“You've gotta catch them before they're gone for good.”
Nelson Sherwin, HR Manager at PEO Compare, doesn’t get why companies obsess over exit interviews. While they provide insight into why employees are leaving, it’s always too little, too late. Instead, a growing number of People teams, including his, are turning to “stay interviews” to get ahead of turnover.
Stay interviews are one-on-one meetings conducted by managers to determine why employees might be inclined to stay at or leave their company. But while conducting these sounds like a no-brainer given the cost of turnover, adoption still has a long way to go. According to data from Nonprofit HR, just 30% of organizations use stay interviews to retain employees — whereas almost 90% conduct exit interviews.
By getting to the heart of what’s troubling people before they leave, stay interviews complement your existing retention and engagement strategy. Here’s how to implement stay interviews and what questions you should be asking.
While weekly one-on-ones can be used to diagnose retention risks on an ongoing basis, HR experts advised against relying on them as your sole measure of engagement. Honest, open dialogue on job satisfaction and career trajectory doesn’t always fit into your typical (and often tactical) one-on-one agenda.
If you’re just getting started, consider keeping stay interviews separate from manager one-on-ones. Tyler Read, CEO of PTPioneer, has his managers conduct standalone 30-minute stay interviews every quarter. The company also runs semi-annual “listening sessions” with departments that serve as large-scale stay interviews. He finds that granting these conversations their own status means people tend to take them more seriously.
“We have regularly scheduled stay interviews with each of our employees. Every three months we have one-on-one meetings and every six months we have one large group meeting...We find that having these meetings scheduled on a recurring basis ensures that we don't continuously put them off when we're busy,” Read said. “It also signals to new and existing employees that we value their input.”
Another benefit of formal stay interviews is that everyone is asked to participate in them, regardless of their apparent level of engagement. While managers might be inclined to assume employees are content based on verbal and non-verbal cues, stay interviews force them to dig deeper — ensuring it’s not just the squeaky wheels that get the grease.
“We do stay interviews both with heavily engaged employees as well as with those that seem to be lacking motivation, usually before the quarterly review so as to get the full sense of their thoughts before they share it with their managers or other HR team members during the quarterly review,” said Pete Sosnowski, HR Specialist at Zety.
Karen Oakey, Director of HR at Fracture, thinks of stay interviews and one-on-ones as complements to employee surveys. Naturally, most of these questions will look out of place on an engagement or pulse survey. But while those formats provide you with fast, quantifiable results to analyze, stay interviews provide insight into body language, tone, and other nuances that aren’t as apparent in a survey. The medium also facilitates follow-up questions.
“The questions asked cover job satisfaction, career planning, individual and team wins, as well as growth moments. They also ask how the manager or company can better support the employee in their role. This conversational format engages the employee to respond in an organic, authentic, and candid way. The conversational component makes it more effective than surveying alone,” Oakey said.
We asked business and HR leaders to share their top stay interview questions. Themes included career growth, workplace relationships, and manager support. While managers shouldn’t ask all of these at once (most experts suggested 5-7 questions per stay interview), these can be used on a rolling basis during one-on-ones or in follow-up conversations.
While stay interviews are often conducted by managers, that’s not a hard rule. There might be an advantage to having HR step in. Sarah Schoolcraft, People Ops Manager at phData, thinks HR teams tend to get more honest, actionable feedback when they lead the meetings. She also believes the conversation can help bolster the overall rapport between HR and the organization.
“I do stay interviews myself. I find that talking to someone who isn’t their manager, employees tend to be more open. Plus, I have learned so much about their day-to-day which really helps me better support everyone,” Schoolcraft said. What’s more, because HR leaders don’t have a personal stake in the feedback, they’re better equipped to ask tough questions that new or defensive leaders shy away from.
“It allows me to ask follow-up questions while we are talking. Plus, it gives me another ‘in-person’ connection point with them after they have started...I find it reminds people I am a resource for them and it’s ok to come and ask questions,” she said.
Receiving a top performer’s two weeks’ notice shouldn’t feel like a surprise. Of all the retention tools HR teams can turn to, stay interviews might be the easiest to implement. “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, CEO of Nonprofit HR.
Stay interviews represent just one component of a holistic retention strategy. For more tips on preventing turnover and keeping employees engaged, subscribe to the weekly I ♡ Humans newsletter.
* Sample stay interview questions provided by The Ecomm Manager, Coupon Lawn, NuLeaf Naturals, Internet Advisor, Compass Commercial, PEO Compare, Zety, Running Shoe Guru, Call Outdoors, and SurveySensum.