How to Ask for a Leave of Absence

Tips to consider when asking for extended time off from work.

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Whether we're mourning the death of a loved one, planning an extended travel excursion, or welcoming a new addition to our family, can't-miss commitments surface in our lives now and then that trump our careers.

While some might think it's best to maintain a work schedule while juggling personal obligations, that's not always the smartest choice. Sometimes, negotiating a leave of absence is an employee's best bet and the safest route to preserving their sanity as well as their job.

Richard Propster, president of the Professionals In Human Resources Association, urges employees to take these five steps when requesting extended time away from work:

1. Give an early warning. Disruptions are part of life. Employees should alert their company as soon as they know they need to take extended leave from work. "In a death, that's going to be hard but in other circumstances, it's not," Propster says. "Rather than say, 'I've got this problem, and I'm going to take leave,' it makes much more sense to say, 'I'm going to require some time away from the job. Can we talk about how my important function will be conducted while I'm gone?'"

It's up to employees to prepare for emergencies, Propster says. So if you're getting ready to take time off, update team members or colleagues on the status of your projects, leave detailed notes for whoever will pick up the slack, and provide supervisors with your updated contact information in case the emergency moves you out of town for a period of time. By taking these steps, employees prove their respect for their positions as well as their bosses.

2. Know your rights. In certain states, employers with a set number of employees are required to give workers time off for everything from voting to meeting with their children's teachers. According to the Department of Labor, the Family and Medical Leave Act stipulates that employees can take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave each year for the following reasons: the birth and care of a newborn child, adoption of a child or the placement of a child in foster care, care for an immediate family member (spouse, child, or parent) with a serious health condition, or the employee's own serious health condition. Propster says it's incumbent on workers to understand their legal entitlements before they request leave. "Every employee should understand that they have these rights and that they may, at some point in their career, want to exercise them."

He adds that employees should know their rights—not so they can assert them necessarily—but so when they do approach their managers, they can say, "As we both know, I have the legal right to take this time off. I'm looking at doing that sometime in the future. How can we see to it that productivity continues?"

3. Be transparent with your boss. Whether you're suffering through a messy divorce proceeding or putting the finishing touches on adoption paperwork, Propster says you should do everything you can to keep your employer in the loop. This doesn't mean you must reveal every detail of the situation that will uproot you from work, but it's important to give your supervisor a clear idea of why you'll be gone for a generous period of time. "You don't have to go into great detail," he says. "I don't think it's a good idea … because quite honestly, we have supervisors that want to be helpful, but they might want to be helpful by asking questions about things they have no right to."

"Just say, 'I expect this [issue] to take this long. It may take longer. Who should I contact to give you periodic updates on when I'll be able to come back to work? I want to come back as soon as possible,'" Propster suggests. By taking this simple step, employees demonstrate care and concern, and potentially minimize future conflicts with management.

4. Notify team members. If you're the key player in a team project expected to take weeks or months to execute, taking leave without alerting your peers can prove damaging. You'll hurt your productivity as well as that of your colleagues. That's why Propster encourages employees to touch base with their co-workers before taking time off. "Especially if you're on a team," he says. "I think the team is well-served to take time and say, 'What if one of us were gone?' How can we fill this [void] so the team can still be as productive as possible?'"