Mastering the informal art of the stay interview
  • leadership
  • Blog post

Mastering the informal art of the stay interview

Let’s talk about the stay interview for a minute. We’ll start by looking at it from Jane’s perspective. Jane is a service manager with a few decades’ worth of experience under her belt. She’s a no-nonsense supervisor and she runs a tight ship. But now, Human Resources has just asked her to incorporate stay interviews into her performance management program.

She’s familiar with the idea. She gets it. It’s about touching base, especially with high-value employees, on a regular basis. It’s about getting a read on engagement and getting an understanding of how best to retain those employees. Simple enough. If you want to know what it will take to hang on to an employee, just ask them, right?

But Jane has been around the block a few times. She’s seen a lot as a manager. She’s concerned that while stay interviews seem well-intentioned, they also seem tailor-made to backfire. What if her employees expect more than she can give them? How about if the stay interview just becomes a forum to complain? What if the stay interview completely blows up in her face?

It’s an understandable concern, and if you’ve met some of the characters she’s had to deal with in her time, you’d be concerned, too.

The real purpose of stay interviews

But there’s no arguing with results. Stay interviews work. They keep good people on board. And understanding why they work is the key to doing them right—and avoiding the nightmare scenarios Jane is trying to avoid.

The reason Jane is so concerned about stay interviews is that she’s assuming they’re an attempt to uncover information. You’ll get a ton of good information out of a stay interview, but that’s not primarily what they’re about. The purpose of a stay interview is to establish or re-establish trust with your employees. And it’s that reinforcement of trust that accounts for their effectiveness in helping to retain top employees.

The science of trust

Take a look at a research study out of the University of Central Florida to understand why.

Researchers there conducted a long-term study of the workforce at a large hotel and hospitality company. The 2014 report on their work revealed that more than any other factor, a lack of interpersonal trust was the leading cause of employees’ “intention to turn over” (e.g.: planning to quit at some point). On an ongoing basis, employees rated their agreement with statements like “I can rely on my supervisor not to carelessly make my job more difficult,” or, “My supervisor and I have both made a considerable emotional investment in our working relationship.” The study found that 65% of all employee intent to turn over, for any reason, directly correlated to low agreement with those statements.

The research provides an example of “social exchange theory” in the workplace. Social exchange theory stipulates that while employees exchange their work for economic resources, they exchange their loyalty and engagement for socio-emotional resources. Employees simply don’t stay engaged or loyal to a company unless they can trust that the company will likewise be loyal to and engaged with them.

Point-for-point guidance

According to the National Institutes of Health Workforce Planning program, there are a few key guidelines for conducting these interactions:

  • They are conducted by direct supervisors. Employees’ immediate supervisors, not HR, should conduct the stay interviews. Each level of the workforce should conduct them with their direct reports, starting with senior leadership, and cascading down.
  • Be open about your intent. Let employees know that the purpose of these interviews is to reassure and/or retain top talent.
  • Interview well. Take the employee’s style and preferences into consideration. Start with positive questions. Stay focused on the conversation and don’t take notes. Listen, show genuine interest, and probe only as far as the employee is comfortable. Don’t ask more than five pre-planned questions.
  • Take action. Find at least one issue you can address as a result of the conversation and make sure the employee knows you’re making changes as a result of their suggestions.

Putting it into practice

So what does that mean for Jane? It means keeping stay interviews short, informal, and completely honest. She’ll want to cover questions like “Do you think your current position fully utilizes your talents?” or “Do you feel supported in your career goals?”  Of course, if her top service rep says he really wants to incorporate his talent for interpretive dance into his day-to-day job, there’s not much she can do for him. But, she is opening up a dialogue where she and her top employees can talk openly about what they each want out of the roles. It’s that informal dialogue, and the trust it’s built upon, that make the stay interview such a powerful retention tool.


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