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Swap Out a Performance Meeting for a Stay Interview … and Ask These 5 Questions

Almost every employee-manager meeting is a one-way talk about performance, rather than a two-way discussion about engagement or retention.

Two businessmen sitting at a table talking to each other.

If improving employee engagement and retention is at the top of your HR priority list, consider working with managers to change the idea that every employee-manager meeting should be about performance.

Most meetings are typically about performance, rather than engaging or retaining your employee. Think about it: Almost every type of manager-employee meeting is a one-way street. We have many names for these meetings, including project updates, status checks, performance reviews and specialized meetings for teams. It seems every meeting is about "Did you do your work?" or "Here's more work."

Some managers sprinkle niceties at the beginning or the end: "How are you doing?" "What's happening?" "Everything going OK for you?" And performance reviews might also include some form of mandatory career questions at the end, such as, "What do you like most about your role?"

Shift the Conversation to Engagement and Retention

Managers should actually schedule some of these one-way meetings in the opposite direction, in which the employees talk about their needs and managers listen. We know these meetings as stay interviews. A stay interview is a structured, one-on-one meeting between a leader and an employee to strengthen the employee's engagement and retention.

After years of helping organizations implement stay interviews, we understand why they bring magic. Yet, it's easy to forget most employees' initial emotional reaction to being asked to participate in one. Their reaction, of course, is clouded by how much employees trust their managers. So, the answer is either: "Yes! I'd love to have that meeting" or "Uh, sure, we can meet, let's see." A simple, effective introduction is: "I'd like to schedule a meeting with you to learn what I can do to make working here better for you."

Solid data tells us these facts:

  1. Voluntary employee turnover is skyrocketing.
  2. Employee engagement has been stuck for 20 years.
  3. The No. 1 reason employees stay and engage (or disengage and then leave) is how much they trust their boss.

Research has pinpointed the dollar value of having an engaged team. According to Gallup surveys, companies with high numbers of engaged employees have 48 percent fewer safety incidents, 41 percent fewer quality defects, 37 percent less absenteeism and are 21 percent more profitable overall.

Stay Interviews Build Trust

In a stay interview, if employees want more recognition or communication, they'll tell you. Or they'll tell you if they want more training, specific coaching or to work more with a certain peer. They'll also tell you which equipment works better than others and which colleagues disappoint them with shoddy work. 

By asking, listening, probing and taking notes, managers can then work with employees on the spot to identify actions to actually make their work better. These are the parts of work that matter most to most of us, the ones employees talk about over dinner each night.

Don't get me wrong. There are times and places for performance-based meetings. But to improve engagement and retention, stay interviews work because they build trust. 

5 Questions Are All You Need

My company has determined after much practice and research that managers need just five questions to make stay interviews effective. When you follow up by asking strong probing questions, you will get all the information you need to develop individualized engagement and retention plans that really work. 

As you read the questions, apply a few essential skills:

  • Listen 80 percent of the time. 
  • Probe to learn more and to show you care.
  • Take notes to capture key points, emotional words and important quotes.

Here are the five essential questions for stay interviews and why they work:


QUESTION 1: What do you look forward to each day when you go to work?

This question causes employees to focus on their daily duties and challenges rather than expand on broader issues like pay and benefits. Employees stay and engage based on their relationships with supervisors and colleagues and how much they like what they do. Effective probes include:

  • "Give me an example."
  • "Tell me more about …"
  • "Who do you look forward to working with the most?"


QUESTION 2. What are you learning here, and what do you want to learn?

"Learning" in the present tense sends the compelling message that you want your employees to grow and to prosper for both themselves and the organization. When answering, employees will hear their own lists, so they know they are developing and not standing still. When we train managers to conduct stay interviews, we teach them that career discussions are built around the word "skills." So, probes might include:

  • "Which skills would you like to build?"
  • "Which skills do you think are required for that position?"


QUESTION 3. Why do you stay here?

While appearing simple at first, this question can open major doors for discovery. The goal is for employees to dig deeply to identify and then announce why they stay. The initial response might be superficial, such as, "I have to pay the bills." But trained managers can respond by saying, "Me too, but why do you stay here?"

Refrain from giving hints, and instead say, "Take a few moments. I really want to learn why you stay." Other possible probes include:

  • "Tell me more about why that is so important to you."
  • "Is that the only reason you stay or are there others?"
  • "If you narrowed your reasons to stay to just one, what would it be?"

Ultimately, employees will remember their reasons once they discover them within themselves and announce those reasons to their manager. These types of exchanges drive up trust, improve employee output and engagement, and ultimately improve employee retention.


QUESTION 4. When was the last time you thought about leaving our team? What prompted it?

Everyone thinks about leaving sometimes, so a directly worded question brings a much-needed conversation into the light. The question rises above all subtleties and gets to the core retention issue. The "when" tells us the urgency, and "what prompted it" tells us why. Possible probes are many. Here are three:

  • "How important is that issue now to you on a 1-10 scale?"
  • "What's the single most important thing I can do to make it better?"
  • "Can I count on you to come directly to me if you ever feel that way again?"


QUESTION 5. What can I do to make your experience at work better for you?

This question begs for feedback on the manager's style. So, all who ask it should prepare to avoid being defensive. More importantly, answers provide clues regarding how each manager should adapt their style to each employee. Probes might include:

  • "Do I tell you when you do something well or only when you do something ineffectively?"
  • "How do you like to be recognized?"
  • "What are three ways I can be a better manager for you?"

Employees will not likely remember these questions when they speak to their peers or go in for another stay interview, so there is little reason to reword them each time. Asking them consistently also sharpens your managers' skills to where questioning and probing becomes routine.


Dick Finnegan is CEO of C-Suite Analytics and is the author of the popular book The Power of Stay Interviews for Engagement and Retention. Email: dfinnegan@c-suiteanalytics.



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