Employers roll out ‘stay’ interviews as record number of Americans walk off the job

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Americans are walking away from their jobs in record numbers as remote work has uncoupled jobs from geography, and droves of employees are reevaluating the relationship they have with their employers.

To keep workers happy and on the job, more companies are turning to “stay interviews,” one-on-one meetings with top performers meant to give those key people the chance to talk about what works, and what doesn’t work, about their current job.

“This has become an extremely popular topic… to try and help retain employees as much as possible,” said Robyn Hopper, HR knowledge adviser for the Society for Human Resource Management. Managers who conduct stay interviews are coached to ask workers open-ended questions about what they like most about their job, what they dislike and under what events or circumstances they might leave.

The idea, Hopper said, is to ask questions similar to what an employee might be asked in an exit interview — but before they actually quit. “It gives employees more of a voice, as far as the good, the bad and the ugly,” she said.

“With the labor market conditions the way they are, it’s very much a buyer’s market for talent. Employers, particularly in certain sectors, are seeing people leave at a faster rate,” said Scott Bonneau, vice president of global talent attraction at Indeed.com. “I think stay interviews can be quite effective… it promotes and fosters trust and open communication.”

Sometimes workers switch jobs in pursuit of a higher salary, but recruiters say a significant factor is the higher expectations of job candidates today when it comes to feeling seen and supported by their bosses. “People don’t leave companies, people leave managers,” said Dave Carvajal, CEO of Dave Partners, a tech industry recruiting firm.

“People’s desire for how they work has changed. The leadership skills and training required have also changed significantly… and a lot aren’t listening to their people,” Carvajal said.

Other departures are spurred by the chance to have more flexible hours, remote work or professional development opportunities. “It can be difficult for employers to keep up with the demands of the market,” Bonneau said. “Stay interviews are ways for employers to hear directly from employees.”

While experts say stay interviews can be a valuable tool for retaining top employees, there is one big caveat: Bosses have to actually follow through on the feedback they solicit.

“At the end of the day, you can promise the best things in the world, but if you can’t execute and deliver, people will tend to look elsewhere,” said Thomas Wu, who recently took a job as director of finance at an NFT startup.

Wu speaks from experience. At his old job, he said the CEO would regularly check in to ask about challenges and concerns, but didn’t follow up and actually solve the problems. “The feedback was heard, but execution was slower than I hoped,” he said. Wu said the disconnect was one of the reasons he ultimately left. The experience also impressed on him the importance both of soliciting feedback and addressing concerns employees have raised with him in his new role.

“Any input and feedback is really appreciated,” he said, adding that fierce competition in the tech sector makes keeping workers happy a top priority. “I would say definitely I’m more cognizant of how people would react especially with this frothy market — money is being thrown around in the startup world,” he said. “Our team’s culture is the biggest driver. Everybody loves working here.”

Carvajal said small businesses, which struggle to compete with huge companies on salaries and benefits, have more at stake and tend to use processes like stay interviews more frequently. “They can’t afford to lose talent, so that cultural aspect is so much stronger and so much more important,” he said.

Dale Winston, chairwoman and CEO of executive recruiting firm Battalia Winston, said the topics covered in a stay interview might have, in a pre-pandemic workplace, taken place informally over coffee or lunch. “I think the fact that people are working remotely, there’s less chit-chat at the coffee maker,” she said.

With more people working remotely, stay interviews can function as an important way to facilitate that kind of communication. Winston added, though, that while creating a formal structure to address those issues in the absence of casual, organic interactions is positive, companies run a risk of making the process too rigid — or too infrequent.

“These are questions that, in my view, should be asked on a regular basis,” she said. “Implementing this on an annual basis isn’t necessarily going to solve the problem.”

“With many industries having gone fully remote, you’re missing out on some of the human element… but this can be an opportunity to hit the reset button,” Bonneau said.

Since one stumbling block is that workers may be reluctant to raise concerns or talk about issues with their current job, the onus is on the manager to set clear expectations in advance of the meeting and ask direct, specific questions about the employee’s satisfaction, Bonneau said. “If there’s mistrust between leaders and employees, this could be particularly challenging,” he said.

Bonneau added, though, that workers who want to stay with their current employers should be honest about their perspective if asked to participate in a stay interview. “If there are things you’ve wanted to get off your chest or things you would really like to see changed… If your employer is going to the trouble of doing this in good faith, this is your opportunity to say those things,” he said.

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