Stop Top-Talent Turnover

Say goodbye to exit interviews and embrace an effective retention strategy.

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Exit interviews are often used to find out why departing employees flew the coop. Business professor John Sullivan proposes a better strategy: Determine the reasons why key employees stay at your organization and reinforce those factors whenever and wherever possible.

But how can employers determine what keeps key employees happily moored? The professor of management at San Francisco State University recommends what he calls “stay” interviews, in which managers periodically sit down with top-performing employees and ask key questions to suss out the fundamental reasons why they like their jobs.

“It’s too late if you’re asking people why they’re leaving,” says Sullivan, a well-known expert on human resource issues who specializes in strategic talent management. “You have to ask them before they leave — ask them why they stay, then reinforce those things. Then they’ll never leave.”

The concept isn’t exactly new. In fact, Sullivan — who has written more than 1,200 articles and 10 books about talent management, including the book Stay Interviews and Other Powerful Retention Tools — says he invented the concept back in the late 1990s. But given the problems so many companies have with high employee turnover, it’s easy to imagine that not enough organizations use this commonsense solution to stop the steady drip, drip, drip of workplace brain drain.

There aren’t any major obstacles to doing such interviews. They don’t cost anything but managers’ time, and they don’t require any special training either because the process is both simple and intuitive.

Furthermore, the cost of employee turnover is staggering. Estimates about these costs vary widely, but based on his own research, Sullivan says the number is at least three times an employee’s salary.

There’s another compelling reason for busy managers to make time for stay interviews: Because the program targets only a small population of specific employees, it’s easy to track turnover metrics to determine its effectiveness, he notes.

Start the conversation

So what exactly is a stay interview and how should it be conducted? Sullivan defines it as a structured, one-on-one retention interview between a manager and a top-performing employee. It can also target crucial employees who are high risks for departure.

The interview should last about an hour. The primary goal is to identify the factors that drive employees to stay, as well as identify and minimize factors that could spur their departure. Such interviews should be scheduled at least twice a year and more often for top employees identified as flight risks, Sullivan says.

“If job circumstances change for an employee, you may have to do the interviews more often,” he explains. “Volatility matters if it changes employees’ ‘sticky’ factors — the things that make a difference to them and keep them on board.”

The repeated emphasis on top-performing and key employees here is no accident; this isn’t a politically correct kids’ soccer tournament where everyone gets a trophy. In short, low-performing employees don’t get to participate. Odds are that they’re less likely to be lured away anyway, Sullivan points out.

“It’s all about job performance and replaceability,” he notes. This Darwinian mentality — culling the corporate herd, if you will — may sound harsh. But as Sullivan points out, there’s a big difference between a lower-level employee who might cost the organization $100 by making a mistake versus a high-level employee whose error could cost it millions of dollars. Or whose innovation skills could lead to millions of dollars in additional revenue.

What if nonkey employees learn that colleagues are getting stay interviews and ask why they aren’t? Candor is critical. “Most managers will lie,” Sullivan asserts. “But it’s better to hold a meeting and talk to them about their performance and contributions to the organization. Point out that when they perform like the people who get stay interviews, they’ll get one, too.”

Sticky factors

Managers typically should do the interviews, not human resources personnel. To reduce any anxiety, the manager should begin by pointing out that the interview’s purpose is simply to identify things that keep the employee jazzed about his or her job.

Then the manager should quickly segue into praising the employee’s performance, thanking the employee for his or her efforts and emphasizing the value that person brings to the organization. Then it’s time to get to the meat of the matter: Find out what trips this employee’s trigger about their job.

Questions can vary. But here are some examples:

• What factors make you passionate about and committed to your team?

• What three or four key reasons keep you here?

• What factors make you feel like you’re having a positive impact on your team, products, customers or community?

• Are there any “wow” factors that keep you excited about your role here?

• What are your career expectations and where would you like to be, say, two years from now?

• What would your dream job be like?

• Is there anything more I can do to enhance your productivity and commitment to your job?

It’s important to focus on positives, not things employees don’t like about their jobs. “They key is to identify those sticky factors — get it all on the table,” Sullivan suggests. “A lot of managers have no idea what motivates their employees. It’s horrible. If you don’t know what motivates them, how can you try to retain them?”

Sometimes the responses spur more interviews. For example, some top employees might list a particular colleague (or colleagues) as a chief reason why they enjoy their jobs. In those instances, it’s important to also do a stay interviews with that colleague or colleagues, Sullivan says.

Action is critical

Of course, stay interviews become an empty exercise if a manager doesn’t act on the information provided. Any delays in reinforcing the sticky factors, or not doing anything at all, increases the chances a quality employee will leave.

In addition, some issues inevitably arise that managers can’t resolve on their own. In those cases, it’s important for managers to be candid and explain that they must first consult with upper management before taking action. But they should get back to employees with answers in a reasonable amount of time, such as a couple weeks, he advises.

The bottom line: Stay interviews are an inexpensive and effective tool for keeping top talent firmly anchored.

“They make people feel appreciated,” Sullivan says. “You only need to look at the data to see that stay interviews work. Research shows that 50% of turnover is preventable and 95% of it is predictable. So if I can stop you from quitting half the time, there’s no reason not to do so.” 

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