iOS app Android app More

Jon Younger

Jon Younger

Posted: August 14, 2009 02:29 PM

The Human Element: Implement Stay Interviews Before It's Too Late


Don't wait until your best employees start leaving.

As the economy recovers, companies of all stripes and sizes will need to build back their staffing levels to handle growth. But these same companies also need to keep the competent employees already working for them.

Taking employee loyalty for granted is naïve. At least some of your best employees have already started looking around for opportunities to grow and prosper beyond (or faster than) what they believe is achievable with your company. And your most aggressive competitors are undoubtedly starting to look for good people, and targeting your best and brightest.

Your secret weapon is knowing why your top employees stay. And your best tactic is taking the actions required now to attract and keep them.

Do you know why your best people stay? Not guess or generalize from your last employee lunch. At a recent meeting of The RBL Institute, HR executives of leading companies such as IBM and Proctor & Gamble talked about using "stay interviews" to understand what top employees want from their organizations. (Full disclosure: I am a director of The RBL Institute which is led by The RBL Group co-founder Dave Ulrich and sponsored by the HR heads of 35 global corporations.)

A stay interview is the inverse of an exit interview. Exit interviews tell you why good people are leaving, but rarely in time to prevent their departure. However, a stay interview implemented consistently and well is an early warning system that shows your appreciation, identifies ways to reinforce their good will, and helps you keep them on your payroll and not someone else's.

Stay interviews often consist of the following questions:

• What do you like best about your job? About working here?
• What do you want more of and less of in your work? What's one thing you'd like to change in your current role?
• What's your dream job? (Someday you would like to _____?)
• What can we do to support your career goals?
• What might entice you away? What would it take to get you to consider leaving?

As you implement stay interviews, keep in mind the following:

• One at a time. Part of the power of a stay interview is to show your best performers that you care enough to talk about their interests, goals and hopes. This is "class" not "mass".
• Listen. Don't guide the conversation into what you want to hear or do. Instead, pay attention to what gets the employee excited and engaged.
• Be straight. If there are areas where you can't act, be clear with the individual.
• Be creative in finding the win/win. More money may be off the table, but how about increasing flexibility in work schedules so an employee can attend to his young child or elderly parent?
• Do not negotiate. Remember, the purpose of the stay interview is to show appreciation and remind top people that they are important to the company. Don't pollute it by turning it into a negotiation.

Stay interviews are no panacea, but a tool to help managers gain insight into what needs must be met for employees remain with the company. For example, some years ago The RBL Group was engaged to help the IT department of UBS address significant attrition. Top performers were attracted by the promised opportunity to do groundbreaking work, but a new policy pushed the more innovative work to consultants. When top performers started to leave, IT management responded by offering them more money. Wrong answer. These employees wanted to be involved in cutting edge projects. A stay interview would have given UBS this insight and helped them respond accordingly.

Smart companies take fuller advantage of the stay interview technique by applying it creatively. For example, IBM uses the stay interview concept to help it to create a more inclusive work environment. Executive task forces focused on diverse populations (e.g., Asians, Gay/Lesbian) now ask diversity group members: What is required for your group to feel welcomed and valued at IBM? What can IBM do to maximize your productivity?

On a "one off" basis, stay interviews help a company keep its best people, but they can also be powerful strategy for attraction and retention. But, a more systematic approach increases its value. Have every manager conduct a stay interview at least monthly and have managers meet regularly to discuss the themes that come up. What are the consistent messages the company ought to address? If so, make the changes that will help the company retain great people ... and attract others.

What are your experiences with stay interviews and other creative retention strategies?

Jon Younger is a Partner of The RBL Group, a strategic HR and leadership systems advisory firm. Jon leads the Strategic HR practice area and is also a Director of the RBL Institute. He is co-author, with Dave Ulrich and three other principals at The RBL Group, of "HR Competencies" (SHRM, 2007), "HR Transformation" (McGraw-Hill, July 2009) and many articles. Last year he logged client work in 35 countries.