Doug Blizzard
Why do your top employees stay?

If you want to keep your stars, preempt the exit interview with a “stay interview.”

September 8, 2014
by Doug Blizzard

The loss of a key person can be devastating for professional services firms. As the economy slowly improves, many companies are concerned that their top talent might leave for greener pastures. Before these key people become former employees or, worse, disgruntled and unengaged employees, consider conducting “stay” interviews with them.

What is a “stay” interview? It’s akin to an exit interview, but the goal is to understand why the employee is staying with your firm. The idea is that once you identify those factors, you can then reinforce or amplify them. Stay interviews, in other words, are designed to prevent you from needing exit interviews.

Reasons employees stay
Employees stay with companies for many reasons: pay, benefits, stock options, career opportunities, security, a good manager, family friendly policies and schedules, etc. Yet each employee may join and remain at a company for different reasons. And those reasons change as people move through their lives. Unfortunately, at many companies the reality that people are different collides with a company’s desire to be consistent, leaving many key performers unsatisfied. 

But what if you knew that the main reason your top accountant remains at your company was for a flexible work schedule. Armed with that knowledge, how would you confront a new leader who doesn’t believe in flextime and wants everyone working a standard 8-to-5 “in-the-office” schedule? For a lot of technical managers, “work-at-home” sounds like an opportunity to be taken advantage of, so they avoid or minimize it. They can all recount that one person who did, in fact, take advantage of it. That belief system is called “managing for the 5%.” In other words, managers let the 5% who may do wrong shape practices for the other 95%.

In a stay interview, you “interview” your top performers as well as your top potential performers periodically before there are any hints that they might leave. Find out what’s on their mind. What’s important to them? Are they having any issues? Ask them for ideas to improve culture, processes, policies, etc. Keep the questions simple and conversational in topic. Don’t over-engineer this process. The discussion is more important than the form. Stay interviews are best done one-on-one and face-to-face or, worst-case scenario, over the phone. I would not use an online survey for a stay interview.

Since you are talking to good employees in advance, you’ll hopefully have time to improve and reinforce the factors that are important to them while they are still a part of your organization. A word of caution: Be prepared to apply what you learn to the work environment. It’s much worse when you find out about a problem and do nothing about it versus just being conveniently unaware.

Ideally, stay interviews bring star employees even closer to the company because they know they have a real voice and that management cares. The interviews are a great trust-building opportunity.

What to ask
So what do you ask workers during these interviews? My organization advises companies consider asking the following questions:

  • Why have you chosen to remain with our organization?
  • Are we meeting your career development goals?
  • If an outside recruiter were to contact you, what reasons would you list for not being interested in another job opportunity?
  • What do you enjoy most about your job?
  • What improvements could the company make?

Stay interviews aren’t meant to be a substitute for overall employee satisfaction surveys or exit interviews. However, stay interviews are laser-focused on only one employee subset—your best employees.

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Doug Blizzard is the vice president of membership for CAI Inc., a human resource management firm with locations in Raleigh, N.C., and Greensboro, N.C.