Stay interviews have recently regained popularity as a means of proactively identifying those employees that may be at risk of leaving your organization. Combined with employee engagement surveys, a lot can be gained by knowing what pain points employees are experiencing and what they need from you to want to stay. But what are the pros and cons of stay interviews?
What is a stay interview?
According to SHRM ‘a stay interview is a structured discussion a leader conducts with an individual employee to learn specific actions the leader can take to strengthen the employee’s engagement and retention with the organization’. As such, it serves as a more personalized source of information (and more) than a survey.
In fact, according to Indeed, ‘stay interviews are an opportunity for a company to ensure their staff remains happy by allowing employees to express themselves and their opinions about working at the company’.
It should be one of many conversations that contributes to talent management, and should be conducted by managers regularly. Some of the others are performance and career discussions. For that reason, it requires planning, reviewing company information prior to the discussion, listening, making notes, extracting essential points and other interpersonal skills.
SHRM has found that the following 5 questions should be sufficient to achieve the aim of a stay interview:
Question 1: What do you look forward to each day when you commute to work?
Question 2: What are you learning here, and what do you want to learn?
Question 3: Why do you stay here?
Question 4: When is the last time you thought about leaving us, and what prompted it?
Question 5: What can I do to make your job better for you?
To make the most of the time spent during the discussion, I would like to add at least two more questions to elicit more information and set a positive, engaging tone:
Question 6: Which aspects of your role excite you? Which aspects don’t.?
Question 7: What are your career aspirations? How do you see your career unfolding? To what extent would we be able to accommodate that?
What are the advantages or benefits of conducting stay interviews?
It enables proactive identification of employees at risk of leaving the organization.
This is typically the main benefit for conducting stay interviews and a critical retention strategy given the scarcity of skills in recent times, not only globally, but also locally. According to Career Junction’s Employment Insight Report of April 2022, the roles that are most difficult to fill are those in IT, finance and sales. Because of the supply-and-demand imbalance, quality staff in these areas are in a position to pick and choose. Career Junction reports that the average tenure of IT staff is 27 months. This highlights the importance of making sure you are well aware of the risk of key staff leaving for greener pastures.
Another benefit of pre-empting potential loss of staff is the ability to keep cost of replacement low. This cost is probably significantly more than you are thinking. See this article for a thorough calculation of cost of replacement.
It serves as opportunity for deep engagement on a one-to-one basis
Employee engagement is one of CEO’s and CHRO’s main priorities according to Gartner and the Josh Bersin Company. It is a well-known fact that positively engaged employees are more likely to be more productive, more committed to the organization and more likely to speak well of the company to outsiders. The greater the degree of positive engagement, the lower the probability of leaving the company.
For this reason, building relationships on an individual basis is becoming one of the key responsibilities of managers and leaders. The stay interview provides an invaluable opportunity for managers to get to know their team members’ views and opinions, as well as their aspirations more than what day-to-day encounters would allow.
The identification of career aspirations and up-skilling opportunities
Vertical career paths will increasingly make way for lateral career moves, temporary gigs and ‘project’ opportunities across the organization. Roles are also likely to change a lot as a result of AI, technology and the changing work landscape. This will pose the need for a better understanding of what people enjoy doing and feel passionate about. Stay interviews could also pre-empt these questions. Apart from providing the opportunity for closer bonding and inspiration, managers will have the opportunity to get a sense of how these needs correlate with the organization’s existing and future skills needs.
To assess potential for agility
‘Agility’ is one of the buzz words we get to hear on a daily basis. Organizations need to be agile, therefore its employees need to be agile. This begs the question: how ready and open are our people to change gears, make changes, to un-learn/learn/re-learn work approaches? When engaging with team members on a one-to-one basis during the stay interview managers should be able to assess the degree of agility each person possesses. Although it will not be posed as a direct question, managers should, during the course of the discussion, get a sense of the willingness of each teach member to experiment with new approaches. The objective would not be to focus on those that are not so adaptable or flexible, but on those who can serve as potential change agents.
An opportunity to review EVP
With the emergence of the Great Resignation that accompanied the recent pandemic, the world saw the acceleration of employees’ need for greater flexibility at work, better work-life balance and a greater need for purpose and meaning. The subsequent burn-out that some employees have come to experience calls for the need for mental care and compassion beyond mere EAP interventions as criteria for consideration when changing jobs. It is, rather, about total wellness. In fact, Josh Bersin is of the opinion that: “Wellness is not a trend – it’s a critical component of functional, healthy organizations”.
The stay interview offers the opportunity to ascertain what people want in terms of company benefits. This could enable a review of your employee value proposition, followed by a revision of company benefits as an additional ‘stay’ factor for existing staff, and a source of attraction for prospective employees.
An opportunity for managers to develop interpersonal/leadership skill and to take responsibility for staff retention and development
Most leaders don’t know how to coach or interact with team members at a personal level and yet, this will become a meta-leadership skill in the future of work.
Prior to developing skill, managers might want to self-examine their basic belief systems about people. Remember McGregor’s Theory X and Y? The former being a belief that people cannot be trusted and won’t be able to work on their own, versus Theory Y, which suggests a belief that people are basically willing to work hard and can be trusted. Managers who subscribe to the former will have difficulty developing the trusting, collaborative coaching skill required. They may need to research case studies of flourishing companies that have support Theory Y, to swing their minds. Stay interviews can only be successful when an open, non-defensive tone prevails.
Within the context of a can-do, trusting attitude, the stay interview can be a useful opportunity to practice the following skills: structuring the discussion, listening, probing, recording insights, and summarizing outcomes and action plans.
To transform company culture into a more trusting, people-centered one
Futurists are predicting that organizations would have to become more and more people-centred to ensure sustainability.
A quote from Dieter Veldsman, former CHRO of Momentum Metropolitan Life and HR thought leader says it all: “As we prepare for the emerging world of work, it is not our intellectual brilliance, advances in technology or science that will save us, but our humanity and realization that being human is the only solution”.
Stay interviews could be opportunities for two people to get together, talk about joint interests and be fully human.
While the above advantages are clear, there are, as with life, potential downsides too. Being aware of what they are can enable successful management of stay interviews.
- Given the aspects pointed out above, insufficient willingness of managers/leaders to participate and inadequate skill in people discussion can be a spoke in the wheel for reaching out to team members. Possible solution: It is therefore important that stay interviews should start at C-suite level for the CEO, in particular, to openly support this. HR could ensure that leaders are adequately trained in discussion skills beforehand to enable confidence.
- Another serious potential drawback would be not to implement the results of the findings. Expectations would have been created when the initiative was launched and people would expect to experience changes – individually and collectively. Possible solution: Top management must give their commitment upfront to newly obtained knowledge and to quickly act on it.
- Having stay interviews as a once-off, never to be repeated initiative, may damage trust levels and have a negative backlash if efforts towards engagement are not maintained. Possible solution: Stay interviews need not take place more than once a year, but once changes have been implemented, follow-up surveys will certainly add to the integrity of the initial initiative. Dropbox, for example, as quoted in Linkedin’s 2022 Global Talent Trend report, conducts twice-yearly engagement surveys, which they combine with focus groups, rounds of executive coffee chats and listening sessions with resource groups. Similarly, local organizations should be able to apply creativity in their provision of additional engagement interventions to ‘keep their finger on the pulse’.
- While it is not a pre-requisite for success, not making adequate use of insights and analyses after conducting stay interviews will simply be foolhardy. As long as information obtained through note-taking is not used to victimise individuals, it can be a valuable source of information about the organizational culture and views. This could be incorporated into the organization’s HR tech systems.
- Certainly the most discouraging potential disadvantage of stay interviews is that it is very difficult, and possibly impractical, to implement at blue collar levels. Employees at this level may be less spoilt for choice when it comes to employment options, thus rendering stay interviews inappropriate and insensitive. Organizations may have to decide on parallel approaches, rather than identical initiatives for all categories of employees. Possible solutions: Decide on a staggered approach or trial run. First test the practicalities of stay interviews at the top layers before committing to cascading it to lower levels, so that sufficient insight may have been accrued for successful implementation at other employee levels. Or, use a different term that is inclusive rather than exclusive.
Who should carry out stay interviews?
Stay interviews should be carried out by line managers as part of their people management responsibilities. Apart from proactively obtaining information of employees at risk of leaving, the benefits of developing a deeper understanding of the employee-employer social contract will far outweigh the potential downsides.
Overcome the biggest challenges
The biggest challenges of using stay interviews are 1) eliciting among C-suite leaders the willingness to truly listen to employees and to incorporate new insights into the culture of the organization, as well as 2) equipping leaders with the skills set to conduct people-centred discussions with ease. With these two criteria addressed, organizations are likely to derive significantly more pros than cons in using stay interviews as a leadership tool.
For further information about stay interviews, consult SHRM for the following guides: