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Curb employee turnover with engagement challenges

September 10, 2013

Employee turnover is expensive — very expensive. As the economy continues to build strength, albeit slowly, employee turnover will become a larger problem for many employers. But traditional retention strategies, including pay and benefits, are not the only tools available to address the challenge. In fact, you may be throwing money at the problem with little to show for it. Here’s another approach to consider.

The phrase “stay interview,” which is in the title of a book published a little more than a year ago, has already garnered 180 million Google searches. The concept starts with this premise:  what employees value far more than standard HR programs, is mutual understanding and a strong line of communication with their supervisors. It is the brainchild of C-Suite Analytics CEO and retention expert, Dick Finnegan.

It is also critical for supervisors to have a clear understanding of their direct reports’ job goals, likes and concerns, and to address them individually to the extent possible. Asking why an employee is leaving in an exit interview does nothing to prevent the resignation, and the employee’s responses may be irrelevant to other employees still on board.

Better than Surveys

Standard employee surveys “have become periodic rituals like preparing budgets, leading to jaded comments like, ‘Is it that time again?'” Finnegan writes in “The Power of Stay Interviews for Engagement and Retention,” published by the Society for Human Resource Management (see below).  

Finnegan’s basic definition of the stay interview: A structured discussion a leader conducts with each employee to learn the specific actions the leader must take to strengthen the employee’s engagement and retention with the organization.

Forget about asking your HR manager to conduct these conversations. They must be done by the employees’ direct supervisors, even if it happens to be the owner of the company. For multi-layered organizations, Finnegan recommends a cascading approach — start at the top and have them progress through each rung of management.

Annual stay interviews (recommended for all employees except new hires, who should have two in their first year) should not be conducted in conjunction with employee performance reviews. In fact they should be held six months before or after the annual review. Reason: Each discussion has a different purpose, and mingling them would dilute the value of both. In addition, performance reviews can be stressful for both parties. Stay interviews need to be low-key.

Here are some key stay interview guidelines:

  • Conduct them face-to-face. This is the ideal scenario, and usually can be accomplished if scheduled far enough in advance.
  • Give a heads up. Employees should be given plenty of time to learn about the format, tone and purpose of the conversation to give them an opportunity to reflect on what messages they want to convey.
  • Start low-key. Supervisors should make their first interview with each employee “simple” to allow them to gain confidence in their skills, and to give employees confidence in the process.
  • Use a scripted introduction. This helps to ensure you won’t set the stage with an implication you will be able to address every concern or request, possibly creating an implied contract. Example: “I’d like our focus to be on subjects I can help you with each day,” versus indicating a more narrow agenda focusing, perhaps, on compensation.

Needed: Probing Skills

Successful stay interviews require a supervisor’s ability to probe to get at the heart of employees’ true thoughts on a given topic, and not necessarily taking first responses at face value. As employees and supervisors gain comfort with the process, genuine concerns often are expressed more freely.

What questions should supervisors ask? The more open-ended, the better, Finnegan believes. Examples offered in his book:

  • What do you like most and least about working here?
  • What are your career goals?
  • Why do you stay, and what might make you leave?
  • How can I help?

Don’t be Stumped

Prepare in advance for questions which cannot be answered easily or on the spot, or are not within your authority to act upon. However, supervisors need not be overly concerned that conducting stay interviews will prompt employees to make unrealistic demands. Employees typically are happy to be asked about their concerns, and in this environment seldom ask for things you cannot provide.

By the same token, supervisors must be prepared to grant appropriate requests, and check back on how it’s going prior to next year’s stay interview. For example, if an employee wants more training for particular skills, is this training taking place?

According to Finnegan, the biggest risk with stay interviews “is that you won’t do what you say you will do for the employee,” destroying your credibility. And the largest impediment to conducting stay interviews is supervisors who believe they don’t have enough time for it. “Often they’re busy trying to fill vacancies that would not exist if they had been conducting stay interviews in the first place,” Finnegan says.

Stay Interviews vs. Employee Surveys

Unlike employee surveys, stay interviews:

  • Elicit information from employees which can be used today
  • Provide specific ideas on how to engage and retain individual employees, most critically, the ones you value the most, vs. providing a general picture of the average employee. (There is no average employee; all are unique, Finnegan maintains.)
  • Shift most of the responsibility for employee retention away from HR staff and programs, to those who are generally in the best position to make a difference: front-line supervisors
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