Conduct Stay Interviews for High-Potential Employees

By Bob Nelson

To influence employee attrition and reduce employee turnover, managers must measure employee job satisfaction and engagement on an ongoing basis. Enter the stay interview — a new strategy that companies are turning to in force. These interviews give employers a chance to have conversations with high-potential employees about what they like and don’t like about their current jobs and what would keep them in those jobs longer.

Robert Half International found the number one reason employees leave organizations is because they aren’t given recognition for the work they do. Not asking how they are doing in their job and what could make things better may be number two.

Asking the right questions in a stay interview

Beverly Kaye and Sharon Jordan-Evans, authors of a book about stay interviews entitled Hello Stay Interviews, Goodbye Talent Loss: A Managers Playbook (Berrett-Koehler Publishers) recommend that managers conduct stay interviews early and often, especially with their best employees, those they most want to keep. The act of taking time to focus on the employee demonstrates the value you see in that person, and asking open-ended questions allows you to better learn about that person.

For example, the question, “What about your job makes you jump out of bed in the morning?” immediately conjures an image of excitement and gets the employee thinking about why he or she is excited about going to work. It’s an unexpected question about job satisfaction, and it can elicit some fascinating responses: “The project I’m working on” or “I love my colleagues (or customers)!” A manager stands to learn more about their employees just by asking this probing question.

“What makes you hit the snooze button?” is the flip side of the initial question. It’s a safe way to ask employees what they do not like as much about their jobs. Employees can answer this question in many ways: “I’m just not an early morning person,” might be one way. In this case, perhaps the manager could provide a little flexibility regarding that person’s start time. Another talented employee said he dreaded Monday morning staff meetings and, therefore, delayed his trek to work for as long as possible. Could that staff meeting be shorter or made to be more fun?

Here are some other sample questions Bev and Sharon recommend asking:

  • What are you passionate about?

  • What’s your dream job?

  • If you changed your role completely, what would you miss the most?

  • If you won the lottery and didn’t have to work, what would you miss?

  • What did you love in your last position that you’re not doing now?

  • What makes for a great day at work?

  • If you had a magic wand, what would be the one thing you would change about your work, your role and your responsibilities?

  • What do you think about on your way to work?

  • What’s bothering you most about your job?

Probing for understanding in a stay interview

Just asking the open-ended questions is only part of the process. Managers need to truly listen to the answers and encourage employees — verbally and nonverbally— to share more. As you probe for additional information, you’re trying to answer questions such as, “Does he want a chance to learn something new?” “Does she want visibility with the senior team?” “Is he ready to manage his own project?” and so forth.

Be careful not to react negatively to what you hear; otherwise, you can shut the person down. This is a time of exploration, and the mood needs to be one of openness, trust, and sharing.

According to Bev and Sharon, the top “stay factors” are work that is exciting, challenging, or meaningful; recognition, respect, and being valued; supportive management/a good boss; the potential for career growth, learning, and development; job location; job security and stability; fair pay and good benefits; flexible work environment; pride in the organization and its mission or product; a fun, enjoyable work environment; working with great coworkers or clients; feeling loyalty and commitment to coworkers or boss.

Addressing stay interview challenges

The most common fear managers express about stay interviews is that employees will ask for a promotion or a raise that isn’t in the budget. That’s an unfounded fear. “We’ve had very few stay interviews come in with pay being the thing that makes them stay or want to leave,” says Webroot human resources director Melanie Williams. “There were not any requests that we haven’t been able to fulfill.”

If an employee does bring up pay or a promotion or something else that’s out of the scope of a manager’s control, the manager should answer truthfully. If you have a budget constraint, say so. If the person is asking for a job they don’t have the skills to do, talk about what training opportunities are available to that person.

Bev Kaye suggests, “You can say, ‘Salaries are frozen, or that job isn’t open, but what I really want to do is find things under my control so I can make sure you’re getting what you want and what you need. So what else matters to you?’ You’ll get seven to ten things that are in your control.”

Stay interviews create other challenges as well for managers and HR professionals. Sometimes questions uncover unpleasant truths, such as bad feelings toward executive management or employees that don’t know about career paths because they’ve never logged into the HR portal. Accountability for responding to these issues can also pose a challenge, particularly for organizations where employees and managers are already stretched for time and feel overcommitted.

Do stay interviews really work?

Stay interviews can be effective for reducing turnover of key employees. Webroot Software, a Broomfield, Colorado, internet security product development company, implemented stay interviews at a time when the 400-employee company was particularly vulnerable to employee attrition — the period immediately following a recent reduction in force. “We’ve done other RIFs, and employee turnover has always spiked,” says Williams. “Since our RIF in August, we’ve seen our turnover tick down by a steady 1/10th of a percent each month.”

One reason is that the information collected by stay interviews is more actionable than secondary source information, like engagement surveys, because it’s specific and forward-facing. Williams says, “You’re not filtering through a survey trying to guess what did they mean by that comment or how did they interpret that question?” She adds, “We’ve gotten feedback from every individual in the organization. We had a 64 percent response to our engagement survey.”

Stay interviews can also provide valuable data to supplement employee engagement surveys and exit interview metrics to improve engagement in the organization. As such, they can be essential part of your recruitment and staffing strategy that focuses on employee retention. Adding stay interviews to your recruitment strategies can help your organization retain critical employees.