What we're talking about

A stay interview is a structured, two-way conversation between a manager and an employee. It's a retention and management tool whereby you open up a dialog with highly valued members of your team to find out what they're enjoying and what motivates them, along with the issues, problems or frustrations that you might be able to help with. Despite how it sounds, it's not a last-ditch attempt to keep someone around. It should instead be a pre-emptive chat that happens at least once a year – and more regularly for new employees.

Why it's important 

Keeping hold of good people is a major challenge – and that's particularly true in the current climate. A major workplace report from analytics and polling company Gallup shows only 32% of employees are satisfied in their positions and just 21% consider themselves engaged at work. Talented people know they have options – when you're building a business from the ground up, you want to keep them around as long as you can. You also need to build the right kind of culture. A revealing report by employee retention brand Work Institute suggests that 63% of employee departures are for preventable reasons

People are going to leave your business, no matter what you do. But you can use stay interviews to identify both things that are going well (that you can then double-down on) and elements that need changing – for the employee in question as well as for others in your business. This is a way of surfacing problems before they become ingrained and is an essential part of building a culture of trust, open communication and transparency. 

Things to note 

• Trust needs to already be in place. There's no point simply organizing stay interviews and presuming employees will talk openly and honestly. For it to work, a culture of trust and transparency needs to already be present. Employees need to feel psychologically safe – and there can't be a big distance between management and the rest of the team. Stay interviews should form part of an ongoing dialog with individuals, through things like one-on-ones and employee satisfaction surveys. 

• They're useless without a commitment to action. You need to take on board the feedback you receive – and proactively implement any positive changes that are achievable. That means a considered approach to digesting what you find out, thinking about what you can actually do to change (or reinforce) things, and following up. A common mistake is to not action the feedback – it's super disillusioning for someone to put themselves out there, giving their honest thoughts and suggestions, and for it to just disappear into the ether. Even if you can't implement every suggestion, be sure to follow up.

• Timing is important. When you carry out the stay interview is important. They're separate and distinct from a performance review – and it might make sense to do them at opposite times of the year. For example, if the performance review is in March, the stay interview might be in September. Especially good times to check in with people are one to three months after onboarding and after any major changes such as a promotion, team change or acquisition. 

How to conduct a stay interview 

1. Determine who you'll speak to first. While it's important you speak to all members of your team, it makes sense to identify certain team members who you think would most benefit from speaking with you – and who you most need to keep on board. These are likely to be high performers who have perhaps been there a while, or new recruits who are in their first three months at your business.  

2. Explain why you're doing it. Spell out to those in your team why you're doing it and what you're hoping to achieve. A recap: it's to create space for a two-way conversation to understand how they're feeling about their role and the company at large – both the good and bad. Don't label it as a stay interview – and let them know well ahead of time to give them some time to prepare.

3. Decide on time and place. This conversation needs to be casual; the employee needs to feel comfortable and not like they're under interrogation. Ask them where they'd feel most comfortable doing it and find a time that's convenient for you both. 

4. Prep your question list. While your questioning will differ depending on the person's role, there are some predetermined, generic questions that every stay interview should include. You should follow a rough structure where you ease in with positive, relatively straightforward questions (eg, what do you look forward to in your job each day?), before moving gradually on to issues, problems or challenges. Prepare a list of around 15 questions (see more ideas in our Tools section). 

5. Do the interview! While you'll be following the question list you've prepared, don't be too rigid with the structure – particularly if topics come up that require further discussion. The chat shouldn't take longer than around 30 minutes to an hour. At the end of the interview, make it clear what the next steps will be. 

6. Digest the results. If you're doing multiple interviews, or other line managers are speaking to other employees, analyze what's come back from your conversations. Here, you're looking for broad patterns or trends that come up repeatedly. You might see issues that are specific to a department or more company-wide. Identify both strengths of the business and particular areas for improvement. 

7. Outline an action plan. Based on what you've learned, identify the actionable things you can do to accentuate the things that people enjoy and that are working well, and fix some of the recurring problems or issues. This will be a judgment call in terms of what you can realistically fix. You might find there are short-term, easy changes you can bring in immediately, and more long-term shifts you can work towards. Create an action plan. 

8. Feedback to your team. Report back to your team members to let them know the results of your analysis and what you'll be doing to action their feedback. Equally, be transparent if there are certain things they mentioned that you can't attend to or fix right now. Make sure they feel heard and have the space for follow-up comments. 

Key takeaways 

• Stay interviews won't necessarily prevent good people from leaving your business, but they will help build a culture of transparency and communication – and improve things for future employees. 

• For employees to give honest and open feedback, you need a culture of trust and transparency in place already. A stay interview won't instantly create that.  

• As much as you're looking to find out problems and issues to address, this is also a great chance to find out what's working well and what's motivating individuals. 

Level up

Perspective. If you're having doubts that stay interviews are right for your business, this blog seeks to answer any questions you might have. 

Example. There are plenty of lists of good stay interview questions to get you moving, but this one from finance website The Balance is better than most. 

Tool. If you're looking to make stay interviews part of a wider employee feedback system, survey platform SurveyMonkey has some really good tools for things like staff satisfaction reviews. 

A version of this article was published in the Courier Workshop newsletter. For more deep dives into essential business concepts, sign up here.

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