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Expert Advice on Implementing Stay Interviews

Two women talking at a table in an office.

Former employment attorney and author Jathan Janove writes for SHRM Online on how to inject greater humanity into HR compliance. Jathan welcomes your questions and suggestions for future columns. Contact him at the e-mail address at the end of this column.    

Marshall Goldsmith is a multiple-time New York Times bestselling author and widely considered the world's foremost executive coach. He is not, however, an HR professional (although he told me, "I love HR!").

One of Goldsmith's groundbreaking innovations is the development of six questions that he uses when coaching executives to be better leaders, which you can read about in this Huffington Post article. Essentially, the goal of the questions is to maximize a leader's relationship with direct reports.

After reflecting on these questions and the strong HR trend supporting the use of stay interviews, it strikes me that there's much potential synergy between the two. For those who aren't familiar, a "stay interview" is an innovative tactic to prevent the often less-than-satisfactory "exit interview." Instead of waiting to query a departing employee about the reasons for leaving, the stay interview proactively explores what makes employees more or less likely to stay or leave and thereby gives company leadership and HR valuable retention information.

For employers and HR professionals interested in stay interviews, here are some ways to tie Goldsmith's six questions into the stay interview concept: 

1. Where are we going? 

This is a "big picture" conversation in which the leader shares perspective on what's most important in terms of goals, vision and priorities, and elicits the report's thoughts on the same. This question creates an opportunity to point out similarities, clarify expectations and support the employee's vision, which can be very engaging for the employee. 

2. Where are you going? 

This question focuses specifically on the work the employee is doing and invites a discussion about how well-aligned this work is with the vision, goals and priorities just discussed. Senior HR executive Colleen McManus, SHRM-SCP, shared a personal experience on the use of this question.

"I remember obtaining my then-dream job as an HR director years ago," she said. "On my first day, the CEO took me to lunch and asked me what my next career goal was. I thought, 'Gee, I just GOT this job! Is there something you want to tell me?' He explained that he always wanted his key team members to have a career road map, and he wanted to know what that was so he could support us at every step of that journey. I LOVED that, as it felt like a true investment in my career!" 

3. What's going well? 

This question reflects the importance of leaders giving positive recognition for actions and results worth repeating. Don't mince words—be specific and sincere.  This way, the employee knows exactly what actions hit the mark and is likely to repeat that type of behavior in the future. 

4. What are your key suggestions for improvement? 

The main word here is "key." This question is not intended to be a brainstorming exercise where the employee provides a laundry list of things that could be better. "Key" means keeping the focus on what's most important. Said McManus, "Sometimes, for focus, I like what I call the 'one-thing question.' If there was one thing I could do to better support you in your role, what would that be? The 'one-thing question' helps employees home in on the one or two things that will make a significant difference." 

5. How can I help? 

Goldsmith emphasizes that this question creates the opportunity for the leader to genuinely listen, hear what the report has to say and look for ways to help the report be more successful. This question also creates an opportunity for the leader to commit to actions that will help the employee. 

6. What suggestions do you have for me? 

With this question, the leader is not asking for feedback, which could be construed as criticism and something a subordinate employee might be reluctant to give. Rather, the employee provides what Goldsmith calls feedforward—practical suggestions for future improvement. This approach enables the conversation to be constructive without being defensive. It's not what you did wrong in the past. It's what you could do more effectively in the future. 

Based on Goldsmith's research as well as his experience as a coach, asking these six questions and discussing the answers with employees will dramatically improve a manager's effectiveness, both in the manager's relationship with direct reports and in the organization's health and success. Goldsmith recommended that these conversations occur approximately quarterly. This way, he said, there will be a continual interaction, including action on suggestions. "Otherwise, employees will wonder what's the point if nothing ever happens based on the input they give."

Goldsmith also said leaders tend to assume employees will ask for help when they need it. "This is not necessarily so," he explained. "Our research shows employees are often reluctant to ask for help yet will complain that they're not getting the help they need even though they didn't ask for it."

Tracy Robinson, vice president of HR at forklift dealer Liftow Limited in Ontario, Canada, echoed this point. "While we hope we create the environment where our employees ask for help when they need it, unfortunately too often we find that they don't," she said. "The stay interview is a great opportunity to begin to create a safe and structured environment to engage in feedback to allow managers to address issues before it's too late and they learn about it in an exit interview."

Christopher D. Lee, SHRM-SCP, a senior HR executive and author of Performance Conversations (SHRM, 2020) agreed, adding that "questions are a powerful tool to engage and involve employees in their own success." I'll add that they also distinguish substantive communication from mere chitchat.

Deploy the six questions and listen carefully to the answers, whether you're the stay interviewer yourself or a coach to the managers who interview their reports. As Goldsmith said, "HR is uniquely positioned to promote a coaching environment versus a hierarchical boss/subordinate environment. I encourage every CEO and other leader to empower HR to serve as a means to creating and maintaining a healthy, productive, coaching culture." 

 Jathan Janove is a former state bar "Employment Law Attorney of the Year;" author of Hard-Won Wisdom: True Stories from the Management Trenches (HarperCollins 2017); Master Coach & Practice Leader with Marshall Goldsmith Stakeholder Centered Coaching; and faculty member, University of California San Diego Masters Series.


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