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Volunteer work benefits employers, employees as well as the community

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For the next 12 months, rather than showing up to work each day, Pierre Zermatten will be lending his marketing expertise as 23-year veteran of Xerox Corp. to a Palatine, Ill.-based nonprofit serving children and adults with developmental disabilities.

In Rochester, N.Y., Rod Forte, an information management program manager for Xerox, will be using his technology background to re-engineer an area food bank's distribution processes.

And in Houston, Rosana Schoonmaker will be applying the sales, marketing and communication experience she gained during her 17-year career at Xerox to build community awareness of a nonprofit organization that offers free classes in finance, career advancement and life skills to families among the working poor.

These three employees are among six that were selected this year by Stamford, Conn.-based Xerox to take yearlong sabbaticals to volunteer full time on social service programs of their own design and choosing. During their time away from their regular jobs, they still receive their full pay and benefits. When they complete their volunteer assignments, they will return to their former jobs or equivalent responsibilities.

How their duties are handled while they are away is up to the employee and their supervisors.

The program, launched in 1971, may be one of the oldest of its kind in American business, and an increasing number of other employers may soon follow suit, benefit experts say.

Millennial lure

One way employers are looking to motivate and retain employees -- especially younger workers -- is by offering volunteer programs as a benefit. Approximately 62% of workers 18 to 26 years old would prefer to work for a company that provides opportunities for them to apply their skills to benefit nonprofit organizations, according to the 2007 Volunteer IMPACT Survey published by Deloitte & Touche USA L.L.P. in New York.

"These programs are particularly attractive to young professionals," said Jane Weizmann, a senior consultant at Watson Wyatt Worldwide in Arlington, Va.

So-called Millennials -- also known as Generation Y, or workers between the ages of 18 to 26 -- see much of their work as "intense and perhaps not as team-based as they would like it to be. This provides an outlet to engage in activities with team mates," Ms. Weizmann said.

The sabbatical program certainly "helps get kids right out of college interested in working for Xerox," said Elissa Nesbitt, manager of community relations for Xerox in Rochester, N.Y. When recruiting new talent, "it's not just about money anymore," she said. "It's about how they can contribute to the greater good."

Paid sabbaticals are common in the academic world but are rare in the business world, said Ophelia Galindo, national leader for absence and productivity management at Buck Consultants L.L.C. in Orange, Calif.

Related to the word "Sabbath," a sabbatical originally was designed so a person could take some time for personal growth, to further his or her education or to conduct a research project during his or her seventh year of employment, Ms. Galindo said.

Sometimes organizations ask that employees seeking a sabbatical give a stated purpose, such as to perform social work or to complete a course of study. Organizations also typically ask employees to share what they did in the form of an essay or presentation when they return to work.

Volunteering can also be attractive to older employees who are beginning to think about retirement, said Stephen Post, a professor of bioethics at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine in Cleveland.

"Men have high suicide rates after retirement because they feel a loss of personal meaning and of status," Mr. Post said. "So if you gradually, from age 50 on, involve the more senior employees in volunteering, you're giving them a sense of meaning and purpose and value that goes beyond the company and reaches out to humanity. They can draw on that when retirement comes and be spared the emotional trauma."

Mr. Post has been studying the health effects of volunteering and has found that volunteers have lower heart disease and mortality rates and less stress and depression than nonvolunteers (see story).

In many cases, volunteer work can contribute to employee skill development and improve leadership skills, said Lori Grey, senior manager, public relations, at Deloitte in New York.

At Hartford, Conn.-based Aetna Inc., for example, employees can learn about volunteer opportunities that can help them with career development via the human resource portal's talent management system, said Chris Montross, managing director of Aetna and vp of the Aetna Foundation.

"If you want to learn how to plan projects, you can find out about volunteer opportunities that can provide that experience," Mr. Montross said. Afterwards, employees can report on their experience so that it is added to their personnel files, he added.

Providing employees with volunteer opportunities also fosters company loyalty, benefit experts say.

Company pride

"It enables employees to be proud of where they work," making them less likely to change jobs, said Ms. Weizmann.

While not all employers are as generous with paid sabbaticals for volunteering as Xerox, a growing number of companies are granting employees paid time off to volunteer one day a year, one day a quarter or even as often as one day a month, Ms. Galindo said.

"Some larger employers have a payroll practice where they give one day a month, a quarter or a year to do volunteer work," she said. "There is a continuum. There are a lot of brief things, then there are brief leaves up to 30 days and then there are these extended leaves like a six-month sabbatical. It's up to the discretion of the employer to decide whether to hold a person's job while they are on leave, or whether they need to pay COBRA" premiums for health insurance.

Last year, for example, Chicago-based Aon Corp. celebrated its 20th anniversary by giving all of its 40,000 employees across the globe one day off with pay to "give back" to their respective communities. And this year, employees were given an additional personal day to do the same, said Alex Jung, a senior vp at Aon Consulting.

Stratham, N.H.-based Timberland Co.'s Path of Service program, launched in 1992, provides full-time employees up to 40 hours of paid time per year to participate in activities that benefit the community in one of the following areas: environment, education, health or social/human service. Part-time employees get 16 hours per year.

For more than 30 years, either Agilent Technologies Inc. or one of its predecessor companies has offered a volunteer benefit of four hours of company paid time off per month to volunteer in the company's focus areas of science education and/or health and human services, said Terry Lincoln, global signature programs manager at Agilent in Santa Clara, Calif.

"Employees are encouraged to take advantage of this benefit, and we have about 25% of our global workforce that actively volunteer in their communities," Ms. Lincoln said. Agilent currently has 20,000 employees worldwide.

"As time evolves, I'm seeing more companies step up to the plate" by encouraging employees to give back to their communities through volunteer work, Ms. Lincoln said.

"A lot has to do with the company itself and how committed they are to corporate social responsibility and community engagement," Ms. Lincoln said.