Two HR experts debate the efficacy of the newly popular ‘stay interview’

December 15, 2021, 9:00 PM UTC

The Great Resignation has shown no signs of slowing down, and companies’ retention efforts have reached a fever pitch. Looking toward the new year, employers may be giving the concept of “stay interviews” a closer look. 

Meant to preempt the necessity of an exit interview, in which a boss or HR rep asks an employee what’s pushing them out of the company, the “stay interview” aims to assess what’s keeping people at their job, what they hope to achieve down the line, and what might be piquing their curiosity somewhere else.

While stay interviews could be folded into regular check-ins, their popularity as a stand-alone retention tool has ballooned this year, Brian Kropp, HR research chief at Gartner, told Fortune. This is because they traditionally focus on feelings of belonging, being valued, and fitting within the company, rather than progress on certain projects or deliverables.

“You’ll want to ask things like, ‘Why aren’t you quitting?’ ‘What do you like here?’ ‘What do you want less of?’” Kropp said. “You’ll ideally want to do this before a person thinks of quitting at all.”

Kropp say many managers fundamentally misunderstand how people come to the decision to quit. “People decide whether or not to stay during moments in their life when it’s easiest to draw comparisons,” he said. “Maybe like a college reunion, where they’d wonder if they’re doing better than their former classmates. Maybe it’s going home for the holidays, when people will ask how their job is going, and they may say, ‘Eh, it’s okay.’ Maybe it’s at milestone birthdays, like turning 25 or 40, when they’re more reflective about where they want to be.”

A productive stay interview precedes that moment of reflection, which is to say, occurs strategically. “Do it before they go on vacation, or have a big birthday, or break for the holidays,” he said. “It’s not just the interview itself, but the timing of it that matters a ton.”

The practical efficacy of stay interviews vary by organization, he says. The larger the company, the better, because if a person expresses a desire to do more of a certain task or grow in a certain area, the odds are better that it can be done within company walls. “You usually don’t have the same ability to deliver on a desire or need at a smaller organization,” he said. 

Kropp says the ideal interviewer is a skip-level manager; it can be difficult to be fully honest with one’s direct report, even without fear of retribution. Plus, few managers excel at supporting workers’ whole personhood, rather than just focusing on work, he added.  

As the year wraps up and companies take stock of their retention numbers, they may feel an extra urgency to consider stay interviews, Kropp said. “Candidates are getting massive compensation offers to take other jobs. If leaders aren’t aggressively confronting problems, you’ll be in trouble going forward, not just because of the currently hot labor market, but because of the fundamental shift in employer-employee relationships.” 

What stay interviews fail to address

Gillian French, the employee experience expert in residence at Ireland-based employee engagement software platform Workvivo, has spent decades as chief people officer at various organizations. Alongside Workvivo, she is currently CEO of SISU, a consultancy she founded centered on organizational development and design. She thinks stay interviews are, ultimately, worthless.

“Stay interviews are like a plaster in place of real solutions, and they’re only brought out if a company is in trouble and people are leaving in droves,” French told Fortune. “Any company operating at a high level shouldn’t need them; they would probably just annoy people.”

She posited that if an employee is happy enough in his or her employment, being sat down for a stay interview would “ring alarm bells.”

“It seems just a little bit disingenuous and inauthentic,” French said. “This sounds like a new initiative coming from leadership that really, in truth, should have just been better connected with their people in the first place.” 

French, who has been a chief people officer since she was 29, says she “hates this kind of knee-jerk reaction” leaders often come to. “They’re thinking, oh, tons of people are leaving, let’s implement stay interviews. But people’s needs are basic. They want to feel valued and cared for at work,” she said. “It’s quite simple, but for some reason, we seem to focus on everything else except that.”

The most successful companies in 2022 will be the ones who put all their energy toward keeping people engaged and acknowledge their people’s whole personhood beyond work output. “If you master that, you don’t need to implement things like this,” French said.

Beyond just HR, company boards and CEOs should be taking notice of when people do leave, which department or team they’re leaving from, and assessing the leaders in those areas. 

“An organization with really strong, open communication saves itself a lot of grief,” she said. “I work with lots of organizations, and the Great Resignation is only happening to those that are just not clued in to their people. They’re trying to lead the way they did pre-COVID, and people are saying, ‘Hey, no, I’m not tolerating that. I’ve had time to think and I want something different.’”

The need for a stay interview could be avoided by instating best practices in the first place, French said. This means holding regular one-on-ones with managers, conducting pulse surveys, and acting on those findings. Also key is hiring strong, thoughtful managers. 

“Managers need to be empathetic and have an interest in people,” she said. “These other steps are important, but if you get your managers right, they’ll solve a lot of problems, and you won’t have to have these Band-Aid solutions like stay interviews.”

Strong managers already have biweekly conversations, alongside quarterly reviews, with their direct reports, French said. These meetings would ensure a strong enough team relationship to get a sense of employee satisfaction. “We pack too much into the poor people managers, and the people component of their job comes last, which is why you have this kind of disconnect,” she said. “They’ve lost touch of where their people are at.”

Empathetic leadership is key to understanding one another’s perspectives, she said, and would go a long way toward avoiding the retention problems plaguing many companies. 

Some employers have for too long managed people like they’re machines, without actually taking stock of their desires or ambitions, focusing too much on margins, she said. “Connecting with people and building trust shouldn’t be called soft skills, because they’re critical skills, and we know they’re on the decline.”  

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