Consider the importance of stay interviews

Picture this: an employee who’s given notice has been unhappy for a while—long enough to think about leaving, refresh her resume, search for a new position and find what she hopes will be a better fit.

Now she has one foot out the door and you want her to be candid about why she’s moving on. Don’t expect the unvarnished truth. Few workers want to burn a bridge or badmouth their coworkers, so they won’t tell HR what it needs and wants to hear.

The best time to determine why your top workers are disengaged is long before they feel frustrated and unheard. Our research and experience with multiple industries has found that employees in groups or departments with very low engagement scores (around 40 percent) are six times more likely to leave within the next six months.

About 30 percent of every company’s employees are typically its top performers. They’re not going to stick around if they’re bored, thwarted or subject to chaos. These rock stars have highly marketable skills, and they’re quick to seek out new positions—perhaps with your competitors.

To retain your critical workers, rethink your strategy for exit interviews. I suggest that you focus your efforts on what I call “stay interviews.” Target your best employees, and ask them to meet with an HR professional or third-party consultant for private one-on-one talk. Then, follow these six guidelines:

  • Ask thoughtful, open-ended questions: What do you look forward to each day at work? What are you learning? What support, feedback or training would make your job more meaningful? Have you thought about leaving? If so, what triggered that idea? What are your long-term career plans? What can we do to make your work better for you?
  • Be brief and focused.  Stay interviews should not be long, rambling rant sessions but focused candid conversations. Schedule them every six months or annually and include a follow-up plan.
  • Make them completely voluntary. Respect the fact that some workers will not want to share their concerns or insights. Don’t pressure them if they’re resistant.
  • If you have concerns about a manager’s effectiveness, use HR. The odds of an employee providing his direct supervisor with honest, face-to-face feedback are slim. And they sink to “none” if management problems are the root of the worker’s dissatisfaction. Put some distance between your managers and their direct reports by having HR professionals or a trusted consultant conduct stay interviews.
  • Don’t confuse them with performance reviews. The goal of a “stay interview” conversation is to gather feedback, not to probe workers’ abilities or shortcomings.  
  • Guarantee total, complete anonymity. Employees must feel confident that their candor will never be used against them. Promise them privacy and honor your word. Your role is to ask questions and listen.

If employers use what they glean from stay interviews to address management problems and workplace challenges, workers will respond enthusiastically with renewed engagement, loyalty and commitment. And if you’re still hooked on exit interviews, you’ll do far, far fewer of them.