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How to Conduct Stay Interviews: Core Features and Advantages

Part 1

Two women sitting at a desk talking to each other.

This article is the first of a three-part series of excerpts from The Power of Stay Interviews for Engagement and Retention, Second Edition(SHRM, 2018) by Richard P. Finnegan.

Let's start with a definition of "stay interview": a structured discussion a leader conducts with an individual employee to learn specific actions the leader can take to strengthen the employee's engagement and retention with the organization.

You'll notice a core feature of this definition is that leaders conduct stay interviews. "Leader" is defined here as anyone who manages someone, so this term may be synonymous in your organization with executives, managers, supervisors or leads.

There might be times when HR is called on to conduct stay interviews for employees who work outside of human resources, but this should be for exceptional circumstances only. The best outcomes happen when leaders are in the stay interview chair and hear directly from their employees how they wish to be managed for better engagement and retention. And "I'm too busy" is not a legitimate reason for managers to ask HR to conduct stay interviews!

This definition also indicates leaders must conduct stay interviews individually, one-on-one. While it is certainly more efficient to conduct stay interviews in small groups, employees will share less information, particularly information they consider personal to them. Leaders will also face an easy temptation to design group solutions instead of individual solutions, which then become programs rather than customized stay plans for individual employees.

Here are other core features of stay interviews and how they should be implemented:

  • Cascade: The first stay interviews should be conducted by the top executive of the company or unit with that executive's direct reports, and then cascade down throughout the rest of the team to first-line supervisors with their direct reports. All leaders except the top executive should first experience a stay interview as an employee. This means that each leader's stay interview performance becomes a role model for each subordinate leader, and those subordinate leaders will likely manage the stay interviews with their teams in the same ways that their leader did.
  • Conduct in person: Stay interviews should ideally be conducted in person rather than remotely, even if a meeting must be scheduled months in advance due to travel or some form of telecommuting.
  • Set expectations: Leaders should tell teams in advance that they will schedule individual stay interviews with each employee to learn what they can do to help every employee stay longer and feel fully engaged at work. Leaders should also emphasize that the focus will be on things they can influence or control versus issues that relate to broader company policies, but that they will listen to all concerns.
  • Schedule appropriately: Most stay interviews take 20 minutes or less to conduct, but some will carry on longer. Leaders should consider telling employees to allow 20 minutes for their meeting, but even then, leaders should allow 30 minutes on their calendars. Also, leaders should schedule an easy meeting first to build confidence in their skills and prowess, and then move on to those who are most important to engage and keep, followed by the rest.
  • Separate from performance: Stay interviews should focus on identifying specific improvements that raise employees' levels of engagement and retention, and should not morph into telling employees ways they can perform better. This means that stay interviews should not be add-ons to performance-appraisal meetings, but should instead beseparate meetings that are entirely focused on what leaders can do for their employees.
  • Don't send questions in advance: Sending questions in advance reduces conversation and instead limits leaders to responding to scripted, bullet-pointed answers. It's better to ask each question individually, listen, take notes and then probe for deeper responses that open doors for solutions.
  • Script openings: Leaders must open meetings with scripts that both point employees in the right direction and avoid any appearance of an implied contract.

Stay interviews offer potent and enduring advantages when the core features are thoughtfully implemented, including:

  • Employees hear directly from their supervisor that he or she cares and wants them to stay and grow with the company. The supervisor-employee bond is critical to improving engagement and retention, and supervisors deliver clear messages during their stay interviews that each employee is important for the company's success and that supervisors want them to stay.
  • Supervisors further accept retention and engagement within their sphere of responsibility. Combining stay interviews with retention goals and other initiatives results in a clear understanding that responsibility for retention and engagement lies with individual supervisors, who are in the best position to influence and drive improvements.
  • Employees are more likely to accept responsibility for staying. Stay interviews require supervisors to ask, listen, consider and then follow up on employees' requests. This builds a new form of connection that causes employees to not only stay longer but also to proactively approach their supervisors with a concern in the future before they resort to looking for another job.
  • Stay interviews build trust. Supervisors who ask, listen, act and communicate honestly strengthen trust with their employees, the absolute most important supervisory skill for increasing engagement and retention.

Dick Finnegan is CEO of C-Suite Analytics and the Finnegan Institute. Please visit the SHRMStore to order a copy of The Power of Stay Interviews for Engagement and Retention, Second Edition.


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