“She sighed. Mark, her best performer, was resigning. She knew that he had some issues–didn’t everyone? But she didn’t realize the extent of the damage until it was too late. Now with Mark’s departure her team would not only be short-staffed, but also missing a key player with valuable industry knowledge that couldn’t easily be replaced.”
Virtually every manager has experienced a version of this story, and it’s almost always a painful lesson in too little, too late. Employees want to do great work, and they want to feel valued for their contributions, but companies are often out of touch with what the individual employees need. The resulting frustration can build up over time, leading to unnecessary turnover. That’s where stay interviews can be incredibly powerful tools for not only tapping into the issues and opportunities affecting the workforce, but also for creating a work environment that helps employees be productive and engaged.
What is a Stay Interview?
Stay interviews, at the core, are exploratory surveys of your current employee population. The goal is to get to the bottom of what drives retention or contributes to turnover. It’s important to note that the stay interview is much more qualitative than a normal feedback survey. According to Casey Holcom, a consultant at Strategic Programs, the data from stay interview research allows companies to truly understand the drivers of retention and turnover in the workplace.
“Rather than simply providing questions on a Likert scale (from strongly disagree to strongly agree), the vast majority of stay survey questions are qualitative, meaning respondents can answer questions in their own words, which can provide a much deeper insight into satisfiers/dissatisfiers and the tipping points that lead to turnover.”
For instance, understanding the level of satisfaction with a manager’s performance or style is quite different from understanding the specific behaviors the manager uses to create a positive (or negative) work experience. And more importantly, the stay interview data is more actionable because it’s highly specific.
Some of this sounds similar to what you might expect from an engagement survey, but the practices are quite different. According to Holcom, “An engagement survey is much more broad and asks questions around many different factors to determine how satisfied respondents are around x/y/z. Stay surveys get to the heart of what would make someone leave, why they’d want to stay at the organization, what type of perks they’d prefer, and other questions around specific aspects of the work relationship.”
Why Conduct Stay Interviews?
Stay interviews require an investment of time and resources, and they often require follow-up to be done properly. There are four main reasons companies do stay interviews:
1 – To target employee populations that are historically difficult to recruit or retain.
The value in using stay interviews to support these high-value employee segments is in identifying friction points before someone resigns. For instance, Holcom pointed out that dissatisfaction around career development opportunities, flexible schedules, or increased leadership support could be uncovered during the process, allowing time for the company to adjust and retain the employees in question.
2 – To find out the tipping points that lead to employee turnover.
Those tipping points can come in many forms. “Employees feeling undervalued, and a lack of support or communication from one’s supervisor are common reasons I see,” said Holcom. Another common issue? Compensation. “Sometimes it’s just a perception that their pay isn’t competitive.”
At the same time, companies can act on this data to demonstrate a desire to retain the employee. Imagine that you have a key performer that is about to be approached by a competitor. During their stay interview, you find out that their lack of autonomy is a key issue for the employee, so you work with their manager to create more flexibility paired with accountability. That takes the autonomy issue off the table, making it harder for the employee to be recruited away from your organization.
3 – To supplement exit surveys with current employee feedback.
This one is an interesting intersection of two key data points: why did they leave and why did they stay. It provides a more well-rounded picture of employee satisfaction and engagement.
Holcom explains, “Stay surveys and exit surveys provide a more valid look at employee perceptions, as you now have workforce data from more than one point of the employee’s lifecycle. Stay interviews identify what’s a dissatisfier and what is making your employees consider leaving the organization. Exit interviews tell you exactly what the tipping points were that caused your employee to make the decision to leave the organization. The pairing of the two is invaluable because you can then see why people are leaving, and what made them consider that decision to begin with.”
4 – To show employees that you care and want them to stay.
While this isn’t the primary reason you would conduct a stay interview, it’s still highly relevant to this conversation. People want to know that their company and leaders care about them and value their input. Think about it in the context of daily life: we want people to ask us how we are doing so we have a chance to build rapport with them. We are the same with our employers. We want to know that they are interested in us, what makes us tick, and how we can work better together. That’s the essence of a stay interview and can demonstrate to employees that you have their best interests at heart. Even the act of conducting the interview itself can make employees feel like they have a voice and are valued.
Taking Action on Stay Interview Data
One of the biggest challenges when recommending stay interviews is that HR leaders don’t know what to do with the information they collect. With stay interviews, it’s actually easier to take action, because you can do so on a variety of levels: organization-wide (macro) or by department (micro).
At the macro level, the company can adjust things like culture, compensation and benefit perceptions, communications issues, etc. For example, one client discovered pay as a driver of employee turnover decisions. Holcom recalled, “Compensation was the most significant issue for respondents. For respondents that stated they were unsure or doubted they’d be at the organization two years from now, 72% stated higher pay would strongly affect or be their main reason for staying. This provided the client with the exact knowledge of why people were leaving.”
On a micro level, the company can address supervisor relationships, professional development opportunities, or even work/life balance issues. With regard to the latter, one client’s customer service team was facing challenges with trying to balance hectic schedules with family responsibilities. Holcom explained:
“Like in many organizations, the customer service representatives were facing very high turnover. The company brought Strategic Programs in to do stay interviews, and while the survey results identified several opportunities, there was a shared expressed interest in allowing shift swapping. The company then had a perfect opportunity to directly reduce their turnover by allowing employees to more frequently be with their families for important events.”
It’s easy to see how your organization can leverage the information from your stay interviews to make changes that reduce friction for your employee base. There are many benefits to stay interviews, but the hardest step for many companies is being willing to open up, ask specific employees what their challenges are, and step up to solve them. For those that make this process a priority, the value in increased retention and employee satisfaction is difficult to ignore.
Finally, don’t forget to thank your employees for providing feedback. It seems like an insignificant factor, but in some organizations it’s very difficult for employees to open up and share what is bothering them for fear of losing their job. When we receive praise for an action, we want to do it again (consciously or not). It’s important to make sure the employee population knows their opinions and input are valued and appreciated.