By Rebecca Zucker
Partner, Next Step Partners
Originally published by Harvard Business Review.
Changing jobs is an ideal opportunity to take time off, and we all know that having sufficient down time is instrumental in starting any new job refreshed and recharged, ready to take on a new challenge. In an ideal world, we would take sabbaticals in between jobs, which can be particularly helpful in the case of burnout. A sabbatical is not focused job-search time, but mostly downtime, devoted to creative and personal pursuits (which may include some career exploration) and can be anywhere from a month to a year.
I took a year-long sabbatical in Paris earlier in my career, after working a few years in investment banking and then in an equally demanding job in strategic planning. This extended time off allowed me to re-evaluate and reset the course of my career and life for the better but was not something that I would have been able to negotiate with any prospective employer, given the duration. Some sectors, such as banking, mandate garden leave (typically a few months in duration) for certain employees in between jobs as a non-compete provision, where the departing employee is still paid. However, few people have the luxury of this type of leave or other extended sabbatical.
In most cases, when you find a new job, you have either already left your prior employer (and are unemployed) or are still working. If you are unemployed, your “time off” has likely been riddled with uncertainty and anxiety, which is energy-depleting and doesn’t feel rejuvenating or much like a vacation. And if you find a new job while fully employed, whether you were actively seeking a new role or unexpectedly presented with an exciting opportunity, it can feel like going from the frying pan into the fire if you don’t have sufficient time off before starting your new job.
The question, then, for many people when changing jobs is often, “Can I negotiate time off before I start my new job, and how much is reasonable to ask for?”
First, you can (and should) absolutely negotiate time off before you start. Research shows that negotiations are more successful when they are multi-issue negotiations, and your start date is one of many variables up for discussion. As with any negotiation, you need to have a good sense of what’s most important to you (and the other party) and where you are willing to give in one area to receive more in another.
If you already feel rested and are ready to get started, you may need less time off. I’ve counseled many clients over the years who are eager and prepared to dive into their new position that taking a shorter break can provide tremendous leverage in obtaining something else that’s more important to them — such as higher compensation that will pay off for years to come. In my experience coaching hundreds of clients over two decades on job negotiations, a hiring manager will often gladly pay more if that is what will clinch the deal for you to start ASAP and start making their life easier that much sooner.
However, if you are looking to take a real break before plunging into your new job, here are several factors to consider in determining how much time to request:
Keep in mind that the organization is hiring you because they have a clear and present need. According to Sally Thornton, CEO and founder of Forshay, an executive recruiting and on-demand consulting firm, “It absolutely needs to start with the business needs. You don’t want to take a job where they’re preparing to go IPO and you’re like, ‘Hey, I need six weeks.’ If the company has a specific milestone, it’s [about] being really thoughtful to that milestone that they have to deal with.”
If the company more generally has a lot of work to do, and they just want you to be there as soon as possible, Thornton advises taking at least two weeks off between jobs to “take a breath.”
Another consideration if you are going to a new job directly from a current employer is being able to give ample notice and smoothly transition projects to your colleagues. You want to make sure to “end well,” preserving both the goodwill and relationships you’ve built. In the U.S., the standard minimum notice is typically two weeks. You may contractually be bound to more. Add this to the actual time off you’d like to take, and it can easily be a month before you start your new job.
Further, many people prefer to err on the side of caution and not give formal notice to their current employer until their background check has cleared, and this can take anywhere from a few days to a few weeks. Lourdes Olvera-Marshall, a DEI professional and executive coach who has negotiated start dates at three new jobs over the last dozen years, advised: “Don’t commit to a specific start date before your background check goes through and the offer is official. You can give a timeframe instead and phrase it as ‘Once the offer is official, I will give two to three weeks’ notice and then will need two weeks before starting. If there’s a specific need on the start date, we can chat about it.’” Speak in terms of number of weeks versus a calendar date. Otherwise, if the background check takes longer than anticipated, it will eat into your time off.
Personal or family financial needs are also relevant in determining how much time you take off before starting your new job. Will you still have health care coverage from your prior employer, or will you need to sign up for COBRA? Typically, in the U.S. if you work through the first of the month, you’ll have health care coverage for that whole month. If you’ve been unemployed for an extended period, need health care, or have material financial obligations like school tuition or a mortgage, a few weeks’ additional salary from a new job may mean a lot less stress for you.
Further, if it’s near the end of the year, you’ll likely want to stay at your current employer until you receive your bonus or vesting of equity, unless your new employer is willing to make you whole for leaving beforehand. Likewise, you’ll want to ask your new employer from which date you will be eligible for a bonus, retirement benefits, and company matching, as well as new health benefits. These effective dates may provide a significant financial incentive to start earlier — in Lourdes’ case, it was only the difference of a few days. Fortunately, she made a point to ask the recruiter, “What benefits are impacted by my start date?”
You may also need time off to take care of important things you’ve been putting off like visiting family (which might warrant a few weeks if they’re in another country), having an elective surgery, or doing home repairs you’ve been delaying. If your new job requires a significant move, such as cross-country or even overseas, this will require some time — particularly if you need to sell your home (or at least get it ready to put it on the market). Ask for the time you need for these types of priorities.
One client’s daughter was getting married, so my client asked for a start date after the wedding, which was in a few weeks, so that she could not only enjoy the final planning stages but also not have to handle last-minute wedding details during her first week of a big, new job. You might say for example, “I need some time to take care of some family obligations. I’d rather take the time for this prior to joining the company so that I won’t have any distractions and can be fully focused on my new job once I start.”
Perhaps most important is having sufficient time to relax and recharge so that you are ready to start your new job refreshed and energized. Research published in the Journal of Happiness Studies shows that the ideal vacation length is eight days. Caroline Stokes, CEO of FORWARD Executive Search says, “I usually suggest to the people I place that they take a few weeks off to transition their brain by taking time away – ideally a trip away, which has been more challenging during Covid, but to at least get away to create some distance and recharge their brain for a new challenge.”
Your new employer might say, “We really need you right now.” Barring any specific, time-sensitive business imperative, don’t be afraid to ask for time to take a real break. This opportunity may not come again for several years. You can say, “I understand there’s a lot of work to be done. I may not have this opportunity again for some time, and I will be much more clear-headed, creative and productive if I’m able to fully decompress before diving in and giving this job my all.” James, a client of mine, reflected on a prior transition where he finished one job on a Friday and started his next job on the following Monday. He said, “It was stressful and made me feel resentful … I do think that it may have made me seem less open, friendly and eager than I would have otherwise, so it was a missed opportunity to make the best possible first impression.”
You may also want to budget some time before you start to ramp up. This includes things like reading relevant documents (e.g., strategic plans, customer surveys, etc.), scheduling meetings for your first week with your boss, key stakeholders and direct reports (since calendars can fill up weeks in advance), confirming the details of your introduction to the team or company, and completing HR paperwork ahead of your start date so you can dive right into your new responsibilities.
Overall, the consensus is that one month is the peak of the bell curve in terms of how much time to request. Thornton shared, “I’ve never seen anyone take more than a month when it’s an active job.” There may be occasions where more is possible. If you can’t get the break you want, it may be an opportunity to negotiate more time off later.
The important thing is to ask for what you need and to have an open conversation about the trade-offs. “If it’s not a clear conversation about trade-offs and, and how it impacts your life, then you’re not actually having a full conversation,” Thornton said. Further, this discussion — like any negotiation — will be indicative of your relationship going forward with the company. Is it open, understanding and collaborative, or based on fear and lacking compromise? In the grand scheme of things, a month (or even a bit more) isn’t all that much.