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'Stay' Interviews

November 2015: Vol 38 No 11
by Laurie J. Maddalena, MBA, CPCC, PHR

Have the right kind of talks with your best employees, and you'll spend less time on exit interviews.

employee and manager have a conversationHave you ever been blindsided when one of your best employees gives their two-week notice? You were sailing right along thinking everything was fine, and then one of your stars decides to leave. You can’t imagine how you will get along without them, and most of the other employees on your team don’t measure up.

One of my clients shared with me recently that his top employee, who had worked for him for over a decade, decided to resign. He was completely surprised, and was struggling to imagine how he would fill the gap on his team. When he asked her why she wanted to leave, she said she felt overworked and wanted a fresh start. He admitted that in hindsight, he didn’t do a great job checking in with her because he assumed she was happy. They had worked together for so long, and it didn’t occur to him that she might eventually move on.

Sometimes we take our best employees for granted because we can count on them to get things done with little guidance. We know they will step in when needed, and they often pick up the slack. In our minds we really appreciate our top employees, but we don’t always find the time to connect in a meaningful way and check the temperature of the relationship.

According to a 2014 Gallup survey, only 31.5 percent of U.S. workers reported feeling engaged in their jobs. Nearly sixty-nine percent of employees are either not engaged or actively disengaged in their work. Employees who are “not engaged” lack motivation in their jobs and only put in the effort necessary to get by. Employees who are “actively disengaged” are unhappy and unproductive at work and will likely spread negativity throughout the organization. These startling statistics clearly reveal that leaders need to do more to actively engage their employees. Even before they resign, many individuals are withholding effort on the job and are not contributing at the level they are capable of.

What if you could ensure your best employees stay for the long haul? What if you had a way to find out about any issues before employees tendered their resignation?

Don’t Wait Until It’s Too Late

The best time to talk with your employees is while they still work for you. Exit interviews, which occur after an employee resigns, can provide some valuable information, but by that time it’s too late. You rarely have an opportunity to make changes to keep the exiting employee. Having a conversation while your employee still works for you gives you the power to make changes that will impact the relationship in a positive way. It gives you the information you need to make adjustments to the job or your management style so the employee continues to be happy and fulfilled. And it doesn’t take much time.

A “stay interview” is an informal conversation a manager has with an employee to gain feedback, solicit ideas, and obtain insight into what will keep the employee at your credit union long term. The goal of the conversation is to understand what the employee values so you can make changes before the employee decides to leave. You may not always be able to grant the employee’s wishes, but the fact that you asked and listened is powerful; a meaningful conversation can increase job satisfaction, open up communication, and build trust.

The stay interview is one of the best ways to gain useful information to enhance the relationship with your employee and to increase overall engagement. And it doesn’t cost anything. With just a little bit of planning and effort, you can gain invaluable information to retain your best employees and avoid the exit interview altogether.

7 Steps to Follow

Here are seven best practices for conducting an effective stay interview:

Commit to the process. One of the worst things you can do is to ask people for feedback and then do nothing with the information. Be willing and committed to investing the time and effort to follow through with the interviews regularly, and then follow up with employees about any requests.

For the interviews to be effective, you must take action on the data you receive. The process doesn’t have to be complicated or extensive, but it does take some investment of time.

Start with your best employees. Most managers spend more time coaching struggling employees than they do coaching their top performers. We have a tendency to take our best employees for granted since they are typically high performers and need little direction. Since keeping your best employees is one of your highest priorities, start by scheduling these stay interviews first. This ensures you won’t be tempted to put off your top employees when things get busy.

Schedule regular interviews. The most effective stay interviews involve multiple conversations throughout the year. The initial conversation is opening the door to a more engaging and meaningful relationship. Make a commitment to check in with your employees regularly. A good schedule for stay interviews would be 90 days after hire, six months after hire and one year after hire. For established employees, schedule time in your calendar at least twice a year.

Once you conduct a couple of stay interviews with each of your employees, ideally you can foster an open dialogue where they will come to you with their opinions and ideas without being solicited. However, having a specific meeting on your calendar twice a year ensures a more formal dialogue happens.

Set the tone and listen. When you begin the first meeting, let the employee know you value his contributions to the team, and that you want to ask some questions to understand what is important to him and how you can work better together. Let him know you want to build an honest dialogue so you can support his growth and development. Reassure him that you want him to be truthful when responding, and that you will listen attentively.

During the conversation, try not to interrupt. Ask follow-up questions. Resist the urge to defend or explain, but be honest and sincere. The main purpose of the interview is to find out what will keep the employee so you can manage him better. Remember to talk less and listen more.

Ask open ended questions. You want to find out what will keep your employee feeling valued in her position long term. Take notes so you can capture the main points your employee shares. Try these questions to start a useful discussion:

  • What will keep you here?
  • What might entice you to leave?
  • What do you like best about your job?
  • If you could change one thing about your job, what would it be?
  • What talents and abilities do you have that we are not fully utilizing?
  • What would make our department even more effective?
  • What would make you more effective in your role?
  • Do you feel the credit union supports you in your professional goals?
  • Do you feel you are recognized for good work? How do you prefer to be recognized?
  • What can I do as your manager to support you?
  • Is there anything else you think would be helpful for me to know?

Focus on the Future

For the conversation to be constructive, keep the questions as future-focused as possible. Future-focused questions tend to elicit responses about changes the employee would like to see in the future rather than focus on what has been wrong in the past. If an employee shares some challenges or constructive feedback, probe further to get as much information as possible.

If the employee complains or criticizes, listen intently to her perspective and ask a follow-up question to direct the conversation to a potential solution. For example, you might say, “I’m hearing that you are not happy with the benefits the CU provides.  What changes would you like to see?” Let the employee know that you will share her feedback with the appropriate department.

Most leaders don’t ask these questions because they think the employee will ask for a raise or a promotion. If you feel the employee deserves a raise or promotion, then approach the appropriate leader or department to have a discussion. But if the employee asks for something you can’t grant, be honest and share your limitations.

Take action. Each stay interview will be different, and you will learn how to appreciate and engage your employees on a deeper level, as well as manage them in a way that is meaningful to each of them. Use this information to tailor your leadership style and develop your relationship with each individual.

You may also learn information that would be useful for other leaders or the HR department. Constructively share any pertinent information with individuals and departments that may benefit.

Encourage an open dialogue. Although you will conduct stay interviews formally twice a year, encourage each employee to keep the dialogue open throughout the year. You can also encourage an open dialogue by using coaching sessions or meetings to check in.

The beauty of stay interviews is that the information is timely and specific, and you can take action immediately. It is a way for managers to directly impact job satisfaction and engagement, and reduce employee turnover. Although they may seem simple, stay interviews are one of the most powerful retention strategies for building an exceptional workplace culture.

Laurie J. Maddalena, MBA, CPCC, PHR, is a certified executive coach, consultant and founder of Envision Excellence, LLC, Rockville, Md. She was also an HR executive at a $450 million credit union. Contact her at 240.605.7940 or lmaddalena@envisionexcellence.net.