Man sitting in a chair being interviewed by a person who is partially blocked from the camera angle.
PHOTO: Marc van der Chijs

About 25 percent of employees (42 million) will leave their jobs this year. Some of the departed will have only been with the company for a year. In fact, the rate of first-year employees leaving is the highest it’s been in eight years, according to The Work Institute’s “2018 Retention Report.” (registration required). So what can organizations due to stem the flow of departing talent?

One method of increasing retention numbers is to conduct stay interviews. We all know about the exit interview, picking the brains of employees who are on their way out to get a better sense where the company can do better. In stay interviews, however, employers can pick the brains of those employees that are not leaving. “Stay interviews offer opportunities to build trust between the manager and employee,” said Peg Buchenroth, HR director at Addison Group. Stay interviews are so helpful, one of our sources even suggested replacing the exit interview with them (more on that later).

We caught up with some human resources and employee experience pundits to determine what organizations should consider as they conduct stay interviews.

Heighten Awareness of Employee’s Interest, Challenges

Jeff Jokerst, SMG vice president of client insights, said that during a stay interview, one of the primary goals should be to heighten awareness of the following things.

  • What motivates the employee.
  • What type of work interests them.
  • What are their proudest achievements.
  • What challenges are they looking forward to.
  • What aspects of the business would they like to learn more about or have more exposure to.
  • What activities would they like to be more or less involved in.

Jokerst also encouraged a few closed-ended questions about employees' sense of autonomy and their ability to use their strengths. Do they have the resources they need to do their job? Do they have a sense of purpose in their current role? “The blend of open- and close-ended questions gives the manager an opportunity to have a more meaningful dialogue with the employee than they would if they only had numeric responses,” Jokerst said. “Additionally, because the close-ended questions are items that should be asked as part of a comprehensive engagement survey model, it’s very easy to compare individual responses to the organization’s baseline results.”

Related Article: 5 Things Learned from Employee Exit Interviews

Gather Insight into Engagement Level

Buchenroth suggested asking questions that gain a deep insight into what may be holding an employee back in addition to what they like.

  • If you could change one thing about your job to make it more satisfying, what would that be?  
  • If you moved into an entirely different job, what would you miss most about your current role?
  • With a blink of an eye, if you could stop doing one particular task in your job, what would it be?
  • If there is something that might prompt you to consider leaving, what would it be?
  • Do you feel your talents and skills are being fully utilized in your role?  
  • How do you like to be recognized for your work?

Related Article: 7 Tips for Conducting Better Exit Interviews

Ask 'Why Do You Stay?'

Don’t overcomplicate things, said Ben Whitter, founder and CEO of the World Employee Experience Institute. “The biggest question you can ask an employee during a stay interview is, ‘Why do you stay?'” Whitter said. “Let employees do the rest and lead the conversation. Just sit quiet, take notes, and take it all in." 

Whitter added that the first place people go to in finding an employee's answer is often the most important. That, he said, is the information your organization really needs. "But we can follow-up during the meeting with questions that drill-down or elicit more specific and significant points about their overall experience of the organization," Whitter added.

Related Article: The Forgotten Employee Experience: When People Quit

Position Things Informally, Call it a 'Stay Experience'

Whitter said organizations should be cautious about sticking too rigidly to any particular question set. This, he said, can avoid a tick-box type activity. Perhaps avoid calling them “stay interviews,” he added. “If we are truly employee-centric, we would acknowledge that the word 'interview' is not often associated with happy feelings, and this type of exercise should not generate any anxiety or dread with employees who deserve much better than that given they have stayed with the company,” Whitter said. 

Instead, position this meeting as an informal conversation or discussion about their experience as a committed employee and what the organization can learn from this to improve the experience for others. Whitter dubs this type of meeting a "stay experience."

Get ‘High Performers’ In the Door

Jokerst suggested focusing on administering stay interviews to high performers. High performers, he said, can be determined using performance metrics, if available, or by simply asking managers who they couldn’t afford to lose. “Taking this more limited approach,” Jokerst said, “encourages managers to spend more time with the individuals that are going to have the greatest impact on the business.”

Recap What Was Discussed With the Employee

Whoever administers the stay interview should recap what was discussed so the employee feels they’ve been heard, Buchenroth said. This also ensures the accuracy of the feedback that’s been collected. “It’s also important,” Buchenroth said, “to end the discussion on a positive note.”

Related Article: Understanding the Difference Between Employee Experience and Engagement 

Offer New Learning Opportunities, Build Autonomy

What can you do with all the information gathered from your stay interviews? Buchenroth suggested summarizing the top five areas of change that the company could consider addressing from a macro-level. Other actions on the stay-interview data can include offering new learning opportunities and building autonomy through organizational realignment, according to Jokerst.

“Organizations may also want to examine this data as it relates to turnover, especially as it relates to high performing employees,” Jokerst said. ”All too often turnover is evaluated as a single metric rather than a measure that is inherently nuanced. Whether an organization has high or low turnover, the stay interview can provide some excellent clues regarding the steps to take in shoring up the retention of talent throughout the organization.” 

Use Exit Interview Data

If you’re conducting an interview on a specific program or issue, ask tailored questions, especially if the topic has been flagged in exit interviews, said Jennifer Pitts, HR business partner for the Americas at TomTom. She said data from the stay interviews she conducts is shared anonymously with leadership.  “However,” she added, “I’ve found that employees who complete stay interviews will often go to their managers to discuss our conversation and share their ideas, creating another company touchpoint and further engaging the employee. Employees really feel valued when they are asked to provide input, even if their recommendations don’t always get implemented. Like most of us, employees like to be heard.”

Consider Stay Interviews In Lieu of Exit Interviews

Whitter made the case for replacing exit interviews with stay interviews. “Exit interviews are notoriously unreliable as a practice,” he said. “They are often not taken very seriously by employees and employers. Therefore, the data has limited potential for positive impact.”

Data gathered through stay interviews is highly valuable and offers companies the opportunities to recognize patterns or themes that have emerged strongly within employee experience. “This,” Whitter said, “will directly inform and support improvements, proactively prevent potential issues, and helps businesses scale up successful practices across the employee experience.”