Exit interviews are now a fact of life for many leaders, as resignations continue to plague employers worldwide. However, the ‘stay interview’ is emerging as an important new tactic for retaining employees, especially high performers or key individuals in hard-to-fill positions.

Stay interview questions differ significantly from those asked during exit interviews. On the whole, the object of the stay interview is to check in with employees and learn more about how they’re feeling about their work, the company, and their future.

The reasons why people stay in a role provide unique insight for leaders into the elements of work that are so exciting, fulfilling, and invigorating that they outweigh any negative aspects of the job. 

Case in point: in her article for Forbes, author Christina Comaford lists the top ten reasons employees stay in their jobs, according to a large survey conducted by the authors of the book “Love ‘Em or Lose ‘Em: Getting Good People to Stay.” The top two reasons – at least one of which was cited by a whopping 91% of survey respondents – were “exciting work and challenge” and “career growth, learning, and development.” For the record, “fair pay” was #4 on the list, and benefits checked in at #7.

This information is invaluable for managers, enabling them to make adjustments that ensure employees get more of what they truly value.

What is a stay interview? 

The definition of a stay interview is simple: it’s a short interview that’s focused on learning why employees (usually high performers) stay at an organisation, and what circumstances might cause them to leave. Ideally, stay interviews are a rule, not an exception, and are conducted as part of a company’s standard operations.

“Unlike the term stay interview suggests, it’s not meant to keep employees from leaving, at least not primarily,” notes Neelie Verlinden, co-founder of the Academy to Innovate HR (“AIHR”) in an article titled “21 Best Stay Interview Questions to Ask.” “It’s more about gathering valuable feedback from your employees and continuously improving employee satisfaction and engagement.”

“Think of it as the opposite of an exit interview: Instead of asking why an employee is quitting, a stay interview focuses on what motivates the employee to stick around, what could be better about their work experience and how they envision the next stage of their career within the organization,” writes Jennifer Liu for CNBC MakeIt in an article outlining why the ‘stay interview’ is the next big trend.

How to conduct a stay interview 

The best practices for conducting stay interviews are straightforward but differ from the other types of interviews to which a manager may be more accustomed. The tone of the conversation should be informal and focused on the employee, and specifically, their perspective, feelings, and needs.

These interviews are about asking for and receiving feedback – not delivering it. Managers conducting the interviews should be mindful of their reactions, and concentrate on gathering information, not responding to it. Using open-ended questions to encourage dialogue is particularly important.

Organisations employing stay interviews should create a standard set of questions to keep the conversations on track and enable them to compare answers from different areas of the business, but with two caveats: interviewers should feel free to ask the employee to elaborate their answers with follow up questions, and the questions should be reasonably reflective of different roles and professions.

On that point, it’s also important that the session feels like a conversation, instead of a game of 20 Questions. The goal of a stay interview is for a leader to come away with information they can use to create a better experience for a valued employee, to increase the probability that the employee will stay with the organisation.

Typically, stay interviews are a discussion between an employee and their direct supervisor, not an HR representative or other leader. There are several reasons why this point is especially important. First and foremost, managers have an outsize influence upon an employee’s experience, and thus are the people who are most able to respond to what’s learned in the interview.

“Remember, more often than not, current employees do not leave jobs —they leave managers. Employees need to be able to trust their manager,” writes Paul Lopusushinsky in an article for People Managing People about the power of stay interviews. “If conducted correctly, stay interviews can be one of the best possible ways of building that trust.”

Importantly, for a stay interview to work, a good working relationship between the employee and the manager conducting the session needs to be in place. (See more on improving work relationships here.)

“Workers will only share how they feel about work honestly if they feel a sense of psychological safety, or that they can speak freely without fear of retaliation and knowing their feedback will be fully accepted,” notes Jennifer Liu in her previously cited article for CNBC MakeIt.

The questions a manager asks should focus on the factors they can control, such as review formats or schedules, as opposed to exogenous factors such as supply chain constraints. A wide-ranging discussion about topics a manager is powerless to address is likely to have little positive benefit for either party.

Lastly, stay interviews are learning opportunities for the employee’s manager, and they should be prepared for and open to honest answers to questions such as “What can I do to best support you?” or “What can I do more of or less of as your manager?”

An important note about responding to stay interview feedback:

Any time you solicit employee feedback, prompt response and follow-up are crucial. Allowing too much time to pass can suggest to the employee that their feedback wasn’t valued and responding isn’t a priority.

Before the first stay interview is conducted, the organisation should have in place plans to help managers with a timely and appropriate response.

Separately, efforts should be made to aggregate and analyse the feedback: over time, you’ll gather invaluable insight into the company culture and its high performers that can be used to continually improve the employee experience.

What to ask: 30 insightful questions 

Stay interview questions can fall broadly into five categories:

  1. A person’s general outlook and their feelings about the company and work environment
  2. The employee’s feelings about their work and/or role
  3. The individual’s personal preferences (i.e. what makes them “tick”)
  4. How the employee feels about their future
  5. How well their manager supports them.

Following is a selection of questions you can use to frame the ideal conversation for your organisation.

Questions to assess a person’s general outlook and feelings about the company and work environment

  • What do you look forward to when you come to work each day?
  • What do you like most or least about working here?
  • What keeps you working here?
  • What might tempt you to leave?
  • What do you dread about work every day?
  • When was the last time you thought about leaving the company?
  • What situation made you think of leaving?
  • Would you recommend working here to your friends? Why (or why not)?

Questions to gauge how an employee feels about their role and their work 

  • What do you most enjoy about your work?
  • If you could change something about your job, what would that be?
  • What do you think about your goals and objectives?
  • What part of your job would you eliminate, if you could?
  • How meaningful is your work to you?
  • Do you have the tools and resources you need to do your best work?

Questions for understanding more about an employee’s preferences and motivations

  • What would make your job more satisfying?
  • How do you like to be recognized?
  • What motivates (or demotivates) you?
  • Do you feel your work contributions are valued? (If no, why not?)

Questions to understand how they feel about their future with the organisation 

  • What future do you envision with our company?
  • What talents are not being used in your current role?
  • What would you like to learn here?
  • What growth opportunities are of most interest to you?
  • What do you think of the learning and professional development resources we offer?

Questions to learn how an employee feels about their manager

  • How can I better support you as your manager?
  • What can I do to best support you?
  • What can I do more of?
  • What can I do less of?
  • What advice do you have for me?
  • Thinking of the best manager you ever had, what did you appreciate most about that person?

BONUS: Other open-ended questions for a stay interview 

  • How did this discussion make you feel?
  • What question do you wish I would have asked you?
  • What are we currently not doing as an organisation that you feel we should?

Stay interviews can deliver remarkable insights to a business, and when conducted consistently, can create a blueprint for improving the employee experience, improving retention, reinforcing trust, and increasing your employees’ satisfaction and engagement.