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Should I Stay or Should I Go? How Exit and Stay Interviews Can Improve Employee Retention

Employee turnover can have a significant impact on an organization. For small or mid-sized companies, the loss of even one valued employee – and the institutional knowledge they take with them – can disrupt operations, efficiency, and growth. In addition, replacement costs associated with employee turnover – depending on position type – can range from 30-150% of the employee’s annual salary.

Although there are unavoidable circumstances, in most cases, employees leave for reasons that can be traced back to a situation or situations that, if handled differently, could have prevented them from walking away. In fact, with open communication and valuable feedback, you can avoid high turnover and build a more loyal, inspired (and successful) team.

So, where do you start? A great first step is to collect honest feedback, so you can identify and improve upon any ongoing and/or pervasive issues. Exit interviews with departing employees and stay interviews with current team members can provide you with a wealth of information that you can utilize to make positive changes.

Two people working together in a conference room

Let’s start with exit interviews:

How does an exit interview help in employee retention efforts?

While the thought of conducting exit interviews might initially make you uncomfortable, if approached from a positive perspective—and with an open mind—they can provide valuable insights about employees’ perceptions of your organization and its culture. You can also uncover information that helps you defuse conflict in the workplace and, if necessary, prepare you for possible litigation if a soon-to-be ex-employee considers taking legal action.

How to conduct an exit interview.

Instead of treating an exit interview as a box to check in your termination process, view it as a golden opportunity to elicit valuable data from someone who – because they are no longer worried about losing their job – may be more forthcoming with information.

The person conducting the interview should prepare to hear negative feedback about your company's overall culture and how it can be improved, but with the proper mindset, the interview can have positive results for all involved. To set the right tone, communicate from the start that the information they share is private and will not affect employee references provided by your company.

Tips from G&A: How to Conduct an Exit Interview

  • Structure and plan exit interviews as you would a hiring interview. Many of the same best practices for interviewing a potential candidate apply to interviewing an employee leaving your organization.
  • Conduct a one-on-one exit interview—not a panel interview. An employee who faces a group of people during an exit interview might hold back information.
  • Don't ask employees to name names or assign blame during an exit interview. Instead, ask about specific instances or situations and how it impacted their work performance.
  • Sometimes, employees use exit interviews to air their grievances. Try not to get defensive and, instead, get to the root of their issues. This can be challenging, but it can also help you gather the most significant insights.
  • If you're not sure why someone is leaving, ask them. Use the exit interview as an opportunity to respectfully ask how they came to that decision. You may find out that there are growing problems in your organization.
  • If you don't want your employee to leave, ask them to stay. And find out what needs to change for them to remain in their position.
  • Follow up on feedback from exit interviews. Remember, the reason you are conducting them is to find out information current employees might be uncomfortable sharing.
  • Use information gathered during exit interviews to proactively address issues within your organization, improve your company culture and employee morale, and, ultimately, increase your employee retention rate.

Sample exit interview questions:

  • What motivated you to look for a new job?
  • Was there any singular event that caused you to decide to leave the company?
  • What did you enjoy most about your job? And least? What would you change?
  • Did your position allow a good work-life balance?
  • Is there anything you would have liked to change about your position?
  • How was your relationship with your manager? Your team? Your colleagues?
  • Do you have any suggestions for improving our company's work environment or company culture?
  • Do you feel that you had all the resources and support necessary to perform your job?
  • Did you communicate your concerns before deciding to leave?
    Woman sitting in a blue chair with a notebook

    The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) recommends that an HR professional conduct the exit interviews, if possible. In addition to their background and training, HR professionals are knowledgeable about the separation process. They can collect company property that needs to be returned before an employee's departure, advise them of continuing benefits, and ensure that relevant paperwork is completed. In smaller companies, however, there may not be a dedicated HR position. For a variety of reasons—HR expertise being an important one—HR outsourcing can be a great way to improve employee satisfaction and avoid costly turnover or legal issues.

    What is a stay interview?

    Denise Macik, Manager of Strategic HR Services for G&A Partners, says a proactive way to collect feedback from your team is to weave “stay” interviews into your company culture. Conducting these interviews with existing employees can help you keep them more engaged and can strengthen your retention efforts.

    Stay interviews involve:

    • Checking in with employees at regular intervals to get their feedback
    • Finding out what they need from you to be successful in their work
    • Identifying and sorting out problems before they reach a point of no return

    A stay interview – also known as a retention interview – should encourage open and honest communication. If your employees believe these interviews will result in repercussions, they will hold back information or provide answers they think you want to hear. Like exit interviews, conduct stay interviews only if your company is willing to solicit constructive criticism and act on employee feedback to improve your organization.

    Managers who conduct stay interviews can retain top talent, engage their employees, and lower their employee attrition in ways that others cannot.

    — Patrick Proctor, "The Benefits Stay Interviews Can Bring to Your Company."

    Tips from G&A: How to Foster a Successful Stay Interview Strategy

    • Explain to employees that stay interviews are conversational, trust-based, and strategic discussions where they can share positive and negative feedback about their position, the company, and the company culture.
    • If you have a dedicated HR position or an HR outsourcing partner, like G&A, consider having at least initial stay interviews conducted by this person. This can help employees feel more comfortable offering up honest feedback—especially if they have concerns about the company culture or their direct manager.
    • Schedule recurring stay interviews, so they are on the calendar and employees come to expect them.
    • Stay interviews are not meant to be employee performance review meetings. Don’t confuse the two, or you may lose your employees’ trust and miss out on future opportunities to get vital feedback.
    • Explain to employees that you will consider their feedback, but don’t promise to make specific changes. However, when your organization implements new policies or changes based on employee feedback, communicate that information to all employees and express appreciation for their contributions.
    • Conduct one-on-one stay interviews (not group interviews). Employees are more likely to be forthcoming in a private setting.
    • If the interview is leaning too heavily toward negative feedback, create balance by weaving in questions that solicit positive responses, such as: What aspects of your job do you enjoy? What are some of your team’s recent successes?
    • Approach the interview with an open mind. When you demonstrate that you are there to listen, you gain employees’ trust and set the stage for a successful stay interview program.

      Stay interview questions recommended by the Society for Human Resources Management (SHRM):

      • What do you look forward to when you come to work each day?
      • What do you like most or least about working here?
      • If you could change any one part of your job, what would that be?
      • What would make your job and overall work experience more satisfying?
      • How do you like to be recognized for your work?
      • What talents do you have that are not being used in your current role?
      • What can your manager do to best support you?
      • How would you describe our company culture to a new employee?
      • What might tempt you to leave?
        Two people having a conversation at a table

        For more information on stay interviews from SHRM, go here.

        The end goal for both exit and stay interviews is to gain valuable and actionable feedback from people who know your business best and view your company from a different angle. If you need help establishing your exit and stay interview program and/or improving upon your employee engagement, recruiting, and retention efforts, consider partnering with a trusted HR outsourcing provider, such as G&A Partners.

        How G&A Can Help

        We create scalable service offerings that meet your workforce needs today and adapt accordingly as your business grows. For more information about all the services G&A provides, schedule a consultation with one of our trusted business advisors.