Workers Keep Resigning. Here’s a Novel Idea to Get Them to Stay

To keep employees from leaving amid the Great Resignation, leaders need to start asking the tough questions–at the right time.

While exit interviews are a common practice across many industries, they may not be the most useful tool when you’re  anticipating a flurry of resignations. In an attempt to retain workers, many businesses have started conducting stay interviews: one-on-one conversations with employees that aim to pinpoint problems that may lead an employee to leave the company.

These interviews are different from traditional quarterly or annual reviews. While a review process may allow employees to give their boss feedback, those meetings tend to focus more generally on a worker’s performance. “A stay interview is more focused on the intangibles, like morale and company culture,” says Garrett Garcia, vice president of the Tampa, Florida-based creative agency PPK, which began conducting stay interviews before the pandemic. People managers at the agency aim to conduct stay interviews with each of the company’s 92 employees at least once a year, and, as a result, the company has experienced “surprisingly low” turnover, even during the Great Resignation.

Here’s how businesses can make the most of these one-on-one meetings. 

Ask the right questions–and listen.

Amber Swenor’s wake-up call came in April 2021. That’s when the founder of the Madison, Wisconsin marketing agency Soul Seed says five of her eight staff members left the company. “I absolutely did not see it coming,” she says. “We had just come out of a challenging year, and, as an employer, I was feeling really burned out.” Swenor admits that employee check-ins had fallen to the wayside as she focused on keeping the business afloat during the earlier stages of the pandemic. Now, she conducts check-ins every quarter, and has started asking workers a more direct question: “If you were to leave in six months, what would make you leave?”

Swenor has gradually started to rebuild her team–she’s brought on the equivalent of five and a half positions (a few workers are part-time)–and is making an effort to create an environment where workers feel comfortable to raise concerns that may cause them to leave the company down the line. “My intention is to bring back a level of transparency,” she says.

Create a sense of psychological safety.

Stay interviews are only helpful if employees feel comfortable enough to be honest–and some may not want to raise issues with their boss for fear of retribution, Swenor says. That means leaders need to create an environment where workers feel comfortable being truthful. To do that, it’s best to have an open-door policy, which means workers are welcome to raise any concerns or ask any questions of their managers at any time–not just during a formal review, adds Garcia. “We try to keep a relatively flat organizational structure so that, when it is time for an employee to have a stay interview, they don’t feel like they’re in the hot seat,” he says. “Stay interviews should be extensions of ongoing conversations.” 

Keep track of employee satisfaction.

When workers bring up issues or concerns, take action but also keep notes. “Having a consistent view of how an employee is doing over time and keeping track of that progress in software is so much more powerful than trying to keep track of it in your mind,” says John Waldmann, CEO and founder of the workplace management platform  Homebase, which is used by over 10,000 small businesses across the country. Homebase, which was founded in 2014, has used stay interviews to retain its corporate team of nearly 200 employees, and it encourages the small businesses–which primarily rely on shift workers–that use its software to do the same.

Because there are higher incidences of worker turnover in shift jobs, regular communication and stay interviews are essential to hold onto these employees, Waldmann says–especially when workers may not even interact with their managers on every shift. Through Homebase’s software, workers can rate each shift on a five-star scale; any zero or one-star shifts get flagged with managers, who can then schedule follow-up meetings to learn why the employee had a negative experience.

Quarterly engagement surveys can also provide an anonymous path for workers to share their feelings with managers, too. “The most important thing is honesty,” Waldmann says. “As a manager, make sure you’re checking in and asking where your workers need support and where you can do better.”

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