Getting the Best to Stay

I never enjoyed doing exit interviews when I was still in the corporate world. Some employees complained about their compensation; others about being passed over for a promotion. Often, the discussion opened a can of worms that needed to be dealt with: a mean boss; a micro-manager; poor communication; lack of trust in senior management; sexual harassment.

I also had many exit interviews that ended with me saying: “It sounds like a great opportunity. I wish you continued success. Thanks for your contributions to our company.”  And to the employees I really hated to see go – the top performers –  I’d add: “Let’s stay in touch. Maybe in the future we could welcome you back into a great job.”

According to a recent Gallup survey, 47% of the American workforce believes that now is the right time to find a new job. And more than half of all employees (51%) are actively searching for new jobs.

There’s not much you can do if an employee has made their decision and plans to leave your firm. An exit interview can give you important information on what did or did not happen in the past. And of course, we can learn from past mistakes if they did in fact happen. But what can you do to ensure that your best employees stay with you well into the future?

The days are over when top employees will spend 20-30 years with one company. Most top performers will have worked for 6 – 12 companies during their career. And losing and replacing good employees is expensive and a hit to your bottom line. The HR association, SHRM, predicts that the cost to replace a mid-level manager is roughly 9 monthly salaries and higher-level managers can cost 12+ monthly salaries.

So back to the question: What can you do to keep top performers working for your company as long as possible?  Instead of looking backwards (exit interviews), focus on the future and implement a Stay Interview (sometimes called Relationship Review) Process.

Former Chief Talent Officer at Agilent Technologies and current Management Professor at San Francisco State, John Sullivan, gives the following definition of a Stay Interview:

A “stay interview” is a periodic one-on-one structured retention interview between a manager and a highly valued “at-risk-of-leaving employee” that identifies and then reinforces the factors that drive an employee to stay. It also identifies and minimizes any “triggers” that might cause them to consider quitting.

Stay Interviews, when done well and periodically, will help a company to:

  • Build trust with top performers.
  • Improve employee engagement (Gallup’s recent survey found that only 33% of American workers are fully engaged in their jobs).
  • Increase the time top performers stay at your company.
  • Give senior management valuable information on what’s being done well and where improvements/changes need to be made.

If there is a trust issue at your company, you should probably continue doing anonymous employee surveys until the trust issue is resolved.

According to Dick Finnegan, CEO of C-Suite Analytics and author of The Power of Stay Interviews for Engagement & Retention , Stay Interviews, when done well, produce so much good information that companies can abandon their use of engagement surveys.

So what’s a good process to follow when implementing Stay Interviews? Here are some points that you can follow:

  • Focus on your top performers: Gallup research says that on average, 33% of the workforce is fully engaged, so I’d focus on the top 25% of the performers in your company and start with them.
  • Timing: Conduct your stay interviews once a year, preferably 6 months before your annual performance reviews. If there are problem departments where you see higher employee churn, then you should have the interviews more often.  This is especially true in the service industry (e.g. fast food).
  • Action: By focusing on a smaller population, you should be able to conduct all of the interviews within a three-week time frame. Then review all of the feedback, look for trends and implement changes/improvements if necessary. It is important that these changes are communicated back to the employees whom you interviewed.
  • Training: Typically, mangers won’t need any training prior to conducting these interviews.  You may, however, want to produce a document with standard questions and discussion points for them to use.  Managers should also document the information they receive so that HR can collect this.
  • Starting the interview: The stay interview should be a very positive experience for both the employee and their manager. The manager can let the employee know how much they appreciate them and their commitment to the company.  As the stay interview is future focused, the manager will want to discuss with them the things they like about their job, the company and their future career with the firm. If there are any things that are getting in the way of them being fulfilled in their role and reaching their full potential, then this would be an opportunity to discuss these issues.
  • Stay Interview Questions: A stay interview should last between 30 and 60 minutes and the manager should show discipline to let the employee do 70% of the talking.  Use open-ended questions. Here are some of the questions that you might want to ask:
  • How happy are you working at our firm on a scale of 1-10 with 10 signifying “most happy”?
  • What would need to change for you to rate that question a 10?
  • Do you feel that you are currently doing “the best work of your life?” Can you list for me the factors that could contribute to you” doing the best work of your life?” (Sullivan)
  • If you could wave a magic wand and change one thing about your job and one thing about the company, what would they be?
  • How is our company providing you with the opportunities you need to grow both personally and professionally?
  • What are some of the reasons you enjoy coming to work in the morning?
  • If you have ever been asked by a close friend or have been contacted by an external recruiter, can you tell me what reasons you gave them for wanting to stay at our firm? (Sullivan)
  • If you managed yourself, what would you do differently? (Sullivan)
  • If you were to ever begin to consider leaving … help me understand what kind of “triggers” or negative factors that might cause you to consider leaving? Please include both job and company trigger factors. (Sullivan)

In sales we know that it is much easier to keep a good customer than it is to acquire a new customer.  But it requires that we focus on that customer and serve them well. I think this can also be said about retaining our top talent, but it requires that we engage with them and find out why they enjoy working at our company (and then reinforce those things) and what are the “triggers” that might cause them to look elsewhere (and proactively deal with those).


Gallup: State of the American Workplace

Christina Merhar: Employee Retention – The Real Cost of Losing an Employee, Zane Benefits, February 4, 2016

John Sullivan: The Many Benefits That Come From Using ‘Stay” Interviews ,  Talent Management and HR, Dec. 3, 2013

Dick Finnegan, CEO of C-Suite Analytics and author of The Power of Stay Interviews for Engagement & Retention

Susan M. Heathfield:   “What Is a Stay Interview with Employees in the Workplace?” April 13, 2017, The Balance