Stay Interviews: A Retention Strategy for Forward Thinking Organizations

Has anybody ever thought about the logic of asking people why they are leaving when they have already one foot out the door? I remember during an exit interview, when they asked me why I was leaving, part of me wanted to say, "Geez, because my manager is such a hypocrite that I would rather be boiled in hot oil than have to work with her another day." Luckily, I knew better. Why burn a bridge? No, I gave some answer about wanting to move on, etc. My only thought was a wish that somebody (other than my manager) had asked me this sort of question while I was there, and maybe I could have stayed within the consulting firm in a different area. Oh well, c’est la vie!

As a human resource professional, ask yourself if anybody ever stopped during an exit interview and said, "Wow, now that I told you that, I am ready to go back to work." The answer is no. Likewise, have you ever heard something during an exit interview and thought, "If I only knew that, we could have rectified the situation and not lost this person." The answer to that one is probably yes. The truth is that on the last day, when employees are leaving they will likely tell you what’s politically correct or what you want to hear, or they’ll tell you they are moving for more money.

There is, however, an answer to exit interviews. Replace them with stay interviews!

If you are the human resources manager for a good organization, you will have a comprehensive orientation/onboarding process, and you may go the extra mile to have mentors in place for your new employees and ongoing employees. But, if you are like a lot of organizations, you invest time upfront but once you have the person on board, you leave success up to the supervisor/manager who may be part of the problem. As everybody knows, the reason that close to 80 percent of people leave an organization is because of conflict in the workplace (manager, peers, ethics). By asking people what they like about their jobs, what might convinve them to leave, what they need to succeed, etc., you can often times find where the issues are before it is too late and not only keep the employees but engage them as well.

Why Do They Stay?

The degree to which people stay in their organizations is strongly related to being provided with what they really want. What people want hasn’t changed much over time. The top three retention drivers (over a long period of time) are:

  • Exciting work and challenge
  • Career growth, learning and development
  • Working with great people and having good relationships

The most positive and proactive approach to finding out what people want is to ask them while they are still there. Stay interviews are a great tool to have regular discussion meetings to chart progress on your relationship, development, the work, the work environment and how things are going in general. This can easily be done as part of the performance review process. This process will also help you get a good grip on your organizational culture and your employees’ needs.

Ideally this process should be done with everybody and can easily be incorporated into the performance appraisal process. If this is not practical, then look at your demographics. What category of employees are you having retention issues with? Do you lose employees who have less than five years of experience with you? Do you lose employees in specific occupational areas or in organizational units? If you do, then you have work to do to put corrections in place. Do you have areas or groupings where you continually retain quality employees? Find out what is happening in these areas and replicate what they do. If you need to change leadership styles or the work environment, it is worth the effort. It is worth the time to develop good performance systems, good communication processes and good relationships.

Don’t save your best employee conversations for an exit interview. Have those conversations on an ongoing basis. Ask now what would get them to stay and put these things in place. Help your employees to feel cared about, valued and important. Help your organization to foster loyalty and commitment to you and the organization. This is a necessary part of your retention strategy.

This article was co-written with my colleague Bonnie Nixon.