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‘Stay interviews’ lead to fewer exits

It’s an employee retention strategy that is paying off
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As my family and I drove home from a weekend getaway, we stopped at a familiar restaurant for breakfast.

Inhaling the comforting aromas, I could almost taste pancakes and bacon before I decided what to order. Pass the syrup, please.

Too bad the feeling didn’t last. Like the smell of badly burnt toast obliterating your appetite, I was soon jolted out of the Norman Rockwell image I had in mind. Fluffy breakfast fare wasn’t coming our way anytime soon because we couldn’t find a waitress to help us.

The restaurant was short on staff, and once our order was finally taken, another waiting game began: Should we stay or should we go? If we left, we would have to start over somewhere else or grab fast food instead. Big sigh — we decided to stick it out.

An anxiety reboot then came over me, and I blurted out: “I’ve been here before!” No, not at this restaurant, but at a similar emotional crossroads. Should I stay or should I go? In the earlier experience the stakes were much higher because it had nothing to do with “steak” or other food. It was my job. I had previously been in an employment environment where the overall tone was toxic.

The negative experience included a plateful of poor processes, limited access to essential training and a critical, non-supportive boss. It all pointed to the adage that usually applies: When you quit your job, you’re not quitting the company. You’re quitting your manager.

Then things changed. The supervisor was terminated and another manager took his place. Soon it seemed that a fresh morning breeze was drifting in. Our new leader began repairing broken processes, inviting input and providing empowering options to our team.

An example of that was a stay interview. All too often, companies only conduct exit meetings to find out why people leave. The inverse of this is an interview to find out what makes employees want to stay. I like it.

When it comes to staying, many studies have validated that career development is a mighty means that managers can use to drive motivation and retention, even though it may not be a priority. The stay interview aids in reducing employee turnover and allows career development and other preferences for gratifying employment to be addressed before another organization woos a high-caliber worker.

What’s the structure for a stay interview? A retention dialogue is held so supervisors and leaders can gain insight into making things better. It’s akin to the idea that although many people like eggs for breakfast, how your eggs are cooked (scrambled or over easy, anyone?) can have an extensive effect on how much you enjoy eating them.

So, too, workplace parameters and resources can inspire and influence how much you enjoy your job. Dona DeZube of says managers may have a reluctance to hold retention conversations for fear that employees will ask for raises that aren’t in the budget.

Those fears are often unfounded, with stay interviews enabling a definitive defense against worker attrition while providing a way to gain feedback on frequently ignored cultural norms or other issues that affect employee erosion.

What questions work well in a stay interview? DeZube went to another resource for this answer, conferring with Beverly Kaye, author of “Help Them Grow or Watch Them Go.”

Kaye points out that effective queries help bosses individualize their leadership efforts for those they supervise. For an insightful exchange, Kaye recommends asking these 11 questions:

  1. What about your job makes you want to jump out of bed?
  2. What about your job makes you want to hit the snooze button?
  3. What are you passionate about?
  4. What’s your dream job?
  5. If you changed your role completely, what would you miss the most?
  6. If you won the lottery and didn’t have to work, what would you miss?
  7. What did you love in your last position that you’re not doing now?
  8. What makes for a great day at work?
  9. If you had a magic wand, what would be the one thing you would change about your work, your role and your responsibilities?
  10. What do you think about on your way to work?
  11. What’s bothering you most about your job?

What do you think? To gain a deeper view of the comments these queries usually embolden, let’s break them down. I consider the first three questions to be focused on “today” — satisfaction or not with the current job you’re doing.

Questions four through seven look at “tomorrow” — namely, if you could imagine your perfect job, which also incorporated previous work you loved, what would it include?

Back to “reality,” questions eight through 11 enable an appreciative assessment of what you’re delighted to be working on now and how you might change it by zeroing in on what could make it better. Today, tomorrow and reality — revelations supervisors should ingest to improve and expand worker motivation and fulfillment.

But wait, you knew there would be more. The above list is in no way exhaustive. Here are a few other questions I discussed with my boss in our stay conversation:

  1. What do you like best about the company?
  2. What do you like least?
  3. How would you describe what it’s like to work here to someone interested in a position with this company?
  4. What could I do as your manager to make your job easier or help you be more successful?
  5. What could I stop doing to increase success or make your job easier?
  6. On a scale of one to 10, how would you rate the likelihood of your staying with the company for the foreseeable future, with a one being likely to leave and a 10 being likely to stay?

As with any approach, there may be challenges about being unable to respond to worker requests for raises, training or other specifics developed during the dialogue. In these cases the best response is a truthful one, along with providing available alternatives.

Although many variables contribute to an employee being faced with a “stay or go” decision, with a stay discussion supervisors are getting a better handle on the changes that need to be made rather than learning about the issues after a great employee has walked out the door.

Begging the question: When do you conduct a stay interview? DeZube says experts recommend at least once a year opposite performance reviews, and twice during the crucial time in which your company experiences new hire departures (such as the initial 40 to 50 days for fast food, or 90 to 180 days for engineers).

What about our breakfast mentioned earlier and the outcome of our decision to stay? It was a mixed bag — no doggie bag needed. When it comes to the stay interview, however, the result is nearly always a pleasant serving of worthwhile returns.

Human resources professionals have found that retention conversations are a terrific technique to use in their quest to continuously improve work settings and reduce attrition.

So go ahead. Wake up, smell the French toast and take your turn at giving stay interviews a try and start to turn the tables on employee turnover while turning on an enhanced work environment for all.

Mary Elston has spent more than 20 years in management in the transportation, consulting and technology industries. She is a member of the National Speakers Association and author of the book, “Master Your Middle Management Universe, How to Succeed with Moga Moga Management Using 3 Easy Steps.” Contact her at

This article originally appeared in the August 2017 issue.



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