Stay interviews – a new retention strategy (Guest commentary)

Conduct exit interviews before workers hand in their resignations

Has anybody ever thought about the logic of asking people why they are leaving when they have one foot out the door?

During one of my exit interviews, I was asked why I was leaving. Part of me wanted to say, “Geez, because my manager is such a hypocrite that I would rather be boiled in hot oil than have to work with her another day.” But I knew better — after all, why burn a bridge? No, I gave another pat answer about wanting to move on. My only thought was I wish somebody (other than my manager) had asked me this question before I handed in my resignation, and maybe I could have stayed with the company in a different area.

While I may not have been open, HR professionals who conduct exit interviews have undoubtedly heard talented employees say something on the way out the door that made them think, “If only I knew that, we could have rectified the situation and not lost this person.” But all too often, departing employees simply say the politically correct thing, or that they’re moving on for more money.

That exposes the flaws of exit interviews. They’re not proactive, they only identify the problem once it’s too late and they often don’t uncover the real reasons employees are leaving. But there is an alternative — a stay interview.

Good organizations have comprehensive orientation and onboarding processes. But even good organizations often don’t followup with this upfront investment. Success is left to supervisors and managers who may be part of the problem. After all, one of the main reasons people leave is because of conflict with managers, peers or ethics.

By proactively talking to employees about what they like about their job, what might entice them to leave and what they need to succeed, companies can find where the issues are before it is too late.

The degree to which people stay in organizations is strongly related to being provided with what they really want. What people want hasn’t changed much over time. The top three retention drivers (over a long period of time) are:

• exciting and challenging work

• career growth, learning and development

• working with great people and relationships.

So when should employers conduct stay interviews? The most obvious answer is to make it part of the performance review process. This will also help HR get a handle on the organizational culture and employees’ needs.

It should be done with all employees at all levels. If this is not practical, then look at the demographics. What category of employees are having retention issues? Does the company lose employees who have less than five years’ experience? Are there specific occupational areas or organizational units that are bleeding staff? If so, those areas can be targeted. Likewise, if there are areas where the company is doing well in retaining quality employees, find out what is happening in those areas and replicate it.

Don’t save the best employee conversations for the exit interview. Have those conversations on an ongoing basis. Ask now what would get them to stay and put those things in place. Helping employees feel cared about, valued and important goes a long way in retaining them.

Michael Rosenberg is a partner at OYG Consulting in Brampton, Ont. He is author of The Flexible Thinker and co-author of The Flexible Thinker: A Guide to Extreme Career Performance. You can sign up for his free bi-weekly newsletter at

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