3 tips for successful 'stay' interviews

Exit interviews come too late to retain valuable employees. Here's how to gather actionable feedback you can use to decrease turnover and improve engagement -- before workers decide to leave.

3 male and female executives sitting in office shaking hands and interviewing
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A "stay interview" is similar in intent to its cousin, the exit interview: to gather feedback from employees about their experiences in the workplace, both positive and negative, to determine areas for improvement. There's one key difference, however -- timing. Stay interviews are performed much earlier in an employees' tenure to measure engagement and satisfaction, in the hopes of reducing the chance that talent will leave for better opportunities.

"It's very similar in intent to an exit interview, it's just done earlier rather than later - or when it's too late for that feedback to make a difference," says Erin Pappo, client services director for workforce management and consulting firm Camden Consulting. The purpose of a stay interview is to get employers and employees thinking about what's important to them in the workplace, what makes them stay, what factors could entice them to leave and build more effective strategies for engagement and retention, Pappo says.

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Timing is everything

If you're trying to get a handle on turnover using stay interviews, there are a few things to remember. First, stay interviews should be performed early and often. "You can start as early as an employee's first year with your company. We interviewed our own people, in our own organization and found that somewhere around the second year of employment was when many started to look around and consider other opportunities," Pappo says.

They also should be performed often. Once a year isn't going to cut it. You have to make stay interviews a constant so that there's a continuous feedback loop and continuous improvement, otherwise, employees won't believe you're taking them, or their feedback, seriously, she notes.

If you're implementing stay interviews, don't expect change to happen instantly, Pappo says -- it takes time to build trust within and organization, and you have to show that you're genuinely interested in feedback and that you're taking it seriously to address problem areas.

"If you start doing these on a regular basis, then people get used to them, and they'll start to open up. You have to give it time, especially if your organization hasn't seemed concerned about these issues in the past. And you have to take visible action based on their feedback, so people know you're actually taking this seriously and working to improve," Pappo says.

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Ask for third-party help

Identify why you're considering implementing stay interviews, and also what you hope to achieve, says Pappo. This is where it's critical to be honest about your organization's problems, areas for improvement and its strengths -- if you're just paying lip service to engagement and retention strategies, nothing's going to work. You must be committed to the process, she says.

It can help to bring in an objective, neutral third-party to help develop a structure and a plan for conducting stay interviews, gathering and analyzing the feedback and then acting on it, Pappo says. "First, you have to identify why you want to work on this. Is there a glaring culture issue? Are you seeing high turnover somewhere, but you can't get an honest answer as to why? We work with HR teams and senior leadership teams to set an overall strategy, first, and then we help gather qualitative and quantitative data about people's positives and negatives so businesses can make better use of their strengths," she says.

Many people are more apt to be honest and open with a third-party observer, which can result in better, more useful feedback. Make sure everyone in your organization is aware that their input is confidential and will be anonymous, and that no specifics about them will be revealed. Once the data is in and it's analyzed, organizations have a better view of the 'big picture,' and can see where they should expend efforts.

stay interview questions

"Once we find out why people love working there, why others don't, and what factors might encourage people to leave, then we can suggest next steps. For example, if we find a theme around a lack of professional growth opportunities, we can suggest more training and development budgets, or additional skills classes," she says.

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Ask the right questions

Stay interviews should dig deeper than the usual questions you ask in exit interviews, which tend to focus on benefits, the office environment, compensation and policies, rather than more substantial engagement questions, and discovering what motivates your workforce, says Pappo.

"You want to find out what excited people about their roles, about the company when they were first employed? How has that changed over time? What did they find most attractive when they first started? What do they find most attractive now? Why are you proud to be an employee? Or why not? What might tempt you to leave?" she says.

Done right, stay interviews can be an important part of a larger engagement and retention strategy for organizations trying to stem the tide of attrition. Soliciting open, honest and continuous feedback and committing to change for the better can help keep your valuable talent from leaving, and can help you identify problem areas before turnover becomes a problem.

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