Why you should take a corporate sabbatical

Why you should take a corporate sabbatical

[This article has been corrected to reflect the fact that SAP sent just 10 employees to Brazil out of the 30 in its sabbatical program. GreenBiz regrets the error.]

Ernst & Young audit manager Matt Collins was personally involved in environmental projects before he traveled to Costa Rica for one of his company's Earthwatch Institute expeditions.

The trip gave Collins a fresh outlook on his job back home, a perspective that will help shape his company's ongoing green business initiatives.

"For me, it was neat to use some of the skills that I have to help out another organization," Collins said. "It gave me a chance to think critically and creatively about a new culture."

Ernst & Young (E&Y) is one of several big businesses sending employees on expeditions to developing countries to research environmental and sustainability issues. The company also hopes to strengthen employee engagement in the process. The professional services company has been sending hand-picked volunteers for projects in Costa Rica and Brazil for more than four years.

"One of the qualities that the firm is trying to get into the minds of employees is sustainability," said Deborah Homes, E&Y Americas Director of Corporate Responsibility. "This is a genuinely global mindset."

Another company that has embraced the idea of using environment missions to steer strategy is financial services firm HSBC. In June, the company launched a $100 million, five-year program focused on water research with the World Wildlife Federation (WWF), WaterAid and Earthwatch. Prior to the water research project, the company spent five years working with Earthwatch, the Climate Group, the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute and WWF on forest research in China, India, Latin America, North America and Europe.

"Recent figures from WWF show that freshwater ecosystems have declined by 70 percent since 1970," WWF CEO David Nussbaum said. "Already, 2.7 billion people are living in river basins that experience water shortages at least one month a year."

Nussbaum said these statistics -- in addition to the research commissioned by HSBC -- demonstrate why it is so important for the organization to take action to "protect our freshwater resources now."

Likewise, coffee company Starbucks worked closely with Earthwatch at 40 farms in Costa Rica on a multi-year coffee cultivation study. The findings provided invaluable information about how farmers could increase yield by up to 25 percent while reducing fertilizers, according to a report that emerged from the project.

Software developer SAP jumped on the so-called social sabbatical bandwagon in early July by sending a group of 10 employees -- out of the 30 in its sabbatical program -- on a four-week assignment in Brazil.

These volunteers will help with business strategy for three different projects: a social investment organization, an organization that supports local recyclers and a company focused on exporting the work of local artisans. Projects for India and South Africa are planned for October 2012.

Photo of Ernst & Young employees on sabbatical courtesy of Ernst & Young

Every mission has a unique purpose, but in all cases there is a give-and-take. The chosen causes benefit from the data-gathering and business skills of the corporate volunteers. Ambassadors report returning home with a better appreciation of new cultures and creative approaches and a new sense of urgency.

"You want to take it to the next level," said Peter Tavolacci, a sales management with HSBC Bank USA. Tavolacci was nominated to participate in his company's "citizen scientist" trips.

The SAP program is positioned first and foremost as a leadership development opportunity among participants, but emerging markets were selected for their high strategic value to SAP's business development needs, said Brittany Lothe, head of corporate social responsibility. "Our high-potential employees are eligible," she said.

E&Y considers its Earthwatch expeditions as a way to encourage employee engagement and build future leaders. More than 300 applications were received for the 30 slots available this year, Holmes said. After their missions are complete, participants become internal ambassadors for sustainability. Some, including Collins, are appointed to lead future expeditions as team leaders.

According to internal research at HSBC, 79 percent of employees already feel empowered to participate in community and sustainability activities.

"There is a clear correlation between this program and employee engagement," said Ray Johnson, program manager and North American Coordinator, Corporate Sustainability for New York-based HSBC.