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The Stay Interview

In a Q & A with HRE, the authors of a new book argue that stay interviews with current employees yield more helpful retention insight for organizations than exit interviews currently do.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015
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During the late 90s, Beverly Kaye was consulting for a large company that had 38 people on its SAP team whom it was very interested in retaining. So Kaye asked the team members two questions: What could the company do to keep you, and what would entice you to leave the company?

The No. 1 thing that would entice them away, she learned, was if their next assignment following the global SAP implementation wasn't as challenging as that one had been. Kaye followed up by asking each team member what, in particular, they found challenging about the implementation and what sort of work they found most rewarding. Ultimately, 36 out of the 38 ended up staying with the company.

"All the managers said 'We never thought of doing this!'" she says. "When we asked them when managers asked employees what they could do to keep them, they replied 'During exit interviews.' "

Kaye-founder and CEO of Moosic, Pa.-based Career Systems International-ended up incorporating this anecdote into the first chapter of her best-selling book, Love 'Em or Lose 'Em: Getting Good People to Stay, co-authored with Sharon Jordan-Evans.

In their newest book, Hello Stay Interviews, Goodbye Talent Loss, Kaye and Jordan-Evans expand on the "stay interview" concept that worked so well with the SAP team. The book is designed to serve as a guide for managers on conducting effective stay interviews. Although stay interviews "aren't a magic bullet," says Kaye, they can provide valuable information that can greatly lessen the likelihood that an exit interview will occur.

Here, Kaye discusses the concept further with HRE Senior Editor Andrew R. McIlvaine. 

When should stay interviews be conducted?

This may sound trite, but always and often. I think it's really smart to do a stay interview a month after new recruits join the company. Ask them whether they're getting what they want to get and if they're getting things they don't want and are unhappy with. Even do one during orientation itself-ask whether the orientation is providing them with the information they need. I would suggest doing stay interviews as part of a monthly one-on-one is smart, and as part of the performance appraisal as well: What's important to you and how can I keep you? There is no perfect time, but do them frequently, not just once a year.

Are stay interviews necessary at companies that regularly conduct employee engagement surveys?

Yes-in fact, even more so. One of our company clients started doing them because of low scores on their engagement surveys. I think one of the major cries from any engagement survey is, "You don't really know me." It comes out in a variety of ways. The stay interview is designed to say "I want to know you because you're important and I don't want to lose you."

Should all employees be targeted for stay interviews, or just certain employees?

My own philosophy is that a stay interview should be done for any person who, if they came to you and said "I'm out of here," you'd lose sleep over. Not just your high flyers, but your massive middle as well. Too many organizations put all their eggs in the high-potential basket and forget they need the solid citizens to support the hi-pos. So these should target anybody precious to you that you don't want to lose. If a manager is terribly pressed for time, you might want to think about who's most at-risk, who you couldn't afford to lose and maybe start there. These don't have to be long: they can be done in short bursts of maybe five to 10 minutes, or over lunch, or in 45 minutes. There's no decreed number of minutes.

Some might argue that stay interviews shouldn't be necessary-that instead, companies should encourage regular career conversations between employees and managers.

In my book Help Them Grow or Watch Them Go, I wrote that you should have career conversations all the time. But the stay interview is different from the career conversation. You can ask a career question or two during a stay interview, but it's much broader and deeper than just a career issue. It's an engagement kind of interview: How are you doing and what can we do to make your work life here more "grabby"-as in, it grabs you? During a stay interview someone might say "I haven't been able to work with Group X very much and I really miss working with them." That's a hint to a manager. It really is about collecting hints. And it's also about being OK with saying "I can't deliver on that." You ask what's important to them and they say "I really want 20 percent more in salary." You might tell them you can't deliver on that particular item right now, but then ask them what else might there be. You say "I want to find something I can get my arms around because I really don't want to lose you."

Who should conduct stay interviews, managers or HR?

Last week I was with three different HR leaders who were doing stay interviews, and they all said they conducted them as HR leaders and then met with managers to tell them what they learned and coach them on the follow-up. I was surprised, because the workshops we do are geared [toward] helping managers do stay interviews directly with their teams. So I hadn't given a lot of thought to HR being the one to do them, but it certainly could-HR and managers both. HR should not take it off the backs of managers, but if HR wants to test the idea and see what they learn, then that's great.

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One of the supposed strengths of exit interviews is that, because they're leaving the company, employees will be more forthright about what bothers them or a manager they may have had a problem with. How do you address this with stay interviews?

Actually, the research on exit interviews says that's not so-ex-employees are most forthright once they've left the company and are in a whole new job. When you reach out to them then, that's when they'll be the most honest. For the most part, from what I've learned, people will say during exit interviews what's politically expedient to say-that they're leaving for a new opportunity, the other company is offering more money, but they won't say "My boss is a jerk and I couldn't stand being there anymore." So, first, I think you should wait until after the employee has left to conduct an exit interview. Also, we've learned from our research that many people say they leave for a new opportunity that wasn't available at their old job. And when we go back to the original manager with this, they say "I could have made that happen!" And, "Why didn't they tell me that?"

What are some common questions that every stay interview should include?

Every stay interview should include a prelude: "Here's why I wanted to talk to you," or "Here's what I've been thinking about" or "Here's why I'm doing this." And you might also add, "I haven't done this before, so please bear with me." And then it's asking maybe just one or two questions and listening hard to the answer and asking more questions based on that. The sad thing is when a manager asks "What's important to you" and the employee replies "I want more challenging work," and the manager says "That's good" and moves on to the next question, instead of asking "So what would challenge you?" So it's being willing to ask just a few questions, and going deeper on the answers you get.

How can HR leaders "sell" this concept to the rest of the organization?

One way of selling it is looking at who left your company within the last month and multiply their salary times three, come up with a number and say "Last month, X amount of dollars walked out our door-let's not let that happen this month." So add up the cost of losing good people and put it out there. Now we're in the biggest competitive job market ever, people are jumping ship left and right. So I would hold managers accountable for talent loss. Stay interviews aren't a silver bullet, they may not stop all exit interviews, but you'll have a chance to learn precious information that could keep you from losing a person in the future.

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