Taking Time Off Is Normal – You Don’t Have To Explain Yourself

As a culture, the United States has a real problem with the obsession that people always be working. People put off or neglect their vacation time to be “more dedicated”, they work even when they’re sick and should be resting, they’re shamed for not working overtime if they’re salaried, and some employers don’t want to talk to candidates who aren’t currently working somewhere else.

This is unhealthy in the best of times, but going into year three of a pandemic, it’s downright cruel.

Life is meant to be lived and sometimes that means taking an extended period of time when you just let yourself exist. Go to the lake, do a bunch of reading, ride a pogo stick across Michigan, learn to literally juggle chainsaws…

Okay, maybe not that last thing, but you get the idea.

Record numbers of people have left jobs in the last two years and taken time for themselves. Some of them took time for a sabbatical, some took time to introspect and figure out life in the circumstances we find ourselves in, and some of them just took time to decompress and relax. All of these things are not only perfectly fine, they’re laudable.

The landscape is starting to change, and in some ways that’s a positive thing. We may very well be living through one of the largest labor movements in living memory (and the recent reports of service industry jobs successfully unionizing strongly suggests that we are).

The United States has been far, far behind a lot of the rest of the world in terms of quality of life for people in the working class (I include white collar people in this. If you aren’t able to live off of just investments, you’re working class. Deal with that realization however you need to). Thankfully, it seems like we might be seeing the signs that we’re starting to catch up.

Some recruiters and hiring managers, however, disagree and are insisting that candidates “explain themselves” with regard to what they were doing with the time that they weren’t actively working for a business. I even had a recruiter go so far as to say that I needed to add entries to my resume to explain away the time I took for my sabbatical and that I needed to think about how I’d explain it to companies.

I’m not the only person I know who has experienced this either. It’s been a thing for a long time; most certainly longer than the pandemic we’re in the middle of.

However, it’s a really bad move by recruiters and employers alike for a few reasons past the legal considerations.

First, it shows that you consider your employees (or potential employees) to be property rather than to be people because you are showing that your belief is that a person only has value as long as they are producing something for someone.

I’ve said it before and have no problem repeating myself. You do NOT own the people that work for you. You are only in charge as long as the people who work for you decide you are. The moment they decide to leave, any illusion of power and control that you had vanishes.

Second, the market is heavily in favor of the employee right now, especially in tech. If you display this sort of attitude, you are probably going to go to the back of the line with regard to places the very people you want to attract are going to consider.

In other words, if you want to be “the boss” eventually you won’t have anyone to be “the boss” of because the talent you want most will refuse to work with you and will tell all of the people they know about you. The whisper network is real.

Third, sabbaticals have a very long tradition in a lot of fields. This tends to be more true outside of the United States with three exceptions that come to mind fairly quickly – academia, executive positions, and… technology (this is more true as you get to higher levels – staff, principal, etc).

It’s actually normal for people in those areas to take time off on occasion (usually every few years) to introspect on what they’ve done, do some self-directed research/study, possibly do some speaking or writing, and take some time to just breathe for a bit while considering what they want to do next.

As employers, you should celebrate people being able to do this. It takes a lot of planning and work to pull off this sort of thing – especially if you’re funding it yourself. Yes, by all means, talk about what they did during that time if the candidate wants to (not everything is open for public consumption), but do it with the mindset of mutual interest instead of an interrogation where the candidate has to “prove” something to you.

As for the recruiter who insisted that I “explain myself” regarding my sabbatical, I’ve spoken to more than 50 companies over the last few months as I look for the next place I want to be. I can count the number of hiring managers that made a stink about it on one hand and I can say that wasn’t the only red flag they presented.

All told, most companies and hiring managers thought it was great that I was able to arrange my finances and time to take my sabbatical. Some of them expressed interest in doing something similar. A couple of them talked about how some of their own employees took one and then came back.

There were actually a lot of conversations about the things that I did and learned during this period that were rooted in curiosity and a desire to get to know me rather than from a standpoint that I prove myself worthy of having taken time away from formal work.

I’ll admit that, in my case, part of that may be because I seem to have gotten a reputation in my part of the professional community. I’m not saying that to brag because the thought honestly kind of boggles my mind since, in a lot of ways, I still see myself as … just me rather than someone who leads (sometimes global) initiatives and builds and mentors teams.

My fervent hope is that other people have the same opportunity to grow and live as people instead of just being a cog in a machine whose only perceived value is the work that they are able to do. The only way that we are going to get to that point is for us to normalize that life is for living and that starts with people in positions of authority realizing and accepting that people should be able to take time for themselves.

Part of my promise to you is that, as a hiring manager and interviewer, if you’re across the table from me, you won’t have to “explain yourself” if you took some time off. I may ask if you did anything cool that you’d like to share, but that’s just part of the conversation in order to get to know you.

After all, I hire people, not cogs. I don’t own the people on my team and I don’t want to.

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