How Managers Can Use Stay Interviews to Improve Retention

  • May 15, 2023

Uncovering potential problems gives managers time to address concerns.
By Stephanie Vozza | March 7, 2023

Employees at isolved, an HR software provider, meet twice a year with their managers for an “engagement check-in.” Often called “stay interviews,” these planned conversations help leaders better understand what motivates and interests team members.

“The goal is to support career development and, ultimately, retain good employees,” says Amberly Dressler, senior director of brand and content strategy at the Charlotte, N.C.-based company.

“One very positive outcome of a recent engagement check-in was an employee candidly sharing their vision for their career,” Dressler says. She was able to help the individual get involved in projects that contributed to learning and growth. Nearly a year later, the employee is taking on more responsibility and is engaged and motivated, Dressler says.
With retention an increasing concern for employers, stay interviews are becoming a popular tool for reducing turnover. When done well, they can produce positive results.

In a 2022 Paychex survey, 27 percent of 1,000 HR decision-makers in the U.S. said they use stay interviews to help improve retention. Larger organizations are more likely to use them than smaller organizations.

But companies that use stay interviews don’t always get them right. To effectively employ this retention tool, here are some tips to follow and common mistakes to avoid.

Let Managers Lead

These one-on-one meetings give managers a chance to find out what employees like and don’t like about their jobs. Uncovering potential reasons for quitting gives managers time to address concerns before an employee decides to jump ship for another organization.

To help ensure the process is successful, never delegate stay interviews to the HR team. The meeting should be a personal conversation between an employee and their direct manager, says Kathleen Quinn Votaw, CEO of TalenTrust, a recruiting and human capital consulting firm based in Denver, and author of Dare to Care in the Workplace: A Guide to the New Way We Work (Advantage Media Group, 2021).

“Stay interviews promote a more intimate relationship between employers and employees,” she says. “Whether you’re the CEO, a VP, director or manager, you need to understand what the internal customer—the employee—wants and why they choose to continue to work for you.”

Dressler agrees. “Since our engagement check-ins are supplemented by meaningful everyday interactions, they are successful because there’s already a high-trust foundation and one where the employee feels comfortable and confident enough to be candid,” she says.

Be clear with employees about the reason for holding the interview.

“Being honest and upfront with employees is essential,” says John Morgan, president of LHH, a talent acquisition and recruitment firm headquartered in Maitland, Fla. “If employees see organizations making the effort to gain honest feedback and are transparent in the challenges they are looking to address, employees will be a lot more forthcoming in sharing their feedback.”

Lily Valentin, head of U.S. operations at Adzuna, a global jobs search engine based in Indianapolis, advises managers to provide employees with questions beforehand.

“Share some of the questions you are eager to cover,” she says, “so employees have time to reflect and come prepared.”

Focus on Employees

Managers shouldn’t think of stay interviews as the solution to the Great Resignation. The meetings’ primary purpose is to foster trust and engagement, supporting employees in their roles and in their careers.

“If an employee feels like their stay interview is solely for the purpose of retaining talent [to] benefit the company, then the intent of the interview has been lost,” says Amy Mosher, chief people officer for isolved. “Lead with empathy, focusing on facilitating open, candid conversations about what motivates the employee to stay at that organization, what they want to do next, as well as potential threats that could make the employee consider leaving the company.”

Mosher adds that the name “stay interview” can sometimes imply an employer-focused conversation.

“We call them ‘engagement check-ins’ to emphasize the goal of building a high-trust relationship between managers and employees,” she says.

Another mistake is conducting the meeting like an interrogation.

“Managers might ask questions like, ‘Why do you choose to work for me? Why would you leave? You would never leave, right?’ ” Quinn Votaw says. “You don’t want to interrogate the people who you work with every day. Make sure you’re in a good place to receive [their] information empathetically.”

Also, be careful that the conversation doesn’t feel like an exit interview, in which questions typically skew toward the negative and focus on the reasons a person might leave the role, Mosher advises. The exchange should include positive topics such as career goals and development opportunities.

Valentin recommends meeting somewhere other than a conference room, which can feel formal or stiff.

“With the objective of having an honest conversation, managers will get more-candid feedback if the conversation takes place over a coffee or a walk,” she says.

Don’t Delay

Most companies turn to stay interviews as a last-ditch effort when they are having retention issues, rather than proactively making them part of the employee engagement or employee experience strategy to begin with, says Shaara Roman, author of The Conscious Workplace: Fortify Your Culture to Thrive in Any Crisis (Bedgebury Press, 2022).

“I like to advise leaders to think and act on things before they become a problem,” she says.

Managers may be reluctant to conduct stay interviews, fearing they will be opening a can of worms and putting thoughts of leaving into employees’ heads. Quinn Votaw says it’s natural for managers to want to avoid stay interviews for those reasons.

“The manager might think, ‘If I start asking an employee why they work for me, I’m going to know if they’re happy, mad, sad or glad being here. I might have to do something, and if I can’t, they’re going to be more disgruntled, and because we’re in the Great Resignation … I’m going to have to do her work, so I’m just going to avoid this completely,’ ” she says.

But when you don’t know what you don’t know, the risk of an employee leaving only grows.

“Stay interviews are an iteration of fierce conversations,” Quinn Votaw says. “You’re going to learn things that you’re going to have to react to, but that’s the point. Ignoring potential problems won’t make them go away.”

Stay Interview Questions

Here are some questions managers can ask during stay interviews:
• What do you look forward to each workday?
• What do you like most—or least—about working here?
• What keeps you working here?
• If you could change something about your job, what would it be?
• What would make your job more satisfying?
• How do you like to be recognized?
• What talents are not being used in your current role?
• What would you like to learn here?
• What motivates—or demotivates—you?
• What can I do to best support you?
• What can I do more—or less—of as your manager?
Source: SHRM sample HR form.

Stephanie Vozza is a freelance writer based in Franklin, Tenn.

Illustration by Marc Rosenthal.

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