The Yes Blog

Exit interviews are notoriously poor at providing useful information. The information you do get comes too late to keep this valuable employee on-board, and it’s hard to separate the valuable input from the bias of the interviewee. Therefore, someone brilliant came up with the idea of the stay interview to provide better information that’s more timely.

Exit interviews are better than nothing, but not much. Stay interviews are a brilliant replacement — almost. They’re a brilliant impulse — a substantial step in the right direction. There’s a still better approach to gathering information about what is keeping people on the job now and how to keep them on the job — and keep them happy — for the long haul.

What’s the matter with the exit interview?

While an exit interview intended to learn from the experience of a team-member who’s decided not to stick around is probably better than nothing, it’s rarely much better.

  • More often than we’d like, the person who’s leaving may be intensely discontented. They may be more interested in creating scorched earth than in contributing to the better understanding of the company. Regardless, they’ve decided to withdraw their investment with this company, so they’re not as committed to its future or success as they were before they decided to leave.
  • Even people who wish the company well and are not unhappy may not share freely. Career experts recommend against saying much beyond, “Thanks for the opportunity.” Many career advisors even say, “Skip the exit interview.” They advise, there’s no upside for you to share any critique. By sharing, you might help improve the future for that company and its employees. Likely not. And meanwhile, you may accidentally burn bridges if your leaders don’t like what you’ve said in your exit interview.
  • It’s too late. Each team member is highly valuable for so many reasons. The investment you’ve made in a team member who’s already decided to go… That investment is moving on. Too bad you didn’t figure out how to keep them while it was still possible.

What’s brilliant about the stay interview?

If you want to keep employees and keep them happy, it makes sense to gather information while they’re still on the job. It’s an ingenious shift to convert our wonder and curiosity about why something is going wrong (and what exactly it is that’s going wrong) over to wonder and curiosity about what’s going right. Focusing upstream gives us more leverage to affect outcomes.

There are two things to learn from a stay interview:

  • What do you like about working here? What keeps you around?
  • What don’t you like as well? What could improve to make you want even more to stay?

When you know what’s going right, it’s easy to avoid breaking it. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

And when there is a problem, when something’s happening that team members don’t like and might make them want to leave, you might not know about it until it’s time for an exit interview. People will often not complain, but simply vote with their feet.

In fact, we’re working with a business owner right now who brought us in to help him learn the answer to the question, “Too many people are leaving their jobs in our company. Why?” And it matters! This business owner is worried about their ability to serve important contracts. That’s not good for achieving the company mission or for the bottom line.

With the stay interview… If you talk with team members who are still on the job, you learn from someone who’s likely happy (or at least not yet hopeless). Even if they are somewhat disgruntled, the fact hat they’re still around provides motivation for them to let you know about what might be troubling them and how you can improve the workplace and its culture.

By conducting a stay interview, you can learn what it would take to keep this employee around for the long-haul. And what’d be great for one valuable employee is likely valuable for others. In other words, improve the life and work of one team member through the info you get in their stay interview, and thereby improve the life and work of other team members through the same efforts.

Two birds. One interview.

Better timing. Better info. Broad benefit for performance and retention.

What’s not so brilliant about the stay interview?

Maybe, “better than exit interviews,” isn’t a high enough standard. If you could get information that’s better still, then maybe we need to do better even than the “stay interview” innovation.

We’ve established that what’s brilliant about the stay interview is you can get better info with better timing. The stay interview can create salvage opportunities. So what’s less-better about the info you get from a stay interview?

Imagine this scenario. Your boss says, “I’d like to conduct a ‘stay interview’ with you… Learn what keeps you here and what would make your work life better.” What would go through your head?

The label, “stay interview,” alone puts a lot of pressure on the conversation. Suddenly, you’ve got an opportunity to share what you really think. But who’s going to see your answers? What if you say the wrong thing? And what if you forget to say something important? And what if someone doesn’t like what you’ve said?

Think too of the timing again. Every exit interview is too little too late. The decision to leave and the action to execute that decision are both in the past.

With the stay interview, the interviewee isn’t gone yet. What about their decision to go? If you conduct one stay interview per year, how many opportunities does that give your company’s competitors to poach your best employees between stay interviews? How many job interviews might your employees go on in the year between interviews? How long will it take them to get bored with the status quo? Will you notice?

What’s better than better?

You get better info and results with better timing with a stay interview than with an exit interview because of better timing, with someone in a better frame of mind. Even so, the quality of that info and the results you can reap are still compromised by the infrequent timing and the high-pressure of the setting.

So increase the frequency dramatically, and take the pressure off.

We recommend to the managers we train that they conduct a one-on-one with every direct report every week. That weekly one-on-one is a sacred responsibility. Every single one-on-one is an opportunity for a mini-stay-interview, without that label and the pressure that comes with it.

Ask your direct reports how things are going. Ask them how happy they are in their jobs and how you can make their jobs better. Find out what they want to learn and what kinds of projects they want to work on. By conducting these conversations regularly — more than once a month — your information about your employees’ job satisfaction is always current.

And then — and this is critical — take action on what you’re learning to continually challenge and also support your team members in direct response to what they share with you.

Who would ever want to leave a job where their boss clearly cares, where the job stays interesting, and where the job gets better and better? Now that… That is a talent retention plan.