October 06, 2021

Stay interviews: What they are, how to conduct them, and why direct communication will never go out of style

Want to know what keeps people at your company? Ask them.

We’re all familiar with exit interviews as a chance for employees to openly share their experiences working with an organization as they make their way out the door. While this is a vital tool in gathering data to assess what prompts an employee’s exit, it’s too late at that point to retain them.

Enter the stay interview — an opportunity to engage in a one-on-one conversation to ask current employees, “what keeps you here?” long before the employee is even considering leaving. This proactive approach supports the company in getting ahead of potential issues that may cause attrition. It also opens up the lines of communication to build trust, transparency, and psychological safety that keep employees engaged and bringing their whole selves to work. 

In a recent webinar hosted by Lattice, “Strategies for Retention During High Growth and High Turnover,” Adrienne Barnard (SVP, People Operations & Experience at Mainstay) shared how valuable it is to “Give people space to express feelings like anger, frustration, and grief.” When people feel that managers and leaders within their organization are hearing them, they’re more likely to speak up and ask for the support they need. Barnard suggests conducting stay interviews quarterly and keeping them bi-directional as part of an ongoing conversation. “Work is a great place to provide mental health support,” says Barnard, and the only way to find out where your employees are at is by asking them.

Watch: 3 Ways Coaching Improves Employee Retention

Stay interviews earn employee engagement and trust.

In any relationship, if one party isn’t invested in the dynamic, the relationship will crumble. Employees are showing up for work regardless of their personal circumstances, and in the wake of an exceedingly trying 18 months, employees are burning out at an alarming rate. By carving out one-on-one time to ask how your employees are doing and what you can do to support them, you gain their trust, showing that you care about what’s going on in the employee’s world.

Much of the impact of stay interviews is owed to their one-on-one nature. Most similar tools, like engagement surveys, are explicitly looking for trends among a whole employee population. Stay interviews send the message that an employee’s individual experience matters enough to invest time in. They’re an opportunity to get personal with an employee, ask them what they’re excited about when they come to work, who they enjoy working with, and what they need to feel supported in their role. Where exit interviews tend to focus on problems, stay interviews can take a more positive tone and help companies learn from what is working.

The 5 Questions

According to the Society of Human Resources Management, there are five must-ask questions for stay interviews. They are:

1. What do you look forward to each day when you commute (or prepare) to work? 

2. What are you learning here, and what do you want to learn? 

3. Why do you stay here? 

4. When was the last time you thought about leaving us, and what prompted it? 

5. What can I do to make your job better for you? 

Of course, there’s more to a successful interview than just asking the right questions. Consider these principles for conducting an intentional and impactful stay interview.

Ask, and then listen.

“Listen with the same passion with which you want to be heard.”

Harriet Lerner, psychologist

When you ask a stay interview question, be sure to listen intently, not just to what’s said, but what isn’t, and what’s happening between the lines. SHRM suggests listening “80 percent of the time. Enter the meeting with a commitment to ask, listen and only ask again once you’ve digested all you’ve heard.” 

Be transparent.

It’s essential to be transparent about why you’re conducting a stay interview. If you’re introducing stay interviews amid a mass exodus from your organization, employees may respond cynically to what they interpret as a desperate tactic. You can mitigate this by leaning into the discomfort and being forthcoming about your motivations: yes, you want to understand what’s driving attrition, but you also recognize the “stay team” as essential to the organization’s future and want to invest in their continued engagement.

Follow up with action. 

When employees open up and tell you about their experience working at your company, you must be ready to take action in response. The most direct path to failure is if the hard-earned feedback is left on the table, filed away, and forgotten about. Take this valuable information and make an action plan, then communicate it. This doesn’t necessarily mean that the employee will get everything they are asking for. Still, by demonstrating that feedback is being heard, leaders support a culture of feedback, building trust, psychological safety, and greater retention. 

When in doubt, return to basics.

The stay interview isn’t a new concept, but a trusted tool based in direct, two-way communication. If leaders want to know what their employees are thinking or feeling before they make the choice to leave, they have to ask. Stay interviews don’t have to be intimidating for anyone involved. At their core, they’re conversations where one party opens a door for the other to share their perspective. The basics of a compassionate, human-centric approach to work are a great place to start.

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