“The Great Resignation” is how experts are referring to today’s talent-short times. You know you are part of a significant moment in history when a common axiom is associated with everything around it.
While we as organizations aspire to be proactive, we are largely reactive to these issues, as talent retention has traditionally been a reactive strategy. Organizations do have various talent programs and experience processes in place, but on a real-time basis, talent retention needs to be an individual strategy rather than engagement. No doubt this seems like a painstaking process, but when talent acquisition is individualized, why not talent retention?
In an HBR article “Why Employees stay”, the authors asked the question: Why do employees stay? The brief answer is “inertia”. Employees tend to remain with a company until some force causes them to leave. While this article was published in 1973, the answer holds weight even in 2021. What has changed then? We believe that “some force” has now become “any force” as several factors now affect an employee’s decision-making. Professionals today have increasingly become brand-agnostic; and benefits are offered to them like a bouquet of choices.
Before we delve deeper into why employees stay, let’s look at why employees leave. With the widespread implementation of exit interviews, a simple test to understand why they leave is the exit interview. However, this is possibly the most reactive process in talent management. The trickle-down effect? Organizations rolled out this routine process, and employees treated it as such – only giving answers they think the organization wants to hear in the fear of burning bridges or not receiving their final settlements.
So, what you now have is a broken system of employee practices at an organizational level; strategic practices that have given way to generic policies that have no measurable impact in augmenting retention efforts. The failure of this system prevents organizations from looking for reasons beyond compensation to make employees stay. This brings us to a potent question - How can organizations break out of this rut and implement proactive talent retention activities?
A great article by Everett Spain and Boris Groyberg in HBR on “Making Exit Interviews Count”, sparked a debate between us - is this practice really working or is there an alternative?
The theory propounded by them is that in today’s knowledge economy, skilled employees are any company’s most valuable asset. It’s therefore essential to understand why they stay, why they leave and why the organization may need to change.
The challenge is that exit interview data can be vague and unreliable. So, is there really an alternative? Let’s explore the stay interviews, also known as stay conversations.
Stay interviews are thoughtful dialogues intended to let key talented individuals know that the company appreciates and values them, by encouraging a two-way feedback session. They are a company’s best means of retaining key talent without over-promising or over-paying, particularly effective during periods of organizational uncertainty and stress.
One should have stay conversations with all key talented individuals that have been identified as critical to the future success of the organization, to help them feel connected, heard, and supported during a time when they may be feeling unappreciated, vulnerable, or frustrated. As you read this, if the questions bouncing around in your head are –what exactly are stay interviews, when should they be initiated, what should be said, and so on, then we recommend you read on and dive deeper into some dos and don’ts you should keep in perspective. If you feel you already know everything you need to know on this subject, we still recommend you read on, if only because a stray line might ignite some new thoughts in your and serve as a refresher.
So, let’s start by answering…
How should I initiate a stay conversation?
Keep it informal; look for opportunities when you can suggest a cup of coffee, lunch, or an afternoon break together. If you try to force a stay conversation into a five-minute time frame, you may end up doing more harm than good. 30-45 minutes should be adequate for such a discussion. This practice is particularly relevant for the millennials in your team who subconsciously seek affirmation from seniors on many activities.
What should I say during a stay conversation?
Content is not critical; it’s your intent that counts. Your goal is to connect and make this person feel valued and appreciated. You are paying them with your time and attention and this “soft currency” goes a long way in terms of talent retention.
Furthermore, stay conversations help in preventing the talent’s departure by establishing “push” factors that may be provoking the person to leave. The whole purpose of stay conversations is to prevent the need for “exit interviews”.
Ideas to start an informal conversation could be:
“I just wanted to catch up and discuss how things are going. Tell me what’s going on and what we might need to talk more about”; “I just wanted to spend a few minutes connecting on what’s going on in your world.” Remember to keep questions open-ended.
Are stay conversations necessary if things are okay? Why stir up trouble if people aren’t expressing any concerns?
Typically, key talent individuals aren’t whiners and complainers. They simply keep quiet, until they hand you their resignation, and then it’s usually too late to recover. So, even if you think everything is fine, it’s wise to double-check during periods of turbulence and ambiguity. You may not like turning over rocks and looking for snakes, but if a snake is there, better to know about it before it surprises you.
Isn’t there some risk that the person I’m conversing with will see this as an opportunity to make demands or to ask for things I can’t deliver?
Truthfully, this can happen anytime and not just during stay conversations. So that’s no excuse not to have them. It’s unusual for key talented individuals to take advantage of a stay conversation. On the contrary, they are usually flattered and appreciative that you’ve taken the time to check on them and help them feel connected. However, you should be prepared to say no to unreasonable requests and refuse to take on problems beyond your control. It’s your willingness to listen that makes a stay conversation work and not what you can promise.
What kind of things can I say that will make people feel valued and appreciated, while still honoring the fact that I can’t promise them everything they want?
A little appreciation goes a long way! People aren’t always looking for actionable solutions, sometimes an empathetic ear is a solution. You can talk about how you value their contributions. You can tell them that you genuinely hope they will stick with the organization through this period of uncertainty because you believe they will have many opportunities regardless of the outcome. You can ask them what you can do to help reduce their anxiety and uncertainty. Bottom line: There is no script - be genuine in your interaction and offer support wherever you can. Do them a favour by opening up yourself. Demonstrating a little vulnerability is a great way to connect with people on an emotional level. They aren’t counting on you to have all the answers or to fix all the problems. They are simply counting on you to help them weather the storm with sincerity and credibility.
Are stay conversations just common sense, or good management?
They’re both, but they are not common practice. Many managers avoid their key talent individuals during periods of uncertainty because they don’t want to know if they are at risk of losing them. Others take their key talent individuals for granted, not realizing that even though they are performing well, and being low-maintenance, they may be accepting calls from professional search firms.
Is one round of stay conversations enough?
Stay conversations are a process and not an event. Although a one-time interaction may be enough, it’s more likely that you will need to have several conversations to keep key talented individuals connected and motivated. You’ll need to keep your ear to the ground and look for faint signals of discontent. You’ll also need to sense when announcements or changes stir up concern requiring additional stay conversations.
How can I find time to have all these stay conversations?
You can either find time to have them or spend time figuring out how to make your organization successful without these key talented individuals. Spending time retaining highly qualified and highly-skilled individuals is the best investment of time you can make. From our personal experience, we suggest utilizing wait time during travel, or connecting over common interests like music – whatever works for you!
Why not have stay conversations with everyone in my team?
It’s simply a matter of time and priorities. So, identify the most critical individuals in your team and make sure you have conversations with them first. If you retain these high-profile, well-respected team members, they will help cascade ‘staying behavior’ for others to follow.
What if a stay conversation doesn’t go well? What if the person admits that they are considering leaving or that they’re in conversation with another company about an opportunity that looks attractive?
Perfect, the process is working! That’s exactly what you were trying to discover. Sounds like there is still time to rescue this individual since he/she/they have not yet made up their mind to leave the organization. This gives you a chance to explore their motives and see if you can meet some of their needs more effectively than the competition’s recruiter. Don’t be afraid to probe into their interests and desires. And most importantly, don’t be afraid to surface their fears and frustrations with the current situation. You may not be able to resolve all their concerns, but the fact that you are willing to listen and address their needs is more powerful than an unknown recruiter’s empty promises.
Isn’t it inauthentic if I encourage good people to stay with the organization when they have opportunities with other companies that offer more security and less ambiguity? After all, I genuinely care about these people?
Caring is what good management is all about, and authenticity is the cornerstone of stay conversations. It’s not your job to persuade anyone to stay in a position that isn’t in their own best interest. However, during periods of organizational turbulence, people make poor career decisions just to resolve the interim uncertainty they are experiencing. They jump ship, even if that’s not the best long-term career decision for them. They accept a job they don’t really want, just to ensure that they have a job.
Now that we have explored many facets of stay interviews, we can draw some obvious conclusions. In comparison, the not-so-well-thought-out alternative exit interviews are an environment where individuals are less candid and more cautious about what they say. The insights are vague, and the interview is done just to check an item off the HR’s list. - Further, very often, employees state their reason for leaving as “better prospects or opportunities elsewhere”. In such a scenario, if an employee is truly leaving with no ill-feeling towards the company, we must ensure that we keep in touch with them. Ex-employees form a part of your organization’s “alumni association” - a fabulous source of authentic data and references. Organizations need to avoid the “postmortem” scenario when the patient is dead and the doctor no longer has interest – if an employee leaves, they are still worthy of attention, as they are a part of the organization’s past and future network.
Whilst stay interviews are not a perfect solution, they are certainly a step forward in the right direction to build organizational capability and retain those who are worth retaining. A combination of stay and exit interviews may prove to be a useful strategy as well. One can go a step further to build retention practices – periodic engagement surveys that probe an employee’s motivation levels, stress-busting time-outs and mental health leaves, opportunities to upskill, and many other activities.