Who Will Stay and Who Will Go?

To retain star employees, train managers to conduct stay interviews.

By Kathryn Tyler Dec 1, 2011
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This year, Burcham Hills Retirement Community in East Lansing, Mich., began conducting stay interviews for nurses after 30 days of employment and annually for veteran employees. The results? Turnover decreased among veteran nurses by 72 percent. Every new hire has stayed for at least six months.

At first, "it was difficult to get managers to dedicate the time," says Joan Holda, SPHR, director of human resources. "However, when they realized the impact stay interviews had on retention, they felt they would rather spend time getting acquainted and developing rapport with existing employees than recruiting, interviewing and training new employees."

While many HR professionals are familiar with exit interviews—interviews where an employee who has terminated employment discusses what led to the departure—stay interviews are not as common. Stay interviews target existing employees and focus on finding out what makes them stay with the company.

"Most companies do not have formal stay interview processes in place. Stay interviews are designed to help managers have a better handle on what uniquely motivates each of their employees. The idea is for managers to use that information to increase the employees' engagement, help employees with their career development and, ultimately, retain them for the organization," says Beth N. Carvin, CEO of Nobscot Corporation, an HR technology provider in Kailua, Hawaii.

Digging Deeper

"Do not confuse stay interviews with exit interviews," Carvin warns. "Some consultants have mistakenly advised, 'Don't do exit interviews; do stay interviews.' " In reality, she says, the two are used for different purposes.

Unlike exit interviews, which are typically conducted by someone in HR, stay interviews should be conducted by managers. "Stay interviews are about the individual, to help manage them better. Exit interviews are about the organization, to help improve the company for everyone," Carvin explains.

Why not just field an employee engagement survey? The results of engagement surveys are anonymous, whereas stay interviews are one-on-one, segmented by population, more detailed and more like a conversation than a multiple-choice quiz. Data from a stay interview with a top performer is more valuable than general data from a generic group of employees.

"Because the data are anonymous, employee surveys provide average data for average employees. You don't know what top performers think or how important those items are to them," says Dick Finnegan, author of Rethinking Retention in Good Times and Bad: The Power of Stay Interviews for Engagement and Retention (SHRM, 2011) and CEO of C-Suite Analytics, a consultancy in Longwood, Fla. First, stay interviews "give you information you can use today. There's no delay in getting the data. Second, they help you address the needs of individual employees, instead of presuming those needs based on average data. Third, they put managers in the solutions seat."

Managers then share the feedback with HR, and HR professionals can add the findings "to other bits of data gathered already, such as employee satisfaction or engagement surveys," to get a more complete picture of employee engagement, says Eileen Habelow, senior vice president of organizational development for Randstad, an international recruiting and staffing company.

Now Is the Time

Even in a weak economy, star employees are in demand and can find employment opportunities elsewhere. Moreover, 38 percent of employees are actively seeking a new job, up 2 percent from February, according to Globoforce's latest WorkForce Mood Tracker survey report, released in September.

"Stay interviews help a manager uncover what makes the job 'sticky' for each individual. For some employees, it might be purely about money and benefits. For others, it's about the culture and camaraderie. Some employees are happy with a nice office close to home; others might desire challenging work or future career opportunities," Carvin says.

HR professionals in some industries may experience the high-performance drain more than others. Dwayne Orrick, chief of police for the city of Roswell, Ga., and author of Recruitment, Retention and Turnover of Police Personnel: Reliable, Practical and Effective Solutions (Charles C. Thomas Publishers Ltd., 2008), explains the crisis in law enforcement: "We are seeing fewer people staying in one location or one agency for their entire careers. A lot of police skills are transferrable to other employers. If you are recruiting and selecting great people, but then losing them to other agencies," that's a problem.

Jack Wilkie, chief marketing officer and senior vice president of development for NOVO 1, a customer contact center in Fort Worth, Texas, agrees. "While most companies interview exiting employees to understand why they are leaving, we think it is more important to ask current employees who are still contributing to our company why they stay," he says. Using stay interviews helped NOVO 1 reduce turnover by 20 percent.

The Logistics

Stay interviews don't need to be conducted for all employees, Habelow says. "I'm interested in what makes my top performers stay to ensure I put my money where I'm having the biggest return on investment. I need to know why my middle-of-the-bell-curve workforce stays because they keep my business running. I'm much less interested in what makes the low performers stay."

That's the practice at NOVO 1, where employees rated "A" and "B" participate in stay interviews. "Others are conducted on an ad hoc basis," Wilkie says.

Orrick says his organization identifies key people who are great performers to learn how to anchor them to the agency.

Finnegan compares top performers to best customers. If "most of your sales came from 30 percent of your customers, you would take them to the country club for lunch. You'd be thinking about how you could treat them better. Why don't we talk to our employees to see how we can treat them better?"

Letting employees know why they have been chosen for stay interviews can be a recognition tool, experts say. "Let them know they have been chosen because their opinions are valuable," Habelow says. To manage expectations, Habelow advises managers to discuss what employees can expect after the interview. 

How often managers should conduct stay interviews depends on an employer's turnover cycle. For example, if new-hire employees are leaving, on average, at the six-month mark, managers should conduct stay interviews at the 90-day mark.

At NOVO 1, stay interviews are conducted annually. Additional meetings are conducted with employees who show "any sign of wanting to leave," Wilkie says.

Habelow recommends interviewing sample groups of employees each quarter. "Make sure your sampling is representative of all departments, levels and lines of business," she says.

Training Managers

To train managers on how to conduct stay interviews, HR professionals should cover active listening skills, guide managers to ask probing questions and provide managers with opportunities for role-playing.

For example, Holda at Burcham Hills facilitates an hourlong "kickoff" training program and then meets individually with each department's supervisors to review the process and discuss results.

At NOVO 1, managers' stay interview training was initially conducted by an outside consultant. A 90-minute, interactive session covered how to:

  • Prepare for one-on-one meetings.
  • Conduct interviews using good listening skills.
  • Take good notes.
  • Probe for additional information.
  • Follow up with senior management about results.

"We learned to make the sessions conversational and positive, rather than 'complaint sessions.' Training is updated on an annual basis prior to conducting annual stay interviews," Wilkie says.

Habelow says proper training teaches managers how to make it sound like a conversation as opposed to an interview. "If it feels like an interview, it's not all that disarming. Your goal is to build up some rapport," she explains.

Ask the Right Questions

In an effective stay interview, managers ask standard, structured questions in a casual manner with a conversational tone.

At NOVO 1, Wilkie says, an opening might be "I want to talk with you today about the most important reasons you stay with us, because I hope we will work together for a long time." It's important to ask direct questions early on that protect the organization from any implied contract if the employee's performance slips. Then managers might focus on setting realistic expectations: "My greatest interest for today's meeting is to learn what I can do to make this a great place for you to work, especially regarding things I can control."
Supervisors at Burcham Hills ask questions such as:

  • When you travel to work each day, what are you looking forward to?
  • Have you ever thought about leaving our team?
  • How can I best support you?
  • How does working here compare to what you thought it would be like? 
  • What do you want to learn here?What can you learn here that will make you feel good when you go home every day?

During the interview, managers should probe for more-detailed information, Finnegan says, and solicit ideas from the employee about how the company can retain him or her. The manager can help the employee create a stay plan.

The Results

Managers and HR professionals need to act on the findings.
For example, to increase retention, Orrick's police force has enhanced its succession management program, involved staff more in decision-making, overhauled the performance appraisal system to align with hiring competencies and revamped the internal complaint process to include a peer-review board.

The data gathered through stay interviews can be put into different formats, but dashboards have become popular. Burcham Hills is moving toward using a color-coded spreadsheet to identify employees who are likely to stay (green), possibly going to leave (yellow) and likely to leave (red), Holda says.

The information is reviewed quarterly to determine if employees were accurately classified. "If someone was identified as green and they left within a month of a stay interview, we would like to follow up and determine what happened," Holda says.

Get Ahead of the Curve

While stay interviews can't ensure that star employees never move on, they can help determine the factors that are important to the best employees. Knowing that helps HR professionals make spending decisions in line with top performers' values.

"Why wait for your top performers to leave?" Wilkie asks, adding: "Take control of issues relating to productivity and attrition."

The author, a former HR generalist and trainer, is a freelance writer in Wixom, Mich.

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