Smarter Working

Let There Be Leave

Discussing book leave, parental time off, or medical issues often make for difficult conversations.

It’s something we all need at some point in our career: a leave of absence, whether to write a book, take care of elderly parents, or handle a mental-health situation. Some types of leave come with legal obligations, like maternity or paternity leave, while others aren’t so clearly delineated.

But as companies become more open to employees’ need for better work-life balance, such conversations are evolving. Some firms have extended their leave-of-absence policies because they see value in building employee engagement and retention. Last year within the private sector, 43% of companies offered personal paid leave and 88% provided unpaid family leave, up from 37% and 82%, respectively, in 2006, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Arranging leave, whether for a month or nine months, takes multiple discussions.

Of course, even as things improve, the push and pull between what you think is best for you and what may be best for the company is what makes such requests so challenging. “This kind of leave can often be the first thing you have to negotiate for something that’s so intertwined with your personal life,” says Lauren Smith Brody, author of The Fifth Trimester: The Working Mom’s Guide to Style, Sanity, and Success After Baby. “It’s incredibly difficult.”

Here’s a look at how to have conversations surrounding your leave of absence.

Go in with a plan.

Even if your company has a policy in place for leaves of absence, you need to approach your request with an action plan that attempts to make for a seamless transition. “You have to tell people what you need but also recognize there’s a company that needs to keep running,” says Liz Bentley, a leadership coach and a Korn Ferry Advance career columnist.

To that end, the better the answers you can give your boss—from researching the company leave policy to having suggestions about who can fill in for you—the better off your ask will be received. “What a lot of people forget when coming to ask for approval from someone is that your manager isn’t ruminating over what you’ve been thinking about day and night,” Bentley says. “The more work you can do for them, the better.”

Be mindful of unconscious bias.

We all have various experiences and backgrounds when it comes to attitudes toward leave. Some managers may have taken only six weeks of leave after giving birth, while others took four months or are childless. It’s important not to make any assumptions about how your boss or colleagues will respond. That said, you must state your intentions so that people understand your boundaries and desires. Recently, one boss at a consulting firm—a mother herself—wanted to give a new ad account to a star employee who also happened to be pregnant. At first, she hesitated because she thought the woman wouldn’t want the added challenge. “I had to stop myself and realize I didn’t know what she wanted,” the manager says. The employee ended up taking the opportunity and worked with her boss from the beginning to make a seamless transition for when she went on leave.

Know it isn’t a one-time conversation.

Arranging leave, whether for a month or nine months, takes multiple discussions. And that’s before considering that needs change, job roles can evolve while you’re on leave, and people can come and go. Realize your first conversation about taking leave won’t be your last, and that most leave situations, even with policies in place, aren’t black and white. Show your agility by suggesting that you check back in a month or so to see how discussions have evolved. You’ll come across as mature, self-aware, and a team player.

Timing is everything.

It may sound obvious, but with big conversations, timing is everything. If your manager is more of a morning person, try to catch him or her early in the day. If you know a big board meeting is on the horizon, it’s best to save your leave request for after the powwow occurs. The same goes for mapping out your leave, if possible. If, for example, you’re flexible about exactly when you need to take time off to care for your elderly parents, perhaps you can shift that time around depending on the company’s busy season. “Showing that you’ve thought through the basic calendar and can anticipate where your boss’s mind is going can really help,” Smith Brody says.

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