Pre-empting the exit interview

Stay interviews can be valuable retention tool – with employees new and old
By Marilynn Balfour
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 10/22/2013

Should I stay or should I go now? As the economy strengthens and the job market heats up, those lyrics — made popular in the 1980s by the Clash, an English punk band — could be considered a workplace anthem for employees on the move.

In looking at 200 companies in Alberta, a 2013 report from Alberta Human Services found 72 per cent of employees voluntarily left their company last year. Nationally, voluntary turnover rates continue to rise, according to the Conference Board of Canada. The 2011-12 rate was 7.2 per cent, about one per cent higher than rates seen during the economic downturn.

Almost 60 per cent of employers in the United States and Canada anticipate increases in voluntary turnover as the job market and economy continue to improve, according to Mercer’s 2012 Attraction and Retention Survey.

This trend — coupled with a Conference Board forecast that Canada’s unemployment rate will decline from 7.1 per cent in 2013 to 6.3 per cent in 2015 — are strong indicators that companies that focus on proactive employee retention strategies, such as stay interviews, will be better positioned to navigate the expected talent shortage with success.

Even more importantly, stay interviews make good business sense. It is more cost-effective to keep current employees engaged, happy and productive, as opposed to embarking on the recruitment and onboarding process. Stay interviews also help protect the company’s intellectual property.

There are many reasons why people leave jobs. Limited career growth, a lack of challenge, ineffective leadership and a desire to make a complete career change are all valid and common reasons. And it’s not always just about the pay. Other factors can include a lack of ethics, lack of trust in senior leaders, lack of work-life balance or an unhealthy culture, according to a 2012 David Aplin Group survey of 1,800 Canadians.

Rather than guessing why employees are leaving, why not ask them before they go? Schedule stay interviews with employees where you can discuss what they like and don’t like about their job. Through these candid and open discussions, you can proactively manage employee turnover and identify problem trends at the organization.

Some of the most important differences between a stay interview and other employee retention tools, such as a performance appraisal, is the stay interview may be one of the only formal opportunities an employee has to evaluate the employer. Executed properly, it is a great way to capture honest and candid feedback about the good and the bad, and can also serve as an early warning sign if an employee is becoming disengaged or unhappy with work.

Being proactive can short-circuit a resignation before it’s a reality. While exit interviews are great for identifying key trends or issues causing attrition over the long-term, stay interviews often provide a quick pulse check on effective workplace practices, as well as identifying any issues that can be addressed immediately. Feedback from a stay interview is also likely to be more actionable than input from an exit interview.

How often a stay interview is conducted is influenced by the group that most needs to be targeted. Conducting an annual stay interview is also recommended for high-potentials and employees who work in hard-to-fill positions.

For a new hire, a good rule of thumb is to conduct the stay interview within the first three to six months. That’s the vulnerable period when employees are deciding whether they made a good choice or not. At this critical point, a candid conversation can quickly identify work issues that can be easily addressed. It also goes a long way in building loyalty and demonstrating your commitment to making sure employees are happy, challenged and engaged.

An inherent risk in using the stay interview as part of your overall recruitment strategy is you must also be prepared to take action on the feedback provided. A successful program ensures senior leaders are supportive of making the necessary changes based on employee feedback.

If employees see that their input is taken seriously, they are more likely to remain loyal to the organization. If they are asking for changes that are not aligned with the company’s overall business objectives or are outside of budget constraints, be clear and honest with them about what is and isn’t achievable. For example, they may ask for a salary increase, a promotion they are not ready for or training opportunities not within the current budget.

There is no question the looming talent shortage will challenge organizations in many different industries to be creative in their retention efforts. Stay interviews can make a significant difference in overall employee satisfaction, engagement and retention.

Savvy organizations will use stay interviews as an important source of information to maintain or improve job satisfaction — and hold onto key talent.

Marilynn Balfour is director of outsourced HR at BOWEN in Calgary. The outsourced
HR team works with companies to attract, retain and enable employees to achieve optimal results. For more information, visit or email

Getting answers

Top questions for stay interviews

• Is your job meeting your expectations?

• What do you like about your job?

• What don’t you like about your job?

• What do you think about on the way to work?

• What about your job makes you want to jump out of bed in the morning?

• What keeps you up at night?

• If you could change one thing about your job, what would it be?

• What did you like in your last job or role that you are not doing now?

• How do you feel about your future with this organization?

• Do you perceive growth opportunities?

• Where do you hope to be in 12 months, two years and five years?

• What will it take to keep you engaged?

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