Employee Engagement

Everything You Need to Know About Stay Interviews

February 7, 2024
March 8, 2024
Sarah Lindenfeld Hall and Emma Stenhouse
Lattice Team

This year, 95% of employees are searching for or plan to search for a new role, according to a January 2024 Monster poll of US workers. But employee turnover is costly, which means retention-boosting initiatives are up for discussion within many people teams.

Of all the retention strategies you can turn to — like engagement surveys and loyalty programs — stay interviews may be among the easiest to implement. Maybe that’s why research from human resources firm Nonprofit HR found that the use of stay interviews increased from 33% in 2022 to 46% in 2023.

Usually conducted between an employee and their manager or HR team member, stay interviews focus on one topic: why someone stays in their job. If you’re yet to take advantage of this tactic, here’s how stay interviews can benefit your organization and your people. 

What are stay interviews?

Stay interviews, sometimes called stay conversations, are one-on-one meetings with employees and their manager or an HR team member to discover what would get an employee to stay at the company. The goal of stay interviews is to uncover and address what’s not going well and what challenges exist or may lie ahead, explained Christine Render, founder and CEO of talent management firm ScaleUp Coaching & Consulting.

This information can then be used to fix the root of employee dissatisfaction before it leads employees to search for a new job. “While the vast majority of companies don’t have a formal retention strategy at all, stay interviews are low-hanging fruit that can be used to mitigate dissatisfaction, disengagement, and ultimately, departure,” said Lisa Brown Alexander, president and CEO of Nonprofit HR.

Stay interviews give you a look into what you are doing great, why your best employees stay with you, and what could make an employee leave.

Stay interviews aren’t the same as exit interviews — which are conducted once an employee has handed in their notice. Instead of focusing on why an employee is leaving the company, the goal of these check-ins is to uncover if there are any ways their work experience can be improved — before they feel tempted to hand in their notice. 

And while some of those insights might turn up in routine one-on-ones or engagement surveys, employees may be less inclined to share their concerns unless they’re specifically asked the right questions during stay interviews.

“Depending on their personality, depending on the culture of the company — what they think is okay or not, what the norms feel like to them — [employees] may not proactively volunteer that information,” Render said. “But, if asked, they might be more comfortable to do it.”

Unlike performance reviews, which focus on objectives and outcomes, stay interviews focus on feelings. To make sure you get valuable feedback, keep the stay interview process separate from wider discussions around performance. Stay interviews should ideally feel more informal, and act as a chance for employees to honestly discuss the good and the bad about their role.

Benefits of Stay Interviews

Managers have the power to shape their team’s experiences. Research from a 2022 global McKinsey survey on attrition and attraction found that uncaring and uninspiring leaders were one of the top three reasons respondents gave for leaving their jobs. 

Effective stay interviews are one way for managers to show they care — by honestly listening to their team’s opinions. And when correctly implemented, the benefits of stay interviews can cascade across an organization, boosting employee retention rates and sparking positive changes that improve the employee experience.

Here are three of the top benefits. 

1. Workforce Retention 

Showing you care about an employee’s opinions and aspirations helps support retention, which is why in a 2022 Paychex survey of 1,000 HR decision-makers in the US, 27% said they use stay interviews. 

Research from Gallup also shows that 52% of employees who choose to leave their jobs feel their manager, or the company, could have stopped them if they’d done something about it. 

What might that something look like? A stay interview is a good place to start. These conversations focus on the individual employee experience, rather than the wider interpretation of what all employees want. 

Using stay interview questions designed to uncover exactly what an employee loves, likes, and dislikes about their current position, employers can take proactive action — from revising an annoying workplace procedure to ensuring an employee gets the upskilling they desire — to keep individuals on the job. 

Unlike an exit interview, which only catches departing employees, everyone is asked to participate in formal stay interviews, regardless of their apparent level of engagement. While managers might be inclined to assume current employees are content based on verbal and nonverbal cues in day-to-day interactions, stay interviews force team leaders to dig deeper — ensuring it’s not just the squeaky wheels that get the grease. 

2. Big-Picture Insights

Stay interviews are invaluable for gathering insights about the experience of individual employees, but they’re also an effective way to capture issues and pain points that may be on the verge of sparking attrition across teams or departments. They can also uncover small changes that will make groups of workers even happier. 

Employees who are psychologically disconnected from their workplaces and thus minimally productive — “quiet quitters” — make up 59% of the global workforce, according to Gallup. And Gallup identifies this group as a huge missed opportunity for growth and change. 

But often, quiet quitters are never asked about what needs to change so they can thrive and perform at work. Stay interviews offer the perfect opportunity to create this dialogue and identify what support they need. 

As an example, at Narwhal Capital Management, an investment advisory firm, stay interviews have prompted leaders to update policies like parental leave and gather ideas to bolster company culture, said Natalie Rogers, Narwhal’s director of client service and operations. “Stay interviews give you a look into what you are doing great, why your best employees stay with you, and what could make an employee leave,” she said.

3. Better Engagement and Motivation 

There are five main drivers of employee engagement, as identified by Gallup:

  1. Purpose 
  2. Development 
  3. A caring manager 
  4. Ongoing conversations 
  5. A focus on strengths

Purpose, professional development, and strengths are often covered by performance management reviews, career development plans, or workplace goals like OKRs. 

Ongoing conversations with a caring manager can be harder to accomplish. But when done right, stay interviews can send a strong message to workers that they matter, that their manager cares, and that their thoughts and ideas are taken seriously. 

They also can ensure that employees have the tools they need to thrive on the job — including appropriate training, flexible working policies, and clear performance expectations — which can bolster flagging employee morale.

“The simple act of conducting a stay discussion can boost a team member’s engagement because of the time and attention their leader is investing in them,” Render said. “Additionally, a stay discussion may be more meaningful to a team member because it is more customized than an employee engagement survey — it signifies their leader cares about them and their individual perspective.” 

How to Conduct a Stay Interview 

Stay interviews should become part of your ongoing engagement strategy, but during the first few rounds, it’s important to clearly explain the purpose and methodology behind this process, including:

  • Who will conduct the stay interviews (usually managers or HR)
  • Who will receive them (ideally, all employees)
  • How long they’ll last (an hour is usually enough time)
  • How often they’ll be carried out (aim for twice per year)
  • What will happen afterward

Once that’s covered, it’s time to talk. 

Opening the Interview 

Bill Catlette, founder and managing partner at Contented Cow Partners, a leadership and employee engagement firm, recommended starting stay interviews with a clarification that this is a “happy discussion.”

“[I tell the employee] that I'm pleased to have them on the team and want to stay attuned to things that keep them here, and conversely, things that might convince them to consider leaving, so we can prevent that from happening,” Catlette explained.

Asking the Right Questions 

Stay interview questions can follow different paths, depending on the employee and the organization. Themes often cover career growth, workplace relationships, and manager support. 

Get some inspiration from these questions, shared by business and HR leaders:

  1. What do you look forward to when you come to work?
  2. What do you like most/least about your current role?
  3. Have you been able to maintain a positive work-life balance? If not, what needs to change?
  4. If you could change something about your job or work environment, what would that be?
  5. Do you feel safe and supported at work? If not, is there anything we can do to make you feel safer?
  6. How do you like to be recognized for your achievements?
  7. Do you feel your advancement within the company has been encouraged?
  8. Have you been provided with a clear career growth path?
  9. How can the company improve transparency with our employees?
  10. If you could change one thing about morale, what would it be? 

Rather than stick to a prescribed list of questions, managers should adjust and adapt their questions in line with each employee’s responses. 

Download our Stay Interview Template for more conversation prompts and questions. 

Closing the Interview

Before finishing the interview, it’s important to ask employees if they have any questions or if there’s anything else they’d like to cover. Make sure you also explain what happens next. 

Use this example dialogue for inspiration: 

Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts with me. I appreciate your honest and open attitude. Is there anything else you’d like to cover before we finish?

In summary, your reasons for staying at [company name] are, X, Y, and Z. Is that accurate?

My role now is to develop a stay plan, to help support you in the best way possible. I’ll share my findings by [date], and I’d like to revisit this process by [date]. I’ll also be working to uncover any wider trends around why people remain at [company name], and what we can do to make your experience here as rewarding as possible. 

Stay Interview Best Practices 

While asking employees what they love about their job sounds easy enough, employers can get stay interviews wrong if they don’t follow best practices. Here are seven practices that experts recommend. 

1. Plan ahead. 

Don’t spring stay interviews on employees without warning. Instead, give them plenty of notice of what to expect. If you haven’t implemented stay interviews before, send out company-wide communication that clearly explains what will happen and why. Mention how often these interviews will be held, which is usually once every six months.

Once launched, stay interviews should be scheduled with all employees. While it might be tempting to only offer them to a specific subset of employees, this can create division and resentment. You might choose to schedule interviews with those who are at higher risk of leaving first, including new hires and high-performing employees

2. Ask questions early. 

Catlette recommended scheduling the first stay interview not long after a new hire has started on the job. An early stay interview can uncover issues in the onboarding process, send a message to new employees that the employer cares, and set the tone for a regular cadence of stay interviews in the future.

“The [employer-employee] relationship is particularly fragile in the very early days and weeks,” Catlette pointed out. “It’s much more likely to break [early on] than it is after two years. So I want to know what’s working for [employees] and what’s not [from the beginning].” 

3. Make it a conversation. 

During stay interviews, Catlette recommended focusing on creating a personable two-way conversation that encourages open communication and honest feedback.

In the same vein, Render prefers to call them “stay discussions,” not interviews. Leaders should be prepared with effective questions, but avoid “stick-to-the-script tunnel vision,” she said. To gather truly valuable and actionable input, leaders must probe and ask follow-up questions based on the feedback the team member is sharing, Render advised. And team members should always be invited to raise topics and ask questions, too. 

Don’t bombard employees with dozens of questions all at once, either. Most experts suggested asking only five to seven questions per stay interview. Interrogating workers may just turn them off. 

4. Take action.

Just as with any other type of effort to measure engagement, asking employees what they need — but then taking no action on that honest feedback — can breed distrust among workers. After all, if they’ve taken the time to provide their insights, employees can become resentful if it appears that their efforts were in vain.

“Conducting stay interviews means action should be taken afterward,” said Jenna Estlick, vice president of HR interim solutions at recruiting firm Versique. “If a leader takes the time to research what improvements can be made to keep people on board and nothing happens, the results can be the opposite, creating friction within the workforce and making employees want to leave for lack of effort from the leadership team.”

And if you can’t make a requested change, explain why, advised Render. That transparency will go a long way in building employee trust.

5. Include it in your engagement strategy.

While weekly one-on-ones between managers and their direct reports can be used to diagnose retention risks on an ongoing basis, HR experts advise against relying on them as your sole measure of engagement. Honest, open dialogue about job satisfaction and career trajectory doesn’t always fit into the typical (and often tactical) one-on-one agenda.

Karen Oakey, head of people at Soda Health, a healthcare technology company, thinks of stay interviews and one-on-ones as complements to employee surveys. Most of the questions you ask during a stay interview would be out of place on an engagement or pulse survey. But while those formats give you fast, quantifiable results to analyze, stay interviews provide additional insights through an employee’s body language, tone, and other nuances that aren’t apparent in a survey. The medium also facilitates follow-up questions.

“This conversational format engages the employee to respond in an organic, authentic, and candid way,” Oakey said. “The conversational component makes it more effective than surveying alone.”

6. Involve HR.

Direct managers who have deep knowledge of their employees’ daily activities and needs often conduct stay interviews. But your people team may get more honest employee feedback.

Sarah Schoolcraft, HR policy and program manager at Fortra and an RfH Ambassador, thinks people teams are better equipped to ask tough questions because they don’t have a personal stake. What’s more, the conversation can help bolster the overall rapport between HR and the workforce, Schoolcraft said. 

“I find that talking to someone who isn’t their manager, employees tend to be more open,” noted Schoolcraft. “Plus, I have learned so much about [employees’] day-to-day [experience], which really helps me better support everyone.”

But even if managers do conduct stay interviews, it’s important to keep HR in the loop. There may be key themes highlighted in the stay interviews of multiple employees, and as Schoolcraft mentioned, knowing about these themes helps your people team know what to focus on. 

7. Build a follow-up plan.

After your initial meeting, the conversation must continue. Managers and HR need to act on the feedback provided, by establishing action items and next steps. 

It’s a good idea to make note of any relevant talking points and add them to your next one-on-one, in addition to any changes that can be made right away. Managers should also compare insights to feedback from the rest of their team, to identify if any patterns exist. 

Implementing a Successful Stay Interview Strategy 

Just like taxes, change is inevitable. So it’s no surprise that over time, employees’ needs evolve. “Usually [that change is] slow, and companies can see what’s coming,” said Estlick. 

“But over the last couple of years, things have changed really quickly in terms of what’s important to employees and what expectations are. By having stay interviews or incorporating stay interview questions [into other interactions], companies can stay on top of the trends.”

By regularly scheduling stay interviews, and listening to any trends highlighted, your company can make proactive changes that boost employee satisfaction, and keep your people feeling good about coming to work.

Ready for more conversation around what drives your employees? Gather the insights you need to boost retention with Lattice Engagement.