How to use stay interviews to improve retention 

The exit interview has become a mainstay at many organizations when an employee leaves the company. These interviews aim to get insights into why an employee is moving on, and what could have been done to encourage them to stay.

While exit interviews can serve a purpose, the downside is these interviews are almost always too little, too late when it comes to retaining high performers.

A better idea? Conducting periodic stay interviews to gain a greater understanding of how valued employees’ view their job and your company—before they start devoting their lunch break to firing off resumes to competitors.

Stay interviews demonstrate to your employees that you value their input and contributions, and they can be part of a robust employee engagement program that includes employee surveys, work-life balance initiatives, and efforts to create a diverse and inclusive work environment. Stay interviews can be a key retention tool in the battle against costly and time-consuming turnover, which can exact a hefty price on your company.

Consider that The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) reports that on average it costs a company 6 to 9 months of an employee's salary to replace him or her. For an employee making $60,000 per year, that comes out to $30,000 - $45,000 in recruiting and training costs.  

The costs of high employee turnover add up through: 

  • The constant need to hire and train new employees (hiring expenses, training labor, lost sales, lost productivity)
  • Loss of profitability 
  • Low workplace morale
  • Deteriorating product/service quality
  • Reduction in market ROI

The painful reality is that turnover can crush your bottom line. Stay interviews can be a cornerstone of your strategy to stem the tide, while providing key insights that allow you to make ongoing improvements that make your company a place where people want to come and stay.

There’s a reason that company leaders often say employees are their most valuable asset.

Because it’s true.

Countless studies have shown that strong employee engagement, satisfaction and morale translates to better profitability and ROI, and can even positively impact the market value of an organization.

High turnover can threaten all of these potential upsides, through the cost and inefficiency of hiring and training new employees, and the ripple effect that turnover has on employee productivity and morale. Over time, high turnover can also have a negative impact on your company’s reputation.  Clients and consumers are savvy these days, and some may become wary of doing business with companies in which they are assigned a new account executive every few months, don’t receive the expertise they expect on a service call, or get a sense that the employees they interact with aren’t happy. High turnover can result in the following:

When you make a hire, you’re making an investment. You’re investing time, money, and resources into assuring the new employee fully understands how to excel at their job, and gets a strong sense of your company’s culture, mission, and brand. When you lose a high-performing employee to turnover, you also lose a good chunk of the investments that you made in helping them succeed.

Worse yet, there’s a double whammy to the equation. When turnover occurs you also have to invest in making a new hire. That’s time, money, and resources you could surely have put to good use in helping your business succeed if the turnover hadn’t happened.

Turnover isn’t only about those who leave your company. It also has an impact on those who are left behind. Even the best-run organizations are going to experience some level of turnover. That’s just the reality of business. Yet if your employees start seeing a steady stream of their co-workers leaving for other opportunities, it can start to gnaw away at morale and engagement levels. Employees may start to ask themselves why so many of their colleagues are leaving, and even start mulling over whether they should consider following them out the door.

High turnover can deliver a one-two punch to productivity. The first blow comes from an experienced employee leaving without anyone there to take on his or her full responsibilities.

The second hit comes during the stretch when a new hire is being made, requiring existing employees to take up some of the slack, which increases their workload, but likely hurts overall productivity. Also, with only so many hours in the day, some work might simply not get done. Finally, once a hire is made, those existing employees might be called on to help with orientation and training, creating yet another distraction from their routine duties.

Business continuity is formally defined as 'the processes, procedures, decisions and activities to ensure that an organization can continue to function through an operational interruption.

Informally, continuity can be viewed as keeping the trains running smoothly and on time.

Even the best companies experience change and interruptions, however with the benefit of low turnover, companies can typically navigate through those periods with limited negative impact. However, in high turnover environments, continuity can suffer to the point that it is felt by both employees who find it increasingly difficult to do their jobs, and customers who see a decline in responsiveness, service, and product quality. Poor business continuity can lead to a dangerous spiral that can put the success—and even survival—of your business at risk.

Stay interviews are a key strategy to stave off these potential risks before they become realities. Through stay interviews, managers can stay well connected to their team members to get a better sense of their mindsets, and the issues that may be impacting their productivity, morale, and commitment to your organization.

Stay interviews are scheduled and largely structured conversations conducted to help managers understand why employees stay—and what might cause them to leave. In an effective stay interview, managers ask standard, structured questions in a casual and conversational manner.

Typically, most stay interviews take about a half hour, two to three times each year. Yet while the time commitment is minimal, the potential benefit is considerable in both gaining key insights into what factors are encouraging your employees to stay, and the issues that might be prompting them to consider leaving.

These check-ins can be particularly valuable with high performing employees to connect with them well before they may seriously consider leaving. You can get their direct feedback on what is motivating them to stay with you and what might be enticing them to work for someone else.

Stay interviews offer a true win-win for your company and your employees.

The mere fact that you are conducting these interviews sends a strong message to your employees that their voice matters, and they have the opportunity to share any concerns as well as their appreciation for what is working well.  

For your company, stay interviews help you identify any of the early warning signs that could lead to higher turnover. This can be particularly useful in identifying trends that may be impacting several of your top performers. This gives you the time, as well as the rationale, to make meaningful changes that demonstrate that you’re responsive to employee concerns, while reducing the chance of a mass exodus of your best people.

It’s difficult to quantify the precise role that stay interviews play in keeping your best performers and reducing your overall turnover rate. But there’s no doubt that stay interviews can be a key pillar for improving employee engagement. And research has consistently found that companies that have strong engagement benefit in myriad ways, including stronger retention, increased employee satisfaction, and better profitability and ROI.

There’s a tried-and-true saying: “If you want someone’s opinion, just ask.”

Yet a surprising number of organizations fail to do just that – or do it in a meaningful and consistent manner. Some never really ask at all, others talk of an ‘open-door policy’, but do little to encourage it or define exactly what that means. Still others may wait until an exit interview – at which point it’s likely too late to do anything meaningful to convince an employee with one foot out the door to stick around. Even instances in which an exiting employee is convinced to stay for increased compensation, a promotion or other perks typically don’t end well. Some national studies have found that between 50% to 80% of employees who accept a last-minute counteroffer will voluntarily leave the company within six months.  

Stay interviews, conversely, offer multiple benefits, including:

  • Increased employee engagement
  • The ability to identify warning signs and make meaningful changes
  • Improved employee retention

Stay interviews are clearly a smart move for organizations both large and small. Yet it’s important to be thoughtful and strategic about how you conduct the interviews so that you get the maximum benefits through candid and clear feedback from your employees. Some of the key considerations when conducting stay interviews include:

  • Schedule ahead of time: Your employees are busy, and their time is valuable. Scheduling a spur-of-the moment stay interview not only shows disrespect for those realities, but it may also cause your employees to be more wary or concerned that a performance issue prompted the meeting. This is not the mindset you want them to have walking into the interview.
  • Make sure the purpose of the meeting is clear to employees: Be transparent about what a stay interview is, and that you are conducting them to gain a better understanding of what is working—and what isn’t—for employees on your team. Make the point that the feedback you received is aimed at proactively identifying any issues or barriers to success, as well as capturing ideas for potential improvements.
  • Give employees time to prepare: No one likes to be blindsided, so it’s important that you give your employees ample time to prepare for a stay interview. Ideally, you have already clearly stated the purpose for the meeting. It’s good practice to provide your employees with a high-level outline of the issues you aim to discuss so they can collect their thoughts and be well-prepared to express them when the two of you actually sit down for the interview. Conducting employee satisfaction surveys prior to stay interviews can also provide you with key insights that you can delve into deeper during the interviews.
  • Pick a comfortable setting for the employee: A stay interview should feel like a conversation, not an interrogation. The setting you choose can go a long way in conveying that message. Choose a place that is most comfortable and private for the employee you are interviewing. Stay interviews are best held in person where you can take some cues from body language and have an engaging conversation. If you need to do the interviews via videoconference, choose a convenient time away from the heart of the workweek.
  • Clearly separate stay interviews from performance reviews: Stay interviews turn the tables on employee performance interviews. In essence, your employees are evaluating the performance of your management team and your organization as a whole. As such, you want to make it clear that this conversation is completely separate from a performance review—and what they say will have no influence on that important conversation.

So, you have your stay interviews scheduled, you’ve clearly conveyed the purpose, and identified the best place to conduct them. So now what, specifically, are you going to ask? The best stay interviews strike a balance between asking some predetermined questions while also allowing for the conversation to head in other unanticipated directions to gain a deeper understanding of what your employee is thinking and feeling.

The best stay questions should help employees understand that:

  • You appreciate/value their loyalty: Everyone likes a compliment—even those who may say otherwise. With that in mind, think about framing questions in a way that conveys that appreciation. One way to approach that is to highlight something they excel at or one of their recent wins as part of a question focused on what gives them the most satisfaction in their work. A word of warning: don’t lay it on too thick. Employees will sense if you are trying to butter them up or going overboard with praise and that could have the exact opposite effect of what you are striving for.
  • You care about more than just performance: Winning isn’t everything…full stop. Of course, strong performance is highly valued and ultimately the key to an employee’s—and your company’s success. Yet employees need to understand that you don’t just care about their results, but also who they are as a person and the challenges they may face from time to time. Showing authentic empathy and understanding reassures your employees that their opinions and thoughts are valued within your company.
  • You’re open to making changes: The best way to kill a stay interview is to somehow send a message that you are just going through the motions and what you hear won’t result in any meaningful change. Conversely, you don’t want to set expectations that wholesale change can occur, and then not be able to deliver on the back end. Honesty in the best policy here, making it clear to the employee at the outset that you value their feedback and that your aim is to do what is possible to address problems or make improvements

The best stay interview questions help you discover:

  • Warning signs that indicate a key player needs more support or direction: Some employees may just come out and say that they need additional support to operate at an optimal level. Others may be more reserved but might point out examples in which greater support or direction could have benefitted them. In either case, stay interviews allow you to get insights into those challenges, often before they worsen to the point that a key employee considers jumping to a new job.
  • Ways to keep the employees you’ve invested in at your company: The best stay interviews identify problems as well as opportunities. With that in mind, these interviews can unearth steps you can take to make sure your best employees stick around. Maybe you learn that several employees will be more productive and engaged through a hybrid arrangement that blends remote and in-office work. Or you may find that a top performer gets satisfaction from helping others succeed so you can look for mentoring opportunities that would meet that need. These actions show your continued commitment to investing in your employees to assure they continue to thrive and grow in their careers
  • Low-cost changes to reaffirm employees’ commitment and engagement: If you haven’t done stay interviews previously, introducing them represents a change in the culture of your team and organization that can deepen commitment and engagement. Beyond that, the interviews themselves can elicit a range of potential low-cost changes that can make a difference in how employees feel about their work life.

Maybe employees are feeling burned out by the end of the long week.  Instituting a policy that allows employees to log off at 2 pm on Fridays can demonstrate that you heard them and are doing something about it. Or perhaps it’s making some tweaks to your office space to allow for more spontaneous collaboration or greater privacy. These types of actions demonstrate responsiveness and understanding that can, over time, build stronger engagement and loyalty.

You’re typically not looking for yes-or-no answers to stay interview questions. Instead, your focus should be on posing open-ended questions that get employees talking and expanding upon their responses so you can get a clear picture of where they are at—and where they want their careers to go. Some examples of good stay questions include:

  • What kind of feedback or recognition would you like about your performance that you aren’t currently getting?
  • What talents, interests, or skills do you have that we could be utilizing more?
  • What have you felt good about accomplishing in your job and your time here?
  • What kinds of flexibility would be helpful to you in balancing your work and home life?
  • If you could change one thing about your job, team, or company, what would it be?

Key takeaways

Exit interviews may still have a place at your company. Yet adding stay interviews to the mix will help ensure that you are doing less of those exit interviews by keeping your team engaged, satisfied, and productive. SurveyMonkey Enterprise provides all the tools and technology you need to build engagement and drive productivity.