Updated: Apr 13
A “stay” interview is the opposite of an exit interview. Instead of learning about why someone has decided to leave your company, it’s about going upstream and gaining clarity on what will make your employee stay with you and your organization.
I’ve briefly written on stay interviews in the past, and I believe expanding on how to hold a successful one is critical to building a good relationship with your team. A stay interview helps you connect with an employee outside of a regular one-on-one meeting so you can learn about them and their goals. Take them to coffee or on a walk around your company’s neighborhood — or, if you have a remote team, host a virtual coffee meeting where you’re each at a coffee shop in your respective location. Your primary goal is to learn about where your employee sees themselves in the next few years and what they want for their career.
Start by asking the following two questions, and then build on what you hear:
What skills would you like to develop?
How can I support you?
When I discuss stay interviews with leaders, many hesitate because they’re concerned they won’t have the opportunities their employee is searching for. But these questions aren’t meant to be approached as if the result is offering your employee a promotion or a raise. Instead, look at these conversations as an opportunity to learn about your employees’ goals and to guide them to success.
Notice I did not advise you to ask your employee, “How are you looking to grow?” There is a distinct difference between the questions, “How are you looking to grow?” and, “What skills would you like to develop?” When you ask an employee about their desired growth, I’ve found they’ll often tell you about the next position they want, the title they’re looking for or the amount of money they want to make. Even if you’re the CEO, you can’t guarantee this to any employee, since you don’t know where your business will be in the next three months, let alone in a few years.
Asking a question about growth sets you up to let your employee down. Instead, when you ask, “What skills are you looking to develop?” the focus is now turned on the employee and the skills they need to grow. To answer this question, your employee must first think about where they want to be in the future — potentially their desired position, title or monetary compensation — but then they have to translate those outcomes to the skills they’ll need to get there.
You can help the employee by creating this dialogue. While you can’t guarantee a title, position or money, you can help them develop their skill set. You can put the employee in key learning situations, assign projects, allow them to shadow someone, find a mentor or take a number of other actions to help them build the skills they’re looking to develop.
After you ask this first question, listen to what they have to say.
A common tendency our leaders have during their first couple of stay interviews is confusion, discomfort and silence from their employee after the question is asked, which makes sense. Most employees are never heard, and here you are asking them questions about themselves.
One leader who went through our training did this with an employee who told him he’d never been asked that question at work before. Both my client and his employee were blown away. Know that your employee might not be prepared for this question. They might look and feel a little uncomfortable with you attentively listening to their response; they might not even have a response at that moment.
With this in mind, I have a challenge for you: Instead of bailing your employee out of the silence, pause for a while. Don’t time it; just be quiet for a bit. Let your employee gather their thousands of thoughts, and be there with them, allowing them time to think and respond. By giving them a few seconds, you show you’re not going to cut them off and that you truly want to know. When your employee sees this, more often than not, they’ll start to share gold nuggets of information with you.
If they still don’t know what skills they want to develop, don’t let them off the hook too easily. Ask to meet again the following week to have the discussion once they’ve had more time to think and reflect. After a week, they’ll have ideas for you. Don’t worry.
All that said, there’s an important caveat to this activity.
Don’t do this if you don’t plan to follow through. If you don’t have the desire to do the work to support your employee, if you don’t plan to help them build the skills or if you’re planning on letting them go next week, don’t hold a stay interview with this person.
Also, don’t hold only one stay interview. I recommend doing these once a quarter with each of your direct reports. People’s lives change, and their perspectives change. What an employee says today will not necessarily be what they want tomorrow.
Holding a stay interview can have an immediate impact on your team. It will help you learn more about your people while also letting them know you care about their growth and development. It’s a simple, yet powerful, conversation, and all it takes is giving a bit of your energy and attention to your people every few months. The act of hearing someone else and showing them you care can make the biggest impact in your relationship with an employee and their relationship with the company.
Originally published in Forbes on June 10, 2019.