Stay Interviews? Should They Stay or Should They Go?

“…Don’t it always seem to go, that you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone…”

-Joni Mitchell (Big Yellow Taxi)

It seems like “stay interviews” which have been around for some time, are again a recent hot topic on the HR speaking circuit. If you are not familiar with the concept of stay interviews it is a planned meeting where a supervisor meets with their employee to gain a clearer understanding about why the employee may want to leave the organization and identify what would make them stay.

I am not familiar with the exact origin of stay interviews but I’m going to guess that the concept came out of the “exit interview” process, where employees, often free from fear of any repercussions, may open up about the reasons that they are leaving, usually with the employer thinking “if I had only known we might have resolved this earlier….”

Like with most concepts, there is certainly a wide variety of opinions concerning the value of conducting stay interviews. I understand that it may play an important role in some employee retention instances however, I tend to lean on the side of believing that regular and open communication between supervisors and employees may not require the need of a formal, stay interview process. I place most of the responsibly of regular and consistent communication on the supervisor.

One of my biggest pet peeves both as an HR professional and when I was managing supervisors was when an annual performance review was delivered to an employee and was filled with a number of “surprises.”  We have all experienced that one (maybe more than one) supervisor that feels that the only time that they can provide feedback, or in the most extreme scenarios, actually communicate with their employees is in a formal, written performance review. Imagine being that employee that receives written feedback in their evaluation to learn that they have not been meeting expectations for the past six months, and first hearing about it now! (Yes, I have been on the receiving end of this type of feedback at least once in my career!)  My general rule has been that there should never be anything documented in an employee performance review that has not already been addressed, at least in some reasonable manner, with the employee. Just another example of how communication should not require a formal process.

To segue back to the stay interview concept, I would argue that a formal meeting may not always be necessary to have a conversation with an employee to better learn what motivates them to come in each day, other than a paycheck. Here are five basic steps that may help to eliminate the need for a stay interview:

Listen – It is sad that it even needs to be stated, but some supervisors are not taking the time to actually listen to their employees. It is not just good practice, but ultimately the responsibility of a supervisor to not just hear but also listen to their employees. Yes, some employees may not always be comfortable sharing their honest thoughts and opinions, but if they do, make sure you are actually listening to them.

Respond – Now that you have listened…respond! For example, if an employee expresses an idea or other constructive feedback, make sure that you respond and acknowledge what they have shared. Hopefully, a response will encourage them to continue to offer ideas and suggestions to create a more productive work environment. If what you heard was something that is affecting the employee’s ability to be productive, affecting their morale or worse, a complaint (i.e. bullying, harassment, discrimination, etc.) your response should include what your next steps will be.

Be Accessible – If you are going to communicate with your employees (listen and respond), you first need to be accessible. As time has allowed, I have always been a firm believer of “management by walking around.” Being visible is key in encouraging open communication with your employees. Get out of your office and up from your desk and take the time to check in with employees both regularly and unannounced. They will become more comfortable with seeing you and again, may take that opportunity to talk with you.

Take Action – If you have been accessible, listening and responding to your employees, the next step is to take and needed actions. Was there anything that your employee shared that you can or need to address? If employees can see tangible actions taking place because of their communication, this will encourage more communication and further develop trust. Words without action will quickly erode any trust between the supervisor and employee, so if actions are needed, take them.

Be Honest and Transparent – Throughout any relationship between a supervisor and employee, the most important aspect is that the relationship is built on trust. Honesty and transparency should be the model set by the supervisor. An employee may ask for a variety of things (i.e. more money, a promotion, more time off, etc.) and if what they are asking for is not immediately possible, be honest with them. Be open about any limitations you or your employer may have and look for other potential solutions, if possible. Often times employers cannot deliver everything that an employee asks for, but being honest and empathetic can often help demonstrate that you are doing everything that you can for the employee within your power.

Each employer-employee situation is unique and you may find that a formal stay interview is needed, particularly if there is a real concern about the retention of an employee. As with everything in life, there are no “one size fits all” solutions for individuals. Being aware and communicating is half the battle. Employee retention strategies should be built on trust, taking the time and effort to listen, responding, being accessible, and taking action while being honest and transparent. This is not just a good business practice, but ultimately the right thing to do.

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