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Exactly what to ask if you’re conducting a stay interview

March 5, 2022
Borderless Leadership

It’s never an easy time for an employer, or the employees, when someone resigns. Starting the recruitment process against the clock of a notice period brings challenges in itself, exacerbated by the pending loss of knowledge that the business will face and the short-term pressure of potentially no successor in place to ensure a smooth transition.

In the ongoing war for talent, there are multiple buzzwords whirling around suggesting how best to retain employees. The latest is a stay interview: A one-on-one conversation with an employee aimed at uncovering what entices them to stay at their current job, or what might cause them to leave.

Stay interviews may well be increasingly common, but are they just a quick-fix solution to the Great Resignation? When it comes to retaining talent, stay interviews are not, and nor should they be, the only step to be taken in order to learn more about your employees. Indeed, stay interviews are only as useful as the questions asked—and many leaders are simply asking the wrong ones.

Unfortunately, for many companies the stay interview has been introduced at a stage in the employee’s lifecycle when it is already deemed to be “too little too late.” To be effective, stay interviews ought to happen after the onboarding process has been completed, and then continue at a regular cadence from that point onward; certainly well before an exit interview becomes a thought. It also needs to be a conversation grounded in honesty and sincerity.

Exit interviews are typically expected to be when the leaving employee is most truthful. It’s no surprise to learn that stay interviews can become a time for employees to simply tell their employer what they think they want to hear. Employers need to ensure at the start of the interview that it is an opportunity to be as transparent as possible, and ask the questions that prompt a genuine response.

It’s important to remember that the premise of a stay interview isn’t just to benefit the employer.

A common error is for managers to ask employees questions outside of the wheelhouse of their work experience. Questions such as, “How should we improve our company’s culture?” are too vague and won’t lead to concrete, actionable answers. In reality most employees aren’t thinking about their work culture on a day-to-day basis and how it can evolve for the greater good.

Instead, managers should ask more actionable and relatable questions about their employees, such as, “What would you like to see happen at our next team event?” or, “What makes you get up on a Monday morning and go to work?” These insights can help uncover a much more personal and authentic response that will, in turn, drive real change in the company.

Other questions that business leaders should be asking in a stay interview to gain real value from their employees include:

  • If given the opportunity to learn a new skill or facet of our business, what would be most appealing to you?
  • What part of your day-to-day drains you and how could we work to make it better?
  • Do you feel comfortable being yourself at work? What can we add or provide to make you feel more supported?
  • Where do you see your career two years from now? (Ask yourself, “Is this in line with how you as a leader thought about developing the team?)

Once these check-ins are complete, the next phase of the stay interview is of equal importance. A stay interview can not be a one-and-done action, but should be an ongoing process. Improving the overall talent experience starts with treating your employees as you would a customer.

This includes maintaining a regular cadence of structured conversations throughout their employment life cycle in order to meet their needs and garner additional feedback. Leaders must therefore define the structure of this conversation as it’s more than just having a continuous conversation. Stay interviews must be positioned as a formal meeting to focus on the goal of the discussion: a moment in time that allows an employer and employee to have a face-to-face conversation.

Following a stay interview, the employer should schedule a follow-up discussion to make sure any concerns are being addressed. Leaders must also establish a timeline, and goals, for holding themselves accountable. Stay interviews will only go so far in providing critical insights for leaders; they must then take those learnings and use them to reconsider, or potentially re-establish, the company’s core values and overall direction.

Such interviews offer a great opportunity for a symbiotic relationship between the manager and employee. The process not only helps employers discover what changes they need to implement in order to retain talent but also helps employees gain insights into their own career path, to better understand where the opportunities for progression are and how best to achieve them. They also help the employee to feel accountable and empowered in driving the positive changes that they seek – and, in turn, ownership drives great loyalty.

The most successful leaders not only listen to employees but take that feedback into the business and implement powerful changes and improvements. This approach can also deliver stronger leadership, a better employee experience overall, and ensure no resignation letter ever comes as a surprise.

By Steffen Buch


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