Can "Stay Interviews" Stop the Great Resignation?

Worried about your employees leaving? Why not ask them why they’re staying
Jordan Whitehouse
A goldfish jumps from a crowded bowl to an empty bowl

The great pandemic has given way to the Great Resignation. Around the world, dissatisfied workers are quitting.

Some examples: In America, 4.3 million workers, or three per cent of the labour force, resigned from their jobs in December, up from 3.3 million at the start of 2021. In the U.K. one in four (24 per cent) plan to change jobs over the next few months, and an astounding 69 per cent say they’re ready to move. China, India and Australia are also seeing large numbers of workers walk out the door.

Canada hasn’t been hit with the Great Resignation’s full wallop yet. But as pandemic restrictions lift across the country, we could, says Matthias Spitzmuller, Distinguished Professor of Organizational Behaviour at Smith School of Business.

“We’re in a different society than we were at the beginning of the pandemic, and that will mean changes in employment preferences,” he says. “Organizations really have to think about how they will address this.”  

One tactic that’s growing in popularity is the stay interview, says Spitzmuller. Think of it as the opposite of an exit interview. Instead of uncovering why someone quit, a stay interview asks about an employee’s motivations for remaining with the company, what could be improved and how they can grow.  

Yet as common as stay interviews are becoming during the Great Resignation, there are still lots of questions. Which employees should be interviewed? Who should do the interviewing? What should be asked? And what should happen after the stay interview is over? We put these questions to Spitzmuller.

Smith Business Insight: Which types of employees should companies target with stay interviews?

Matthias Spitzmuller: That depends on the organization, but it comes down to the positions that are really difficult to replace and that have historically been subject to the highest turnover rates. The good news is that you can use predictive modelling tools to figure out who might leave. These tools are dramatically underutilized right now, but they can analyze things like the geography of employment, hierarchical levels of employees in an organization, their employment history, their functional background, their demographic backgrounds and their employment history to indicate where the highest attrition risks in an organization are. Once you know that, you can design interventions that target those employees, including stay interviews.

Who should conduct the stay interview?

Usually it should be someone from human resources rather than a manager. There are few managers who have the deep personal, trustworthy connections with employees that would foster the open and honest conversations needed here. But with HR, employees can feel more confident about opening up because the content of the stay interview can be kept confidential. However, stay interviews shouldn’t be used to compensate for the lack of leadership of line managers or poor performance management in the organization. Rather, stay interviews are an additional tool to ensure that employees’ needs are met in those relationships in which they might not feel comfortable sharing that they are indeed considering leaving.

What should be discussed in a stay interview?

First, it should be clearly communicated that the employee is valued, that the interview is about learning what they need to stay at the organization and that what they say will be kept strictly confidential. Then you can get into specifics about proactively addressing their needs. Some of those needs could be compensation-based, but oftentimes the driving factor that pushes people elsewhere is not financial. Relationships with peers and supervisors are usually very important, so ask about those. So are growth opportunities. Does the person have the feeling that they can continue to develop their skills and use them? Ask about what the organization can do to assist with that growth.  

The pandemic has shifted how some employees want to work. Should those issues be brought up in stay interviews as well?

Definitely. As we come out of the pandemic, we’re seeing that employees have very drastic changing needs around where they work, when they work and how they do their jobs. I’m surprised that organizations aren’t listening more to those needs, but I think they are very busy right now developing policies and procedures about when and how employees come back. They should be addressing those concerns, though. Stay interviews can be a good place to do that.

What are the potential pitfalls of stay interviews?

Just like with performance management, there is the possibility that you do more harm with these things than good. If stay interviews are used to just check boxes, then they can be very frustrating for employees. You have to have open ears and really listen. And you have to create the time and space for these interviews so that you can establish trust and you can have a productive discussion. Rushing through a stay interview in a mechanical way could be the final reason an employee needs to leave your organization. 

What should happen after the stay interview is over?

You need to follow up where you can. Many organizations solicit input, but then nothing happens with the input they get. And that’s even more frustrating for employees than if you hadn’t set aside the time to come together. But you also have to be very clear about what your organization can and cannot do. For example, if there’s no wiggle room compensation-wise, that should be directly communicated. But in areas where there is indeed room, that should be explored. And then both managers and HR have to be involved to think about what they can do to address those areas.

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