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How “Stay Interviews” Keep the Talent on Your Team

In my job, I talk to HR leaders every week. Lately, I’ve noticed that they seem more frustrated than usual—and more tired.

With employees quitting in droves, it’s not hard to see why. A tight labor market translates to a very real (and very expensive) issue for HR: turnover. According to McKinsey, up to a third of job-quitters put in notice without even having a new job secured.

Every time an employee leaves, it costs their former employer a lot to replace them. The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) and Gallup both estimate that cost at between six months and two years of an employee’s salary. If voluntary turnover across a company is mounting into 20, 30, 40, or even 50 percent a year, that comes with a gigantic price tag.

Given this, I’m surprised that more companies aren’t tightly focused on keeping the talent they have. That’s a much easier thing to do than to find new talent once they’re gone.

A good retention strategy is multifaceted, but one simple, low-cost tactic can be particularly useful: “stay interviews.” What is a stay interview? Put simply, it’s a discussion between manager and employee designed to surface why the employee might want to leave the company—before they actually do. 

Here is a five-step process to follow if you want to hold stay interviews with your team:

1. Schedule 30 to 45 minutes one-on-one with each of your direct reports. Do include everyone. There are probably one or two people on the team who are the most important to retain—the A-players, the irreplaceable talent—but you can gain “stay insights” from anyone. You also don’t want it getting around that you left certain people out of the exercise.

2. Explain the purpose to the employee. You can pitch it like this: “I’d like to chat with you informally about what’s keeping you at [our company] and how I can help keep you satisfied here.” It’s helpful to emphasize that this conversation is important but informal. You don’t want the employee to feel like you’re twisting their arm to stay or like you know something and want to squeeze it out of them.

3. Pick your questions. I’m a big advocate of going into any one-on-one meeting armed with power questions. Stay interviews are no exception. Below are some examples, and you might customize for each employee based on their personality, responsibilities, and situation.

• What is the most fulfilling part of your job here?

• What is the most annoying or frustrating part of your job here?

• What would make you think about leaving the company?

• Do you get enough feedback from me and others?

• What’s one thing you wish I did differently as a manager?

• Are there any new skills you want to learn?

• Are there any new responsibilities you’d like to take on?

As you choose your questions, remember what motivates employees most. It’s not money but instead things like achievement, recognition, responsibility, and growth. Your task is to understand how you—specifically and tangibly—can enhance these motivators for the employee while sweeping away the things that aggravate them.

It’s also wise to keep in mind that you, the boss, are probably the deciding factor in whether the employee stays or goes. As we often repeat at Manager360, people don’t leave companies; they leave managers.

4. Hold the interviews. My best advice here is to listen actively. Good listening is something far too few managers do. Repeat back what you hear in your own words.

5. Now to the final—and most critical—step: Act on what you heard in the stay interviews. What needs to change? What will you do? When will you do it? If employees feel the stay interview was just an exercise, there’s no point in taking the time to do them in the first place.

Stay interviews can feel a little awkward for both the employee and the boss, but I encourage you to approach them with excitement and enthusiasm about what you might learn. Once a great employee has a foot out the door, it’s almost impossible to get them back (much less re-engage them). The beauty of the stay interview is that you patch the drip-drip-drip of employee resignations before the problem sets in too deep for remedy.

Picture of Alicia Thrasher

Alicia Thrasher

Alicia is cofounder and CEO of Manager360. Previously, she brought her leadership, vision, and strategic oversight to many executive positions, including leading programs for eBay/PayPal, Google, and Anheuser-Busch. She is the coauthor, with Joel Trammell, of The Manager's Playbook: Make Exceptional People Management Your Competitive Advantage.

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