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Stay interviews: how a conversation helps bosses better understand staff

Written by: Adam Bernstein
Published on: 5 Oct 2022

Image: © VectorRocket / Adobe Stock

Image: © VectorRocket / Adobe Stock

A shortage of labour exists across many business sectors. Partly due to changing demographics, the changing nature of many industries, it’s also a function of what has been termed “the big quit” where, following COVID, many re-evaluated their lives and decided, where they could, to enjoy what time they had left.

This leaves employers in a double bind. On the one hand, they can struggle to recruit, but on the other, they need to prevent good employees leaving. And it’s a salient point. Estimates vary, but Glassdoor reckons it costs at least £3,000 to recruit an employee, while the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development’s Resourcing and Talent Planning survey 2020 thinks that, for some employers, it can be as high as £5,000 (median).

It makes sense then for employers to retain good employees – and one tool to do this is to run what is termed a “stay interview”.

The interview defined

The polar opposite of an exit interview, where employers ask why an employee is leaving, the stay interview seeks to understand what would make an employee stay put – what their motivations are, what could be made better for them, and how they envisage their careers developing and how the employer can facilitate this.

Fundamentally, a stay interview can help an employer understand what it is they need to do to keep an employee on board – remembering of course that for many sectors, employees are in a very strong bargaining position.

For the record, the stay interview is not, and should not, be a formal process which puts an employee on edge or causes them to worry. Rather, it should be an informal conversation that aims to relax and reassure employees that the employer wants to understand and help with career progression. Further, it should be held in a forum to encourage an employee to speak freely, without fear of retribution, and where they can give feedback on what is wrong in the organisation and where they would like to see improvements.

Interviewing managers do best when they are mindful that employees can hold back on their true thoughts for fear of retribution.

Managers may not know where issues and bottlenecks are, even though employees think they should be obvious. And to drive the point home further, a December 2017 survey – albeit in the US, from Ultimate Software and the Center for Generational Kinetics – found that “there’s a significant gap in managers’ and employees’ perceptions: 80 per cent of managers think they’re transparent with their direct reports, yet only 55 per cent of employees agree their managers are transparent”.

Stay interviews are not a one-time deal where an employer goes through the motions, but neither responds to what has been divulged or regularly repeats the process to maintain an ongoing understanding; everyone’s needs, views and personal situations will fluctuate over time. Similarly, stay interviews should not be tied to performance or pay reviews.

However, they may uncover issues that are easily fixed, such as low or unequal remuneration (which could be discriminatory and, therefore, illegal), a general lack of employee development, or an inconsistent or unpleasant workplace culture.

Beyond that, an organisation that runs – and is known to run – stay interviews may find themselves becoming an employer of choice as word gets out. Like any other employer, they will suffer natural losses as employees move away or retire, but they will find it easier – and, therefore, faster and less expensive – to recruit replacements.

The interview

The whole of point of a stay interview is for the manager to be able to understand exactly what it is the employee does, down to the nth degree, every day. The interview needs to uncover how employees visualise their work, how they feel their contribution is perceived, and where they see themselves within the organisation.

A stay interview should not seek information of work or project status and nor should it be a one-way conversation – it needs to be a genuine two-way dialogue. And it often helps if an interviewee is told beforehand what the meeting is about and sent a few “starter” questions to help them formulate their thoughts.

To start with, the interviewer ought to open the process with words such as “I want to discuss with you the reasons why you want to stay with us and what we can do to make it better”, or alternatively, “I want to talk informally about your work and how the management can support you”.

As for questions, many should be obvious, but could include:

  • What is it that makes you get out of bed to come to work?
  • What are the best and worst things about working here?
  • Why do you stay?
  • If you could make a change, what would it be?
  • Do you feel recognised?
  • What are your motivations when you’re here?
  • What demotivates you?
  • What can we do to support you better?
  • And, importantly, what might cause you to want to leave?

Of course, plenty more potential questions exist, and the space to detail them is not here. Also, one question may lead naturally to another. But regardless, it’s key to let the employee feel they can talk freely and openly, so that the manager can learn and then direct appropriate resource where possible.

Interviews need to be closed properly with the interviewer summarising what the employee has said – both the reasons to stay and the reasons for a departure. It wouldn’t hurt if, for example, the manager ended by saying something akin to: “Thank you for sharing your thoughts with me; I’ll do whatever I can to make this a place where you want to stay and work.”

And it’s important that employees can see, post‑interview, that their comments have been taken on board and change has been actioned where possible. A process that operates on the basis of lip service is a futile waste of time that will invariably do the exact opposite of what was intended – it will cause employees to distrust management and seek to leave.

Lastly, it’s been said that employees tend to leave because of a bad manager, rather than the organisation itself. Good or bad, managerial relationships don’t form overnight – and if employees have been truly alienated, sitting down for a chat may not change their minds.

In other words, stay interviews are not perfect and it is much better to foster a great workplace in the first instance, using stay interviews to fine‑tune the environment.

Summary

It is often said that a question should never be asked if the answer is not wanted, but sometimes the truth can be uncomfortable.

Even so, in today’s market, where employees are in short supply and the web has made both salaries and new job prospects very apparent, management that doesn’t seek to understand how employees feel are destined to lose experienced staff and pay to make good the losses.

Hopefully, though, stay interviews will lift an organisation’s retention rates, help them hold on to star employees and possibly attract new employees.