How stay interviews can help you assess employee satisfaction 

BY LIN GRENSING-POPHAL

The idea of stay interviews is taking hold in human resource circles.

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It’s the process of connecting with employees before they give their resignation notice and when an exit interview is pending. Stay interviews, for both star and struggling employees, are designed to gain insights into employee drivers of engagement, personal needs and employer perceptions.

Exit interviews, which are a common practice for most companies, can provide insights into issues that may be leading to high turnover—but there are at least two problems with exit interviews:

  • Employees often are hesitant to be entirely candid in an exit interview, whether conducted by a third party (e.g., HR staff member) or in writing.
  • It’s generally too late in the employment relationship to be able to affect the employee’s decision to leave the company.

Stay interviews, conversely, are designed to proactively seek information that can help reduce turnover, especially among key staff members. If you haven’t already adopted this practice, it might be something worth considering. If you have, there are some best practices, insights and advice about stay interviews you can glean from experts.

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What are stay interviews?

“Similar to exit interviews, stay interviews can provide information from an employee’s perspective on the company culture and environment, development and growth opportunities, management, and leadership,” says Elaine Varelas, managing partner at Keystone Partners, a Boston-based career management support firm.

According to Edith Onderick-Harvey, managing partner of NextBridge Consulting in Andover, Massachusetts, stay interviews typically are conversations that managers have with “a high-performing or highly valued employee.” That’s an important distinction and a potential issue of concern, as we’ll see later.

It’s important to know why employees leave, but it’s equally important to know why they stay, says Patrick Colvin, a New York-based strategic HR business partner for the USA Today Network, with experience in talent acquisition, employee relations and HR strategy. “A stay interview gives you raw feedback from the source, which gives you a real chance to make changes that help retain current employees,” he says. It’s an opportunity, he adds, for managers to ask their key employees: “What can we do to make you stay?” It gives employees, in turn, a chance to express what is working for them, what’s not and what changes need to be made to keep them engaged and productive in their job.

“Ideally, a company should conduct stay interviews well before any turnover rates spike, and they should be conducted by the employee’s manager,” says Lucia Smith, an HR consultant for Gray Scalable, a New York-based company that provides customized HR solutions for startup and growth-stage companies. “Managers have the most direct contact with an employee, and the relationship between a manager and employee is often the driving reason an employee stays or leaves a company.”

In addition to helping gather valuable information, a positive stay interview experience can “help solidify the relationship an employee has with their manager,” Smith says. Stay interviews provide a tangible means of expressing to employees the value they bring.

According to Rod Brace, a Houston-based executive coach and national speaker with experience as a chief learning officer and working with C-level executives to help them identify what to look for in employees, it’s the job of leaders to remind employees of their value and why it’s in the employees’ best interests to remain with the company. Stay interviews, he says, should be conducted frequently. “An engaged employee is motivated by making frequent progress toward what they consider to be meaningful work,” Brace says.

“Through the forum of a stay interview, you have an opportunity to understand where they are finding meaning in the work of your organization, as well as understand what barriers are preventing them from retaining their high level of engagement,” he adds.

Too often, Brace says, there is a tendency for leaders to spend “an inordinate amount of time” fixing the problems created by disengaged employees, instead of taking care of the highly engaged employees. “Be careful to not forget the employees who are making you successful as a leader,” he cautions. Stay interviews offer an opportunity to re-recruit.

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Pros and cons of stay interviews

There are many benefits to stay interviews. The ability to engage key staff members is obviously one of the most significant. Conducting stay interviews sends a message to employees that they are valued.

“The interesting thing about our most talented employees is that they often don’t know the full extent of their talent or value,” Brace says.

For senior leadership and HR, information attained through stay interviews can be used to identify areas of opportunity for improvement in company policies and practices. Stay interviews also may be used to identify managers and supervisors who may either need to be coached to improve their managerial skills or who may serve as a source of best practice insights for others.

However, there also are a few potential downfalls to conducting stay interviews. But these generally can be readily addressed.

One potential downfall, particularly if you’re conducting interviews only with those who have been identified as key or top talent, is that word gets out to other employees who have not been identified in this manner, which can lead them to look for jobs elsewhere. An argument could be made, though, that conducting stay interviews with all employees could make sense and also holds the potential to reveal valuable relationships, build engagement and even help move “next-tier” employees up into the top talent category. Employees who are poor performers, theoretically, should be aware of their performance issues and should be working with their supervisor or manager to address those issues.

Conducting stay interviews with all employees, even very early in the employment relationship, also can help stem turnover during the early months of an employee’s tenure. As Michelle Smith, vice president of marketing for O.C. Tanner, headquartered in Salt Lake City, tells the Society for Human Resource Management: “Up to 20% of turnover takes place in the first 45 days.” This can be an even greater issue with millennials who, according to a Georgetown University survey, tend to change jobs more frequently than their older cohorts. Engaging employees early in their tenure and sending a clear signal that they are valued and that the company is concerned about ensuring a positive work environment and experience for employees can help to curb this early-stage turnover.

Another potential downfall to stay interviews is the risk of supervisors and managers inadvertently seeming to provide assurances, or a promise of, future growth potential or promotions. This can be addressed through appropriate education and training of supervisors and managers, as well as through clear messaging being sent to all staff to ensure they do not come away from these sessions with the expectation that a promotion is imminent or a given at some point in the future.

It’s important for employees to understand feedback attained through stay interviews is intended as input and will be used for consideration, but may not result in the changes they’re looking for. Still, Varelas says, “the company needs to illustrate that they’ve really listened to employees and are utilizing the feedback to make improvements and changes.”

Colvin agrees. “It’s crucial to make employees aware that you may not be able to fix all of the concerns brought forth but their feedback is appreciated and valued, he says. “Stay interviews highlight the things you are doing well as a company but also provide you with valuable insights into issues that may exist. Most importantly, make sure you follow up regarding any concerns or problems raised during the initial interview, keeping the employee updated on any progress made. If performed correctly, the insights gathered from these interviews are well worth the time and effort.”

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Best practices for effective stay interviews

Stay interviews, Onderick-Harvey says, should provide managers with three key pieces of information:

  • What will keep you here?
  • What would make you leave?
  • How can I support you?

Stay interviews also answer an important question for the employee, Onderick-Harvey adds: “Am I valued, and does this company want to invest in me?”

The key, Varelas says, “is finding out what things are most important to them and make them want to stay with the company, and what things might lure them away.” She suggests a neutral third party conduct the interview, rather than the employee’s manager. Not all agree, though.

Smith feels the manager is the best person to conduct the stay interview, as it helps to reinforce the idea that part of a manager’s job is to retain their team. But, she adds: “If the employee doesn’t trust their manager or the manager is not enthusiastic about conducting the stay interview, then HR or a trusted member of the leadership team can also do the interview.”

Whether or not HR representatives conduct these interviews, they should develop questions to help guide managers through a meaningful conversation, Smith says. She suggests a few topics of discussion:

  • Skill development goals
  • Why an employee continues to choose to work at the company
  • What an employee looks forward to the most when coming to work each day
  • What the manager or the company can do to improve the employee’s day-to-day experience.

Varelas recommends some additional questions that can help reveal the employees’ experiences and impressions of the company, as well as their role:

  • “The last time you went home and said, ‘I had a great day; I love my job,’ what had happened that day?”
  • “If you could afford to retire tomorrow, what would you miss most about your job?”
  • “The last time you went home and said, ‘That’s it; I can’t take it anymore,’ what had happened that day?”
  • “What did you love in your last position or company that you’re not doing now?”
  • “When you go home from a busy day at work, do you consider yourself satisfied?”
  • “Does corporate culture influence your work satisfaction? If not, what does?”

In addition, Smith says, HR also should provide guidelines to managers and tips for how to have a good conversation, including how to handle awkward moments or negative feedback.

“A key part of stay interviews is follow-up and noticeable effort,” Smith says. “Data is only useful if you do something with it, and asking an employee for their thoughts and then not taking any visible action or checking back in on things will actual hurt retention rates rather than boost them,” she says. “A stay interview is meant to engage employees, and when done right they can improve attrition rates and provide clear goals for managers, HR and the company.”

Establishing methods of consistently gathering, aggregating and learning from the input received through stay interviews can be an important role for HR to play. Themes and common issues may emerge that could be addressed at a corporate-wide level, rather than on an ad hoc basis through individual supervisors or managers. Input received could be reviewed and shared with the leadership team on a regular basis. Aggregating and comparing various perspectives throughout the company can help it strengthen its employee relations practices and reduce dissatisfaction and turnover.

For instance, at Alaniz Marketing, a digital marketing agency in the San Francisco Bay Area, Bill Peatman, senior content strategist, says: “We use quarterly check-ins in place of annual performance reviews. It’s much less stressful and provides opportunities for ongoing coaching, goal setting and corrective actions. It’s not fair to employees to tell them at the end of the year that they failed. Coaching along the way clarifies expectations and builds trust.” These coaching sessions readily can adopt a “stay interview” flavor, ensuring that all employees are part of the process and have an opportunity for input and engagement.

While exit interviews still may be advised to capture information from departing employees, adding stay interviews as another source of feedback may help drive down the number of exit interviews you need to conduct.