Stay Interviews: An Underutilized Tool for Reducing Turnover, Increasing Engagement

There is a saying in the outplacement business after any reduction in force that managers should “re-recruit” their employees by reminding them how valuable they are. Companies are particularly vulnerable at that time because employee turnover usually spikes. A tool to help re-recruit employees is the stay interview.  Stay interviews are conversations with employees about what they like and don’t like about their current role.

If you are waiting until employees leave by doing exit interviews, it’s too late. You’ve already lost them. You might have been able to retain those employees had you known how they felt. Stay interviews allow you to obtain a better measurement of job satisfaction and engagement which ultimately can influence employee attrition.  Here are a few frequently asked questions about stay interviews and some insights on getting the most out of them.

Why are stay interviews more impactful than employee engagement surveys or exit interviews?

Though employee engagement surveys are used by many firms as a way to obtain the pulse of the organization, stay interviews are more actionable because you hear directly from the employee versus trying to decipher whether they understood the question or trying to interpret what was meant by a comment.

Stay interviews are more specific and future-oriented than exit interviews and more effective at predicting and reducing employee turnover rates because the organization can review the feedback and make necessary changes prior to losing employees. Just the act of conducting stay interviews sends a signal that the company cares and that the leaders really want to know what their employees are thinking, and this leads to a huge payoff in terms of engagement.

If stay interviews are so powerful, why aren’t more companies doing them?

Many companies that are reluctant to conduct stay interviews feel they will get feedback that they can’t do anything about like raises or promotions, for example.  There may not be any money in the budget, no position open, or the employee may not be qualified for it. Honesty is the best policy if you get these responses.  Explain that you are asking questions about their needs and wants because you really want to get at what matters to them so you can find things that are within your control.

The other reason companies are reluctant to conduct stay interviews is because they can be time consuming.  Hiring a third party conduct stay interviews can save you time because they can help formulate the questions, conduct the interviews, analyze the results and propose meaningful action. Pam Zlota, Principal Consultant at PRZ Talent Advisors, who has conducted numerous stay interviews with client companies, has found that in addition to being a huge time saver, using a third party allows for more candid responses.

I recently had lunch with a Vice President of Human Resources who conducted her own stay interviews.  She came up with a great list of questions including, “What makes for a great day at work?” and “If you had a magic wand, what would be the one thing you would change about your work, your role and your responsibilities?” Though some employees were eager to share their thoughts, others were not as forthcoming because they were skeptical about overstepping.  By hiring an impartial third party, there are no political landmines to avoid and no hidden agenda. Employees can speak freely and not worry about hurting someone’s feelings or being reprimanded.

What should you do with your findings from stay interviews?

If you decide to do stay interviews, it’s very important that your company and your leaders make a commitment to understand the findings quickly with great transparency and then take action to show genuine care and follow-through.

I meet with human resources executives daily who talk about how time consuming it is to make changes to the organization once they get the results of an employee engagement survey. Part of the problem is that they didn’t allocate time to implement those changes when they did the project plan, and the other part is they conducted them too frequently. It is no different with stay interviews. If you are going to take the time to formulate solid questions that get at the heart of what makes employees tick and people are willing to answer honestly, then you need to push for changes that are within your control to make. According to Pam Zlota, it doesn’t have to be a major change, initially; just a few small, yet significant changes — well-advertised — can go a long way.

One client shared that they asked, “What is our dumbest policy?” The response was overwhelmingly that the company didn’t allow employees to rollover their vacation time from year to year. They had a “use it or lose it” policy. Employees explained that they would like to have the option to rollover a week a year for those life events that might require more vacation time like a wedding, the purchase of a new home or an extended trip. When the human resources team debriefed the responses and asked themselves why the policy was in place, the only answer they could come up with is they had always handled vacation time that way. By making a slight alteration to their vacation policy, not only did it cost nothing for the company to do so, but it was highly visible, and made a lot of employees happy. A win for everyone!

Stay interviews can be a valuable retention tool if conducted properly. Keep in mind that they are time consuming, so be realistic about your availability and be sure to spend time coming up with questions that will yield the most valuable feedback. Have that million dollar question like, “What is the one reason you stay with the company?”  Imagine how valuable it would be to your organization if you knew every employee’s response.

Kim Littlefield consults with organizations and senior executives on complex career transition and workforce planning issues. Kim has over 15 years of experience in training and business development. Prior to joining Keystone, she was a senior trainer with Dale Carnegie Training. As a certified Dale Carnegie instructor, Kim has taught courses on human relations, communication, leadership, sales, public speaking and presentation skills to thousands of people from students to executives. At Keystone, she regularly trains groups on Networking, Your 30 Second Commercial and How to Work a Room.

Kim holds a Master of Science degree in Adult and Organizational Learning from Suffolk University and a Bachelor’s in Business Administration from Bryant University. She is an active member of the Northeast Human Resources Association and Human Resource Leadership Forum. Kim frequently addresses professional associations and networking groups, including the Northeast Human Resources Association and Financial Executives International.

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