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How to Measure Engagement With a Stay Interview

Stay interviews are essentially informal conversations between managers and their direct reports — not to mention one of the most valuable measures of employee engagement out there.

June 5, 2012
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When it comes to measuring employee engagement, there’s an oft-overlooked method — one that isn’t traditionally woven into the formal HR process — that some engagement specialists say might be the most effective of all: the stay interview.

Unlike the exit interview, where HR managers gain insights into employee sentiment just before they walk out the door, and the performance review, where managers assess employees’ performance for the year, the stay interview asks the question most managers yearn to ask their top talent: What could we do to make you stay?

“The ultimate goal of the stay interview is to stay in someone’s head and make sure we retain them,” said Kevin Kruse, author of WE: How to Increase Performance and Profits Through Full Engagement.

The stay interview is perhaps a manager’s most honest grip on engagement, according to Kruse. It’s a one-on-one meeting with a front-line manager and a direct report to gain insight on that employee’s perspective on the organization’s key engagement drivers, and to learn which of those drivers need fixing to retain top talent.

Kruse said stay interviews work best when they happen at least once or twice a year.

The stay interview is also not typically owned by the HR manager. If a manager feels that his or her relationship with an employee is particularly trustworthy, the stay interview might be more effective outside of the office — say at a coffee shop or over lunch, Kruse said.

A successful stay interview, however, isn’t as simple as just asking the question: “What could we do to make you stay?” HR managers need to train leaders to ask questions that help drive understanding on employee feelings about the key areas of engagement — company culture, communication, growth and recognition.

“It’s less about, ‘Are you going to leave?’ and more about, ‘How are you feeling about the things that would make them [want to] jump on Monster.com,’” Kruse said.

Managers should exercise caution in how stay interview questions are framed. For example, when asking employees about their feelings about communication, it would be best to refrain from asking blunt questions such as: “Do you think communication is going well here?”

Instead, managers can engage employees in a more open approach: “Is there enough two-way communication going on at [insert company name here]?” Kruse said.

It’s also important for managers to separate the stay interview from discussions about employee performance, said Dick Finnegan, the author of The Power of Stay Interviews for Engagement and Retention and the CEO of C-Suite Analytics, an engagement and retention firm.

“It’s [a meeting] about how is the job working from your perspective [the employee] and not my perspective as a manager,” Finnegan said.

In addition to holding stay interviews for top talent, Finnegan recommends managers conduct them on a more frequent basis for new hires — after the first 30, 60 and 90 days on the job.

Finnegan also said stay interviews should always be done one-on-one and not in a group.

Further, if a formal stay interview procedure were to be implemented throughout the organization, it should be conducted in a cascading fashion — start with the CEO and move down the firm’s ladder.

For organizations that conduct wide-ranging engagement surveys each year, it’s best to conduct the stay interview not long after those results become available. “If you know the [engagement] scores, you can focus more time and attention on the areas of validated need,” Kruse said.

Finnegan added that while engagement surveys are effective in some areas, the stay interview is a better overall measure of employee engagement.

“Engagement surveys are great for benchmarks, but they’re really bad for solutions — because they tell you how people respond to survey questions, but they don’t tell you what they really want,” Finnegan said. “They don’t lead to solutions.

“So stay interviews become the lynchpin to solutions … and they help you learn the unique needs of your high performers. Engagement surveys tell you average information about your average employees.”

Both Kruse and Finnegan agreed that while not currently a formal process, HR managers should make efforts to implement stay interviews in their organization and hold front-line managers accountable.

While Kruse said he’s known of some HR managers who conduct the stay interviews themselves, he cautioned against it. “The power in this is getting a conversation going between that critical link between the manager and the direct report,” he said.

Finnegan agreed. “Trust is the absolute most important skill that managers need to have,” he said. “The stay interview becomes a way to build trust.”

Frank Kalman is an associate editor of Talent Management magazine. He can be reached at fkalman@talentmgt.com.

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