A Talk Before They Walk

Ideally, exit interviews arm a company with valuable information that might help reduce turnover.

By definition, though, an exit interview is done when a worker has committed to leaving. Which raises an obvious question: What could have been done to keep that employee from seeking other opportunities in the first place?

The "stay interview" is designed to do just that. And it seems many organizations are using them as a preemptive measure to gain insight into what employees want -- before it's too late.   

"More and more companies are realizing that a better strategy is to collect feedback on a regular basis from existing employees, in order to make changes and improvements to retain talent and reduce turnover," says Erin Pappo, client services director at Boston-based Camden Consulting Group.

Some new data from Challenger, Gray & Christmas suggest just such a trend is developing.

The Chicago-based outplacement and executive coaching firm recently polled about 100 HR executives. It found 27 percent of respondents saying their organizations already conduct stay interviews, while another 24 percent said their companies plan to start doing so in the near future.

Unlike exit interviews, stay interviews "give employers the opportunity to correct any potential issues before talent leaves," says John Challenger, CEO of Challenger, Gray & Christmas.

These issues could concern talent management, resource allocation, general corporate culture or "anything that might impact engagement," says Challenger.

"The outcome of these interviews should hopefully boost productivity and morale, as well as better connect employees to their positions, co-workers, managers and the company overall."

Pappo advocates doing stay interviews on a regular basis, "at least once or twice a year." While "it's a good idea" for managers to sit down with employees across the organization, stay interviews "often target either a representation of the entire population or a target segment that is most critical, i.e., high performers, new hires or employees in vital roles."

Historically, employers "have often been passive with respect to their high-performing employees," says Ann Paulins, a professor and senior associate dean of research and graduate studies at Ohio University's Gladys W. and David H. Patton College of Education.

Stay interviews "are a tool that enables companies to reach out to their top performers and proactively communicate their desires to have the employees stay," she says. "The implementation of stay interviews allow employers to reach out to people they want to retain and empower those employees to leverage their status as valuable members of the organization through sharing their perceptions of benefits and merits of their employment."

These talks shouldn't be limited to standouts and superstars, however, as a fruitful stay interview might also provide an underwhelming worker with the boost he or she needs to step up their performance.

"Stay interviews can help employers understand the motives and work situations of employees who are not top performers," says Paulins. She also recommends starting these conversations as early as an employee's first year on the job, to help assess his or her fit with the organization.

"Stay interviews can provide forums for revising work activities – to better align with struggling or underperforming employees – or encouraging the employee to rethink the fit between the current job and his or her career goals."

Regardless of the individual's role or past performance, the questions managers and HR leaders ask in stay interviews should be geared toward "finding out what really engages and motivates employees [with respect to] their roles and the company," says Pappo.

For example, she recommends asking employees to recollect the last "great day" they had on the job and specify what made it special. Or, conversely, Pappo suggests asking interviewees to recall a particularly bad experience at work and what made it so unpleasant.

Other questions, for example, should encourage workers to share what they like best about their position, what duties they enjoy performing, what additional resources would make their job easier, and whether they're satisfied with their immediate manager and company leadership, says Challenger.

"The key," says Pappo, "is finding out what things are most important to them and make them want to stay with the company, and what things might lure them away."

One sure way to see an employee slip through the organization's fingers is to ignore the valuable information that he or she provides in the course of a stay interview.

 As is the case with exit interviews, "the biggest pitfall that companies may face with conducting stay interviews is asking the questions, but not doing anything with the information received," says Pappo.

"It can be really discouraging for employees to feel that they've taken the time to share their feedback, and then not see any action," she continues, adding that setting stay-interview expectations in advance "is critical to the process."

HR leaders and managers should also avoid looking at stay interviews as one-time events, says Pappo, noting that gathering continuous feedback and – importantly – making ongoing improvements will inevitably improve long-term employee engagement and retention.

However often stay interviews occur, managers and HR leaders must ultimately be willing to face not-always-pleasant realities during these discussions, and should strongly encourage employees to shoot straight as well.

"In order to really get at the heart of what matters to an employee, it is sometimes necessary to ask tough questions and be accepting of what are likely to be tough answers," says Challenger, adding that managers should impress upon employees "that any negative opinions they might express won't be used against them or harm their status in any way."

The employer "must set the tone for the interview and assure employees that no topic is off limits," he says. "They must do this through their words and, more importantly, through their actions."