How to increase employee engagement and retention with ‘stay’ interviews

As most HR professionals understand too well, turnover hurts a company's bottom line, and it also ruins morale for the employees left behind. Workers in the U.S. have an average job tenure of approximately 4.6 years and 45% of employers now expect new college grads to stay less than 2 years.

Most companies and HR professionals are familiar with the concept of an exit interview, which is used to gather feedback on why individuals are leaving, and hope to use this information to fix issues with corporate culture, compensation, or other concerns that may result in the departure of additional staff.

In fact, you would be hard pressed to find a business person who hasn’t participated in an exit interview at some point in their career. But, it’s a better solution to get in front of the reasons for turnover in the first place by implementing stay interviews instead of traditional exit interviews. More and more companies are realizing the usefulness of conducting stay interviews to influence employee retention and reduce turnover.

Learn what your company is doing right

The stay interview is a valuable tool for companies struggling with retention or engagement issues and even for those that are not. It’s an opportunity to speak candidly with staff to find out what they love about their job and the company, and why they stay there. It also presents an opportunity to learn about team and individual best practices, as well as challenges and frustrations.

The data gleaned from the interviews can be used to develop programs and practices that influence employee engagement, retention, job satisfaction, and company culture.  In many cases, just doing the interviews boosted employee’s impressions of the company, as they were happy to be given the attention and opportunity to share feedback and be heard.

When and how to conduct stay interviews

Stay interviews should be conducted once or twice a year and should include everyone from entry level to senior management. It is ideal for a company to bring in an objective, neutral third-party to begin the process of the stay interview, since people are often more willing to be open and honest about their concerns with someone outside the organization.

An outside firm will typically talk to a representation from the entire company or a specific target area of the key high-performers. Before starting the process, it is imperative that there is good communication from inside about what is happening, why you are doing it, and what will come next.  Questions should be direct, open, and designed to illicit sincere feedback. 

Ask the right questions in order to make the right changes

Stay interviews should dig deeper than the usual questions asked in exit interviews, which tend to focus on severance, the office environment, and policies; rather than more significant engagement questions, and discovering what motivates employees.

You want to find out what excites people about their roles and the company.  Is this consistent with how they felt when they first started, and if not, what has changed?   Are there any areas of their current job they dislike so much that they might be tempted to leave?  What do they think they might find elsewhere that would be a better fit or more engaging for them?

10 questions to ask in the stay interview

  1. The last time you went home and said, “I had a great day, I love my job”, what had happened that day?
  2. The last time you went home and said, “That’s it, I can’t take it anymore,” what had happened that day?
  3. If you switched careers, what would you miss the most?
  4. What do you like most about your team?
  5. What demotivates you most about working on your team?
  6. What is really different at this company that makes you proud to be an employee?
  7. What demotivates you most about working for the company?
  8. What did you love in your last position or company that you’re not doing now?
  9. Is your manager effective?  (If so, what do they do that you value most?  If not, what could they be doing more of, less of, or differently?)
  10. If you could afford to retire tomorrow, what would you miss most about your job?

Using the feedback to make real changes

After the interview, it’s important to have a team and plan in place to implement ideas and suggested changes that come from these discussions. As an organization, you also must show that you're taking feedback seriously and using it to improve the workplace.

If you're conducting these on a consistent basis, then people will get used to them. And if you're actually making improvements as a result of the feedback, then employees will begin to trust the company is taking their input seriously and working to improve company issues. Managers need to be held accountable for sustaining changes that are the result of the stay interview.

Implement into your corporate culture

Done right, stay interviews can be a vital part of a more comprehensive engagement and retention strategy for organizations trying to reverse the flow of departures. It is important to implement stay interviews within the first 6 months of employment and make it a constant part of the culture so you can identify what factors are influencing turnover and not letting that get ahead of you.

If you think you can wait until the exit interview to get the same information, you may be correct. However, it will be too late to leverage that data to keep the employees who provided it.