Stay interviews: tool for preventing exit interviews with key talent

Recently, I was speaking with an executive who mentioned she was traveling across the country to meet with employees who she thought could be at risk for leaving the organization.  When I inquired if she was planning to do stay interviews, she looked at me with a blank stare.  This smart, savvy and concerned leader had no idea what I was talking about.  Her plan for retention centered on traveling 3,000 miles to spend time with these employees.  Wasn’t that enough?

That’s when it dawned on me that a “stay interview” is not necessarily widely known or practiced, even among experienced leaders and managers. Beverly Kay, author of the book, Love’em or Lose’em; Getting Good People to Stay is widely seen as the originator of this simple yet brilliant tool for preventing exit interviews with key employees.

A stay interview is about asking thought-provoking questions to valued employees about what is most important to them and what will keep them in their job and/or with the organization.

Examples of stay interview questions include:

  • What will keep you here?
  • What gets you out of bed in the morning?
  • What one thing, if it changed about your job, would make you want to leave?
  • How can I best support you?

While managers can take a formal approach to having a stay interview with an employee, stay interview questions can be inserted into a developmental conversation, a casual one-on-one check in or even a group icebreaker in a team meeting (if the question is selected carefully enough).

Five years ago, I had the opportunity to introduce stay interviews to a healthcare organization as part of a Talent Review and Succession Planning process.  Leaders immediately liked the simplicity of the tool, but were concerned that asking such questions would lead to disappointment if the request or need could not be met.  In most cases, research shows, employees will not respond to stay interview questions with unreasonable demands related to compensation and/or promotion.   More often than not, the needs might center on developmental opportunities, desire for advancement and/or more recognition and support. In addition, employees will appreciate the gesture and a manager’s attempt to address an employee’s concern, regardless of the outcome.

Five years later, stay interviews are now common language and common practice in the organization.  Not only does this practice support retention of key talent, but it also helps leaders identify individuals who have aspirations for leadership and provides leaders with a valuable pulse check on the climate and priorities of their team members.

Stay Interviews allow you to have near 20/20 vision about what key employees value and where they want to go.  In this day and age, it’s hard to imagine how leaders would risk not asking these questions.