The “Stay” Interview Is Much More Effective Than the “Exit” Interview—And Could Be the Key to Employee Retention

What Is A Stay Interview Header

The truth comes out eventually—often in an exit interview, when well-meaning managers conduct surveys and ask all the tough questions now that there are no strings attached. This is a time for former employees to say how things really were. But why wait for that moment to learn that a miscommunication or a series of bad experiences—sometimes even fixable or preventable ones—were the reason you are losing a great employee? Or, for employees, why wait to share those truths until it’s too late to fix it? 

What is a “stay” interview?

Enter the “stay” interview. This much more proactive approach allows employees to talk through reasons to stay at the job and what might cause them to leave before they actually do. 

According to the Society for Human Resource Management, effective meetings like these involve asking “standard, structured questions in a casual and conversational manner.” They recommend keeping them to a half hour. Managers should leave with a better understanding of what employees need to be happier and more effective in their positions. There’s quite a bit on the line—in a study of small business challenges, 33% reported retention and motivation as a top concern. 

There’s a reason exit interviews aren’t enough to improve retention alone. Jenny Maenpaa, LCSW, EdM, founder of Forward in Heels, a boutique career coaching consultancy, says, “Exit interviews are not useful for retaining that person, and they’re often not very useful for retaining other people in the future because basing structural change off of one departed person’s opinion is usually not a valid management technique.” She adds that if the interview occurred while the employee was still invested in their growth at the company, management could take their feedback and apply it to them directly. But to apply that feedback to other people after the employee leaves is usually not a very effective strategy.

So it may be time to give stay interviews a go, not only to increase retention numbers but to ensure you are building the strongest workplace culture you can.

Stay interviews can be regular must-haves in your company culture

You don’t have to wait for a disgruntled employee to say something unexpected to conduct regular stay interviews. In fact, for some, they are just another term for regular check-ins, which is how Maenpaa uses them.

“Stay interviews are helpful because the person in power opens the door to them. Employees can often feel nervous about bringing up something they worry their boss or manager may perceive as a complaint or criticism, especially if they’ve had bad experiences in the past,” she says. 

Try 2x2s

Maenpaa’s boss used the 2×2 strategy in the past with her and other employees in stay interviews. Each person shares two things:

  • What they are doing well and what the other person is doing well
  • What they could do better at and what the other person could do better at

“This eliminates the sting of perceived criticism, which allows the person to hear it without getting defensive,” she says. “I’ve noticed that almost every time, the thing I bring up that I need to work on is aligned with the thing the other person brings up that I need to work on and vice versa.”   

Be prepared for some uncomfortable realities to surface

Stay interviews are a must if you are trying to get to the bottom of employee retention issues. Given that, interviewers and managers need to prepare to hear the real truth with an open mind to invite a collaborative and genuine dialogue into the meeting.

“Positive moments I encountered while conducting stay interviews were the discussions about career growth opportunities, supportive work environment and recognition of achievements,” says Marla J. Albertie, owner and founder of the TruthSpeaksGroup LLC, a multimedia coaching company for women. “On the other hand, less positive moments were lack of managerial support, lack of diversity, concerns about workload, lack of communication or frustrations with certain company policies.” 

Leaders should model constructive criticism techniques during stay interviews

Don’t expect the employee to spill all their shortcomings or issues they are facing without you doing the same. In this way, leading by example is essential. 

“If [the employers] model first that they can bring up self-criticism and identify a way they are going to address it, the employee sees that they don’t have to be scared to share feedback or worry that it’s a trap,” Maenpaa says. 

Choose the right time, on purpose

If you aren’t using these interchangeably with regular check-ins and are doing a more concerted evaluation of everyone’s reasons to stay (or go), there are a few specific times that might make the most sense to conduct stay interviews. 

“They can be conducted periodically or in specific situations such as when an employee has been with the company for a certain period of time, after completion of a significant project or during times of organizational change. We conducted ours on a one-time basis as a part of a DEI project,” Albertie says.

Ask this one key question

Asking the right questions during a stay interview leads to a happier employee, rather than an exit interview. Kirsten Moorefield, co-founder and COO of Cloverleaf, says, “The questions I pose are direct yet open-ended: What can I start, stop or continue doing to support you better?” She adds this proactive feedback-seeking approach feels empowering and sends the message: “I am invested in your growth, well-being and success.”  

Ideally, you shouldn’t need the stay interview either

Still, others say the stay interview isn’t proactive enough. “At its core, a robust performance management and career development strategy should ideally negate the need for a separate stay interview,” Moorefield says. “When systems are in place that continually assess, guide and grow an employee’s career trajectory, with their leadership genuinely investing in them (as opposed to plans merely logged in a system), they naturally address the core reasons an employee would consider staying with or leaving an organization.” 

Moorefield says meaningful one-on-one meetings between employees and managers are just as effective. “The insights, concerns, aspirations and feedback that might surface in a stay interview are routinely brought up in these personal, constructive interactions.”
So if you want your employees to stay, give them a reason to. This interview can help you find out what that is.

Photo by bbernard/Shutterstock.com

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