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Viewpoint: Stay Interviews Matter More Than Ever

How can we know what employees think and fear if we don't ask them?

A woman wearing headphones and working on a laptop.

​One of my favorite stay interview stories happened several years ago in Michigan, where a manager of an auto collision shop began our standard five-question stay interview session with a technician I'll call Robert. Within the next few minutes Robert disclosed his wife had cancer, and he was subsequently exhausted each morning by having to wake/dress/feed their three kids and hustle them to the bus stop before coming to work. Smartly, the manager asked permission to share this tale internally, and Robert's peers stepped up to take on more work.

Robert would have shielded his plight without his manager asking him, at the risk of losing his job due to his resulting low production. This true story jumps out when I consider all of the worries and chaos employees are feeling right now during this pandemic.

How confusing is work right now? Consider these totally conflicting studies: Glassdoor found 73 percent of workers are ready to return to the office while a survey by PWC indicated more than half of respondents said the fear of getting sick would prevent them from returning to work.

[SHRM members-only HR forms: Stay Interview Questions]

Never Has Communication Mattered More

In calmer times we might be tempted to distribute a survey. Most of us have learned, though, that surveys provide data but rarely take us to effective solutions. This is why Gallup reports employee engagement has barely budged in 20 years and that just one third of employees remain engaged, no matter which "solutions" we try. 

This is the time for executives to deliver transparent information to their employees. Many CEOs have done just that, but solid research has proven over time that first-line supervisors must also be both sharing information and listening to their employees, as the top reason those employees stay or leave, engage or disengage, is how much they trust their immediate supervisors—regardless of any communications from their CEO.

Data show that employees nearly always equate their relationships with their boss with their relationships with their companies—good boss = good employer, jerk boss = lousy company.

Stay interviews drive leaders on each level to ask specific questions, listen, take notes and probe for more information. By doing this, supervisors can be trained to cut turnover and improve engagement.

What Do I Do Next?

Tell your executives the time is now to train supervisors to conduct stay interviews with each employee. Regardless of whether she is working onsite or from home, each employee has her pandemic story to tell, whether about her own needs or those within her family that impact her work every day. Employees are holding these stories inside and need to get them out, ideally to their supervisor who is their main link to your company. Not only can your supervisors help solve these unique issues but also, more importantly, they can build trust, even just by listening.

The story mentioned above opened my eyes to how personal stories ultimately become work stories, as Robert was struggling both at work and at home due to his wife's illness. By conducting a stay interview, his manager uncovered and helped solve an issue that would have otherwise remained buried—one that contributed to low productivity with Robert potentially losing his job.

Stay interviews have helped our client companies cut turnover by 30 percent and more, all while also improving productivity, reducing errors and ultimately increasing profits. Stay interviews have earned their place beside engagement surveys and have surpassed the low-level effectiveness of exit surveys. Try them and you and your team will be glad you did. Now more than ever.

Richard P. Finnegan is CEO of C-Suite Analytics, a consultancy specializing in engagement and retention, and author of The Power of Stay Interviews, Second Edition (SHRM, 2018).


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