How HR can master the art and science of stay interviews
The question "Why are you here?" is not an existential question for employees, but a practical one for retention.
Why are you here? It's not an existential question to ask employees, but a practical one: why do you stay in this job? Asking this question is an important — yet often overlooked — aspect of retention.
Exit interviews gather useful information about why an employee is leaving, but it's typically too late to change an employee's decision to go. In contrast, a stay interview gathers critical insights from employees who (as far as you know) are not planning on leaving, and have definitive reasons to continue with the company.
Digging into this information helps an organization in several ways:
- It establishes a culture of trust between the employee and manager, which can increase job satisfaction, performance and retention;
- It identifies issues to address before they become deal breakers, saving money and time otherwise spent recruiting; and
- It lets the company know its strengths and areas to build upon.
Despite the benefits of a stay interview, few companies do them, but that could change. A Challenger, Grey & Christmas study indicated that only 27% of companies conduct them, and an additional 24% are interested in incorporating them.
What is a stay interview?
A stay interview is a structured conversation, often between a manager and employee, designed to find out how things are going, what pain points the employee is experiencing and what motivates the employee. Broader than a discussion about projects or performance, a stay interview uncovers what's at the root of an employee's decision to remain in a job, and what makes them feel fulfilled.
Companies leading the pack in doing stay interviews are firms that have highly talented people they don't want to lose or are in industries known to have high turnover, such as retail and hospitality, Kim Littlefield, Senior Vice President of Keystone Partners, a career transition and leadership development firm, told HR Dive.
"Companies are aware of the very high cost of turnover. When they lose an employee, it takes up to six to nine months of salary to replace them," Mila Singh, culture strategist for CultureIQ, an employee feedback software platform told HR Dive. Companies are increasingly turning to stay interviews, she said.
Design a process that makes sense — get a sense of the culture, why it’s important, what is the turnover rate and how it affects the business.
CEO of HR Strategy Group
Larger companies may have a more developed program for stay interviews, with a schedule for the conversations to take place periodically — once a year at least, said Littlefield. A stay interview could be conducted as part of a new employee onboarding process, after six to eight months, she said.
"In today’s tight labor market, it's important that managers conduct these frequently because a lot can change quickly," Maureen Hoersten, Chief Operating Officer at LaSalle Network, a national staffing, recruiting and culture firm, told HR Dive.
A stay interview should be done with high potential, critical employees and those who might present a flight risk, but everyone can benefit from a stay interview, Amy Polefrone, CEO of HR Strategy Group, a consulting firm, told HR Dive. Don’t overlook your "Steady Eddie's"— engaging average employees in these types of conversations might lead them to become high performers, she said.
Who should conduct the stay interview?
The right person to conduct a stay interview depends on several factors. Managers have a profound effect on the job satisfaction of employees, so if a manager-employee relationship is already positive, a stay interview conversation could strengthen it. However, the effectiveness of a stay interview relies on being able to be transparent and honest, so if a manager-employee relationship is not good, someone else should handle the interview.
A skip-level manager, HR leaders, a company's organizational development department or an outside consulting firm could conduct stay interviews given the right structure and preparation, experts said.
Making time for stay interviews is essential
For managers who struggle to complete annual performance reviews, adding to the to-do list could create some pushback. But Littlefield suggested considering the cost of not doing stay interviews and losing employees or losing employees faster than expected. On the other hand, if you conduct a stay interview and learn information that is helpful in retention, it's gold, she said.
Littlefield also suggested it may help to conduct stay interviews during a time when the business cycle is slower.
Making sure your stay interview goes well
One of the main questions asked about stay interviews is whether they are effective. It's still a relatively new concept, said Polefrone, so most of the results are anecdotal. There are some encouraging signs, however. Dick Finnegan, CEO of C-Suite Analytics gave examples of effectiveness in his webinar, "The Power of Stay Interviews." According to Finnegan, a Florida hospital and a retirement community each decreased nurse turnover by 70% and a call center decreased agent turnover by 20% by implementing stay interviews.
The best intentions can go awry if the stay interview process isn't well thought out. Here are tips to ensure your stay interview has the desired outcome.
- Be sure the company is committed to this process long-term. If this is just a fad de jour, employees will become disenchanted with your efforts, said Polefrone. "Design a process that makes sense — get a sense of the culture, why it's important, what is the turnover rate and how it affects the business."
- Questions to ask include: What do you look forward to most at work? What are some of the challenges you face? What are you learning here and what else would you like to be learning? What can I do as your manager to help? Is there anything that would tempt you to leave the job? "At the end of the interview, summarize what you've heard, thank the employee and tell them you appreciate their feedback," Singh said. Be sure to outline what the follow up will be, and carry that out.
- Don't be afraid to ask employees questions, either one-on-one or through surveys. Employers sometimes are hesitant to survey employees frequently, thinking employees will get tired of responding, but that's not the case, said Singh. "There’s no such thing as survey fatigue. There's only inaction fatigue."
- Dig deeper to get answers to questions, Hoersten said. "It's easy to ask the initial question but a lot of managers and HR professionals fail when they don't ask follow-up questions to dig down to the problem. Don’t take their answer at face value and move on to check a box," she said.
- Have a way to consolidate the data and provide themes the leadership team can address, Polefrone said.
- Understand that you may receive feedback that surprises you, Singh said. Be open to that, she said. "It's not the manager's job to immediately respond and defend. During the interview, it's more about listening and responding."
- Provide feedback to employees so they know that efforts are being made to address the concerns. Be transparent in your efforts, Polefrone added. If employers ask employees for feedback, be prepared to do something with it. "An enlightened company will listen and explain what we can or cannot do based on what we're hearing," she said.
When it comes down to it, employees are your secret weapon, said Polefrone. "It's so critical in the war for talent," she said. "Companies are pretty darn good at knowing what their customers are doing. Now, it's so important for an enlightened organization to ask — what are we doing well and what can we do better?"