What makes staff want to leave their jobs? Ask them

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Don’t wait for an exit interview to talk to employees — the ‘stay’ interview helps retain them in the first place

Over the next six months, Intercom, a tech communications platform with more than 800 employees, wants managers to hold special meetings with each of their team members. The goal? To encourage staff to stay at the company.

“The market is hot, it’s an employees’ market now,” says Liz Sweet, head of global talent, adding that it can be hard to keep a “finger on the pulse” of employee sentiment. These conversations, sometimes dubbed “stay” or “retention” interviews, also help to humanise the organisation after so many months of remote working.

They should also help forge morale and esprit de corps, says Lily Valentin, head of operations for North America at Adzuna, a job search site. “What we’re seeing globally is that Covid has accelerated burnout. Employees have lost coping mechanisms.”

Such conversations will increasingly form part of employers’ tool kits to retain staff during the Great Resignation. Companies are deploying anything they can to keep people from leaving, says Brian Kropp, chief of human resources research at Gartner, the consultancy. “They can’t keep people from quitting and can’t hire people fast enough.”

While stay interviews are not new, they are far less familiar than exit interviews, which in terms of retention are too late and not especially insightful. “You get an edited view of the world,” says David D’Souza, membership director at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, the UK human resources trade body, “as they [the leaving staff members] don’t have much stake in the organisation.”

By contrast, stay interviews could head off an employee’s desire to leave, as well as allowing the company time to make a counter-offer. They also encourage managers to understand the worker, their values and career aspirations.

Such discussions can be symbolically significant, says D’Souza. Organisations and leaders are not always great at providing recognition and showing that employees are valued. “The very act of asking the questions shows that they care. If you sit down with a manager and discuss how to improve things, how long are you going to stay, most people will welcome that conversation.”

If you sit down with a manager and discuss how to improve things, how long are you going to stay, most people will welcome that conversation

David D’Souza, CIPD

LinkedIn conducts stay interviews. Jennifer Shappley, vice-president of global talent acquisition at the professional networking site, says the conversations can help employees crystallise what they want from their jobs and their values. For many, she notes, “work-life balance” is increasingly important, though a recent survey by the Pew Research Centre found that low pay topped the reasons workers quit a job, alongside a lack of opportunities for advancement.

Sweet is not going to impose a rigid structure for stay interviews at Intercom but wants all employees to have a conversation with their manager over the next six months. The priority will be to talk to those the company deems a “flight risk”, but she wants the exercise overall to be proactive.

This requires investment in training managers to coach, listen and ask “thoughtful, probing questions” to find out “what would cause [an employee] to leave, what are the compelling reasons to stay”, says Sweet. It also requires sales skills. “You have to do a bit of selling to show what the opportunity is,” she adds. “How do you talk about all the great things about career growth?”

Jonny Briggs, group head of talent acquisition at Aviva, the insurer, is wary about expanding the responsibilities of managers. According to a survey by the Chartered Management Institute last year, just under half of managers reported their mental health worsened due to the pandemic. “We need to be conscious about how much we put on our leaders,” says Briggs. “Good managers already have the habit of a friendly word once a week.”

Stay interviews are separate to performance reviews, which are traditionally a look back. “They tend to focus on skills training and what behaviours [an employee] needs to exhibit to get to the next step,” says Sweet. “Stay interviews can get a bit more philosophical, ‘What would your next job be outside Intercom? What would make your job better?’” Money should be part of the conversation, she says. “A huge reason people leave is due to compensation.”

Valentin says that the pandemic has stopped people from travelling and spending time with relatives, while also making attitudes to work locations more flexible. “We’ve come to realise that some want to spend time overseas to catch up with family, or parents not wanting to miss out on dinner time. It comes at very little or no cost.”

While these conversations should be beneficial to the employee, they might not be straightforward. Annette Reavis, chief people officer at Envoy, a workplace platform, says: “The hardest part is if the person is not engaged with their manager [who] might not have the emotional intelligence to deal with it, is too aggressive, or the employee doesn’t feel able to be honest.” After all, the principal reason an employee might leave could be a poor relationship with their manager.

Beyond personal issues, a manager might be preoccupied with their own short-term objectives or lack insights into different parts of the organisation. The focus of a stay interview, says Kropp, is not “should you stay in this job but [should you stay] in the company. There’s not a lot of managers that have the maturity to have the stay interview.”

And the process will not work unless the manager is accountable, says Reavis. “I’ve been lucky enough to get people to stay but I have made efforts if they want to work on a different team, or learn something new. The opportunity is to solve everything that’s in your control.” Valentin agrees: “You can’t just take the notes and do nothing with them.”

Michael Parke, assistant professor of management at The Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania, says: “If nothing happens, it is worse than not having the conversation in the first place.”

Ultimately, stay interviews are part of a broader employee engagement strategy. Sweet sees them as a complement to employee surveys. Intercom’s last survey attracted 1,700 comments but nonetheless, those comments are “static”, Sweet says. “A month later, everything could be completely different. These conversations have the potential to indicate where we need to invest.” She says that too many companies use employee engagement surveys just to “check the box . . . You need lots of different ways of trying to understand your employees.”

What questions are useful for a ‘stay’ interview?

What do you look forward to when you come to work each day?
What do you like most or least about working here?
What keeps you working here?
If you could change something about your job, what would that be?
What would make your job more satisfying?
What can I do more of or less of as your manager?
What might tempt you to leave?

Source: The Society for Human Resource Management

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