better fit, or maybe it wasn’t working out at Buffer and they are let go. What happens to their sabbatical time?

We’ve decided to pay out earned sabbatical time to any teammate who has an unused sabbatical.

This initially started in 2021, when we started paying out earned sabbatical time on top of severance pay if a teammate was let go. We recently introduced a new element to this — now we pay out earned sabbatical time even if a teammate leaves voluntarily.

Here’s more about why we’re paying out sabbaticals, what it looks like, and even what it costs.  

Why we’re paying out sabbaticals

The short answer is that it feels like the right thing to do.

Sabbaticals are earned by teammates who have been on the team for five years — a long tenure in the tech world! And it represents a big chunk of a career. The sabbatical is a special benefit for that reason; it’s currently the only “perk” that applies only to our long-tenured teammates. (Every other benefit we offer kicks in within the first month of a new teammate joining.)

It didn’t feel right to have someone move on from Buffer having earned that benefit without being able to enjoy it.

Um, sabbaticals sound rad! Why would someone delay it?

You may be wondering why we would need to pay out a sabbatical. Why wouldn’t teammates take their sabbaticals right at the five-year mark? There are two reasons:

  1. A teammate might delay their sabbatical past the five-year mark because of personal choice. It may fall over a winter and they’d rather take the time off in the summer, for example. Or it may not be a convenient time for a teammate for other personal reasons. Some folks try to align their sabbaticals with their partner’s work schedules, or their kids’ school schedules.
  2. Alternatively, a teammate may have delayed their sabbatical because the five-year mark was not convenient for Buffer. We are still a small team, so we ask area teams to arrange their schedules such that only one teammate is out on sabbatical at a time. We also ask those who are planning sabbaticals to organize around any family leaves that may be coming up within the area-level team as well. After all, family leaves cannot be delayed!

All that to say, there are various reasons why someone who is at six- or seven-years tenured may not have taken a sabbatical. We don’t want teammates who choose to leave to lose this well-earned thank-you from Buffer.

The benefits of paying out sabbaticals

There are two benefits we’ve seen with this new approach.

First, it rewards and honors long-tenured teammates who choose to leave without taking their sabbatical. Sometimes teammates leave the workforce for personal reasons, or perhaps they get a professional opportunity that they can’t turn down. In any case, we are now happy to give this as a final thank-you for all of the hard work and years spent building Buffer.

Secondly, this also allows teammates to resign and move on instead of taking their sabbatical on their way out. Sabbaticals are meant to be a season of rest for a teammate who plans to return to their role refreshed. We believe in this deeply, but it does require some sacrifices from their teammates who take on the extra work. If a teammate resigns shortly after sabbatical, the team is forced to begin the process to hire their replacement or reorganize work many weeks later than they could have begun that process, if they had known it was not temporary. It’s a kindness for a teammate to simply resign instead of delaying that work. This policy allows teammates to do just that without losing this benefit.

How sabbatical pay works in practice

“Sabbatical pay” is the full amount of what a teammate would have earned during their six to eight week sabbatical. This includes the teammate’s base salary, their dependent grant, and for some of our longest tenured teammates, an extra salary boost that some chose in lieu of more stock options. (You can see our full salary formula on our salaries page.)

When teammates leave Buffer for any reason without using their earned sabbatical, we include this full sabbatical pay as part of their final paycheck.

What does it cost to pay out sabbaticals?

This is a financial undertaking, of course. Over the last few years we’ve paid out four sabbaticals, and the average sabbatical payout is $32,000. But we believe it’s the best thing we can do to generously honor our tenured teammates who choose to move on from Buffer, as well as to support the rest of the team who plan to stay.

However, we’ve found that we don’t need to explicitly budget for paying out sabbaticals. As our head of Finance explained it to me, the ongoing cost of that salary falls away on their last day, so we are fronting their pay for a few months. Even if we backfill the role in a few months, it ends up being a net zero budget impact.

All in all, this allows us to stay true to our values and reward people who have invested a significant portion of their careers into Buffer.

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