Stay interviews: how to prevent internal talent from flying the coop

Reports of restless and disgruntled employees are soaring, and traditional retention tactics are not cutting it. The trusty exit interview is too little too late; surveys lack the rich detail needed to probe emerging issues and with everyone desperate to look to the future, reflective appraisals have no appeal.

Enter the stay interview. These pre-emptive one-on-one sessions are “a useful way of finding out what is and isn’t working within an organisation, while developing trust, respect and understanding between the employee and employer,” explains Sheila Attwood, managing editor of pay and HR practice at XpertHR.

“They demonstrate that employers want to listen and have authentic dialogue. HR can learn more about the reasons employees choose to work at an organisation and get indications for how to retain others.

"Issues can be addressed in the early stages before escalating into a bigger problem. In that way, stay interviews play a really important role in retaining talent and bolstering company culture.”

Fay Hitchenor, HR director at Together Dental, is keen to explore this tool after hearing success stories. “I’ve heard about them being used in the social care sector,” she says.

“They’re struggling to retain people recruited from hospitality and leisure during the pandemic because they’re being enticed back.

“It’s a really simple format to anchor back to why they joined, firm up what motivates them and pin down what the business can do to retain them. One of their key findings is that many people are looking for career progression much earlier than before. Some want structures and opportunities to move up as early on as three months in. These companies are working hard to engage with and evolve their employees fast.”

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As well as cultivating an open feedback loop, bottom-line profits can benefit from a productivity perspective, says Dean Hunter, chairman of employee-owned HR consultancy Hunter Adams.

All it takes is developing a robust system that turns stay interviews into HR success stories.


Be prepared

Recommending the best person for the job is likely a task for HR. Generally, according to Hunter, line managers should conduct stay interviews to demonstrate the desire to invest in their team.

Here, HR should step in with training, says Irene van der Werf, people manager at employment services company Omnipresent: “Imagine asking your manager where you can develop, and they have no answer? They don’t need to have all the answers at all times, but should be able to come back with proper feedback.”

Manager-conducted stay interviews come with risks, however. They can create expectations managers cannot deliver on, and potentially overlook the manager themselves as a key contributor to dwindling retention rates.

Alternatives include HR taking the lead. “There is incredible value in HR talking with employees every six months or so,” claims van der Werf, or, as Hunter recommends, introducing an independent third party.

Briefing employees beforehand can also help to manage post-interview expectations. “You could end up with a list of 50 requests, which is likely to be unfeasible to deliver,” says Hunter. “So, while everyone should have their say, it needs to be clear that not everything asked for can be delivered.”


Make every word count

Perceptions matter with a stay interview. Hitchenor at Together Dental reminds HR leaders to be mindful that the idea of a stay interview could lead people to feel like they ‘should be’ saying a certain thing.

Van der Werf adds: “Stay conversations can be a workshop on anything from work hours to channels of communicating; a talk on any problem that the team faces; or discussing openly: ‘Where do we see ourselves heading, what are our career goals and how do we empower each other to get there?’”

Positively promoting the process to show teams the value of being involved and considering language used is important to challenge misguided perceptions.

Jonny Gifford, senior adviser for organisational behaviour at the CIPD, suggests the term ‘interview’ can be off-putting, so removing the formality altogether for a term like ‘good work conversations’ could be more useful.

Stay interviews should not be seen as exclusive either. Rather than focusing only on top talent, Gifford says: “The areas typically covered – motivation, frustration, support, development and values – are things that managers should discuss with all employees, not only those they think are most likely to leave.”

When it comes to the interviews themselves, Rosie McArdle, senior associate at employment law firm LexLeyton, advises sincere, open-ended questions. “Ask why they stay with the company; how you can improve their role; whether the feedback they get is enough; and what improvements you can make,” she says.

When tackling taboos, such as “how do you feel about your manager and salary?” or “when did you last think about leaving and what stopped you?”, HR should expect difficult questions in return.

In response, Hunter says: “Be prepared to provide a fair, balanced view of the current arrangement, what’s possible and what isn’t – and why.”

Well-trained interviewers should avoid ambushing employees with a quick-fire round and, instead, try to foster a relationship. Active listening is key, and interviewers should be prepared to adapt questions to each employee.

Van der Werf explains: “Some people will give you a piece of their mind whether you asked for it or not; some people you may need to almost pull it out of them.”

Ending on a high is critical. Show participants they have been listened to by recapping what they said and making a plan. Acknowledge and appreciate their efforts and remember that giving feedback can be scary. “A simple: ‘I notice that was difficult for you to share. Thank you for your trust’ will go a long way,” adds van der Werf.

Finally, act on feedback to develop trust and credibility, while bearing in mind that changes may be immediate or may require further negotiation.

McArdle explains: “A 20% pay rise or full home-working role may not be possible, but a 10% rise and hybrid working arrangement may be – especially if it buys longer-term commitment and saves a costly recruitment process.”

Stay interview success story

Irene van der Werf, people manager, Omnipresent:

“I’ve seen internal mobility shoot up. This is great as people who want to move, if you don’t facilitate it, will do it somewhere else. I’ve seen Employee Net Promoter Scores go up and feedback culture get better. People start speaking up in the big company meeting. When you give feedback, and it’s actually listened to, you feel more engaged and want to invest more effort and time in the company.”


This article appears in the July/August 2021 print issue. Subscribe today to have all our latest articles delivered right to your desk.