How to increase employee retention with ‘stay’ interviews

How to increase employee retention with ‘stay’ interviews
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Savvy organizations are using 'stay interviews' as part of their IT talent retention strategy. Here's how to get it right.

High turnover hurts a company's bottom line, and it also ruins morale for the employees left behind. Since 2012, attrition has been a huge problem for IT companies, and finding ways to stem the tide is increasingly important as turnover rates continue to rise.

Most companies use exit interviews to gather feedback about a resigning worker's reasons for leaving, hoping they can use that information to address culture, compensation or other issues that may motivate others to leave.

But what if you could head off the problem before it starts? Erin Pappo, client services director for Camden Consulting, says many companies are starting to address attrition problems by using "stay interviews" as part of their retention strategy.

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Taming turnover

"The purpose of a 'stay interview' is similar to that of an exit interview, but the goal is to start building strategies for retention and engagement before employees become dissatisfied and look for other opportunities. One of the biggest complaints about exit interviews is that they ask the right questions at the wrong time -- by the time companies get there, it's too little, too late," says Pappo.

Pappo says Camden Consulting's clients report attrition starts to become an issue at about the two-year mark; that's when workers start to look around for better opportunities. Stay interviews are about identifying what makes those opportunities "better" and bringing those factors into their own organization to retain valuable talent.

"In both exit and stay interviews, the point is to go deeper into workers' motivations. What's important to them in a job? Why would you stay? Why would you leave? What were you excited about when you first started? How has that changed over time? The difference is to find out this information at the very beginning of an employees' tenure so that their needs are addressed, and hopefully they'll stay longer," Pappo says.

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Getting stay interviews right

Central to this strategy is making sure engagement and retention strategies, including stay interviews, are a constant in the workplace. If you're simply adding a meeting once a year, you're not making the connections and fostering constant, honest and open communication, says Marcus Buckingham, founder and chairman of workplace management consultancy The Marcus Buckingham Company (TMBC).

"Cadence is everything. If anything you're doing is a once-a-year thing, it's always suspect -- and employees know this. If you've got a whole bunch of managers sitting around once a year trying to figure this out, they're going to be crap at it. The mastery comes with repeated practice, and a demonstrable commitment to engagement and growth. Honestly, your entire culture should be built around constant 'stay interviews,'" Buckingham says.

As an organization, you also must show that you're taking feedback seriously and using it to make the workplace better, Pappo says. "If you're doing this on a regular basis, then people get used to it. And if you're actually moving on the feedback, then people start to trust that you are really taking their input seriously and working toward addressing their concerns. It's important to start this early and make it a constant part of the culture so you can keep a pulse on what is happening, identify what factors are influencing turnover and not letting that get ahead of you," she says.

Bringing in an objective, neutral third-party to begin the process can help, since people are often more willing to be open and honest about their concerns with someone outside the organization,  according to Pappo.

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Practice makes perfect

While at first the process might be structured, with practice it can become an integral part of your organization's culture. In fact, it's something the best managers and executives already do, even without a formal name for the practice, says Buckingham.

"The best managers know this instinctively -- that you already can predict whether or not people will stay by gauging their responses to some simple questions: Can I use my strengths every day? Do I use my strength every day? Can I grow? We've found that these questions consistently trump every other consideration -- money, rewards, recognition -- as the motivations for employees to continue with a company," Buckingham says.

Though stay interviews can be a great way to jump-start your organization's retention and engagement strategy, they shouldn't be the one and only attempt to improve engagement.

"The best managers are focused on 're-hiring' their best people -- which means a constant attention to their workers' three basic needs: know me, focus me, grow me. If you're always paying attention in this way, you're going to notice and address issues constantly and constructively, and that's why your people will stay," Buckingham says.

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