7 questions to ask in a ‘stay interview’ to retain your employees

7 questions to ask in a ‘stay interview’ to retain your employees

By Kate Neilson

You don’t want to discover all the things employees dislike about their jobs as they’re walking out the door. Catch issues early and retain your key people by conducting a stay interview.

Think about the last thing that caused you to leave a job. Perhaps it was an annoying colleague, an unmanageable workload or an ineffective manager. Whatever the reason, it’s likely it started as a small gripe that snowballed into a larger issue. Imagine if someone was able to find a solution to your issue early on. Perhaps you would have stayed.

This is why ‘stay interviews’ are so important. They give you the opportunity to tweak around the edges of an employee’s job. Just as you wouldn’t ever launch a product or service and never revisit or iterate it, you shouldn’t ever put off checking in with your people.

“I prefer the term ‘stay conversations,’” says Lucy Adams, founder of Disruptive HR and speaker at AHRI’s upcoming National Convention and Exhibition. “Stay conversations are less about work progress and coaching for better performance. They’re more for the manager to understand why someone is motivated to be at an organisation. 

“It’s asking questions like, ‘Why did you decide to join us?’ and ‘Are we still living up to these expectations?’ The idea is finding out through these conversations how the boss can improve as a leader, encouraging the employee to stay with the company and do their best work.”

Done well, stay interviews are a great retention tool, she adds.

“Often, people leave organisations for reasons that are preventable. As well as keeping employees for longer, these conversations also allow HR leaders to figure out if current practices are playing to people’s strengths.”

Things to consider when conducting a stay interview

Adams says it’s important to treat stay conversations as a casual check-up between a manager and their direct report rather than something that feels too formal. If an employee thinks this conversation is part of their official performance management process, they might be hesitant to be honest with you.

Also, it’s important not to make it feel laborious for managers.

“Some organisations are yet to introduce stay conversations because HR thinks, ‘How will we know managers are doing it? We need paperwork.’ It quickly becomes a chore. It’s better to try out one or two questions to see the benefits, then perhaps try again and include more questions. Instead, HR often makes it immediately a formal process that becomes another thing for time-poor managers to do.”

The timing of stay interviews is also crucial. They should start early in an employee’s time with the organisation and then recur consistently thereafter. After all, things change in employees’ lives all the time. What might have once not phased them could quickly turn into their greatest bugbear.

“Difficult conversations never get any easier, no matter how experienced you are. You’ll always feel slightly sick, and that’s because you care – you should always feel uneasy with it.” Lucy Adams, Founder, Disruptive HR.

“Stay conversations shouldn’t be confused for an exit interview when someone has already checked out – these check-ins should be part of a series of ongoing conversions with the person. To get the most out of these conversations, they have to be part of workplace culture in which people can be honest, open and not afraid to challenge [others] and speak up.”

This means the employees need to be reassured that they won’t be punished or treated differently for sharing their thoughts. They need to know you’re genuinely interested in improving the work environment for them and changing things that might not be working.

“You shouldn’t introduce stay conversations in an environment in which someone was told off in the previous meeting for challenging a decision. Instead, it’s about creating a culture of psychological safety so people feel listened to,” says Adams.

Questions you could ask in a stay interview

The questions a manager asks in a stay interview should differ from their usual weekly check-ins, which tend to focus on tactical challenges related to recent daily tasks. Stay interviews should focus on the bigger picture.

Adams suggests asking question such as:

  • If you were managing yourself, what would you do differently?This is a more subtle way of asking, ‘What don’t you like about your current manager’s leadership style?‘ It should tell you what an employee values in a manager. For example, do they need more hands-on support or are they seeking more autonomy?
  • What would entice you to leave the organisation?

    Rather than making assumptions about what people want, ask them. For example, you might assume people want more money when they’re actually seeking management experience or flexible work hours.

    This question could also reveal limitations to what you can give an employee. For example, perhaps they’re seeking less desk-based work and your company can’t offer that. It’s worth knowing this now, so you can create a plan to support them into a new role and bring in a replacement with enough time for an effective handover.
  • What makes you feel frustrated on a day-to-day basis?

    This can help you determine the small, easy changes you could make to alleviate an employee’s frustrations. For example, perhaps they really hate having to come into work on Wednesdays because it means they’re always late to their after-work yoga class. A simple adjustment to their hours, or inviting them to work from home on Wednesdays, could make the world of difference – and it won’t cost you a thing.
  • What gives you energy? And what drains your energy?As well as learning what employees struggle with, you also want to know what lights them up. This gives you an opportunity to craft more energising roles for employees and get better-quality work out of them as a result.
  • Is there anything we’re doing that you think could be improved?

    Don’t just focus on the individual’s role. Think about questions you could ask that would allow them to weigh in on the bigger-picture aspects of your organisation. Many employees want to have a say in the future direction of the business.For example, perhaps they have an idea about how to make meetings more efficient, or they might like to suggest a new approach to your learning and development program.
  • When was the last time you felt your efforts and work were seen and valued? Research shows that employees are more likely to quit their job if they feel underappreciated.

    Instead of asking employees if they feel valued (which can result in them simply saying ‘yes’ and not giving you any rich insight), ask them to recall the last time they felt appreciated. If they can’t think of anything, that’s a good signal that you might need to have a chat with their manager and prompt them to give that person a shout-out every now and then.
  • When did you last think about leaving the company?

    Try to ask this question towards the latter half of the conversation, as the employee might need to warm up in order to answer this honestly. Assure them that the information will stay between the two of you.

    This is a great way to see some of the immediate/concrete changes that could be made to re-engage that employee. For example, they might tell you that working with a certain colleague caused them stress, which can easily be remedied.

“[These questions] can prompt a tough conversation, but it’s an honest one,” says Adams.

“Difficult conversations never get any easier, no matter how experienced you are. You’ll always feel slightly sick, and that’s because you care.

“If you’re engaged in your role, then a hard conversation that’s upsetting for an employee or difficult for you to hear is going to be hard. I don’t begrudge managers for avoiding them. But the longer you leave it, the worse it gets. Once you get a conversation done, even if someone ends up leaving, you’ll wish you’d done it earlier. So, practice – the more you do it, the better you’ll be.”

*Kate Neilson is the editor of HRMOnline and HRM magazine.

*This article first appeared on the HRM online website

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