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Don’t Wait for the Exit Interview (Part 2)

In Part 1 of this article, drawing from The Power of Stay Interviews, by Richard P. Finnegan, we looked at some traditional means of managing employee retention and why they often don’t work. We also considered the main reasons employees choose to stay with a particular employer (or not), and what commonly contributes to that decision. As the title of his books suggests, Finnegan advocates stay interviews as one of the most important tools for cultivating employee engagement and improving retention. Finnegan’s defines a stay interview as:

“A structured discussion a leader conducts with each individual employee to learn the specific actions that leader must take to strengthen the employee’s engagement and retention with the organization.”

He identifies the following core features of effective stay interviews:

  1. Stay interviews must be conducted by a leader who manages the employee directly.
  2. Cascade stay interviews from the top. In order to better understand the process and to learn from personal experience, “all leaders, except the top executives, should first experience a stay interview as an employee.”
  3. Whenever possible, conduct stay interviews in person.
  4. Schedule stay interviews in advance and honor the allocated time (Finnegan suggests 20-30 minutes). Building in a little buffer time beyond the scheduled meeting will ensure that important conversations are not cut short.
  5. Separate stay interviews from performance appraisals or performance management discussions. The objective of the stay interview is to identify what the employer can do to keep the employee engaged and committed to the organization.
  6. Prepare a scripted introduction that starts the conversation moving in the right direction and, at the same time, avoids any suggestion of an implied contract. (Finnegan provides a few sample openings on page 29).

A stay interview is just a specialized form of one-on-one meeting that aims to draw out what really motivates a particular employee. Regular, personal interaction with a direct supervisor is one of the most powerful tools for building strong, trusting relationships that keep people engaged and help organizations out-perform. A stay interview simply focuses the conversation around what makes an employee stay and what might make them leave.

Finnegan offers the following questions that you might ask in a typical stay interview:

  • What do you like most and least about working here?
  • What are your career goals?
  • Describe your dream job.
  • Why do you stay?
  • Why might you leave?
  • What makes a good day here?
  • What more do you want to learn?
  • How can I help?

Most importantly, keep the questions open-ended and be prepared to probe with follow-up questions when answers are incomplete or noncommittal. You can find more examples of stay interview questions here and here.

Sometimes, employee requests that emerge from a stay interview will have to be researched to find out whether they can be met by the organization. If the conversation moves into unknown territory, be prepared to stop the meeting so you can investigate further, and then provide a valid response at a scheduled follow up discussion.

Of course, not every request made by an employee during a stay interview can be met. Some things may be outside the scope of the manager’s control, or may simply be unworkable for the organization. Taking some time in advance to think about these types of questions (e.g. immediate pay increases, work schedule changes that would negatively impact operations, etc.) and preparing scripted responses can avoid triggering frustration that might derail your process. If you’re considering stay interviews as part of your employee retention strategy, this two part article should get you started. For more guidance on implementing stay interviews and training leaders to conduct them, Finnegan’s book is a useful resource.

One final note. The most critical component of stay interviews (like all leadership commitments), is follow-through. The time and effort expended in training leaders, drawing out employees, and planning and conducting the interviews will be wasted if nothing is acted upon. When you make the effort to meet with employees and ask them what matters to them, you open the door to a more meaningful and trusting relationship. Failing to follow through may slam that door in your face and encourage your people to open it somewhere else.


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Don’t Wait for the Exit Interview (Part 2)
When you make the effort to meet with employees and ask them what matters to them, you open the door to a more meaningful and trusting relationship.

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