Ask the One Question That Will Keep Your Best Employees

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Most employees are interviewed only when they’re applying for a job. But an engagement expert says many managers are missing another critical interview – the “stay” interview. Done correctly, it can boost retention, productivity and competitiveness.

It seems like nearly every day a new lawsuit is launched by a company accusing another employer of poaching workers. The valued employees have walked out of the door, lawsuits charge, and taken  company knowledge to the competitor.

While the courts will decide whether any laws have been broken in these instances, it should be a wake- up call for any employer, no matter how big or small.

That’s because companies that don’t work to get their employees to stay may just see them go. So not only do they risk losing key information to a competitor, they lose the time and talents of workers who are costly to replace – often up to 20% of that person’s salary.

In a new book, “The Stay Interview,” author Richard P. Finnegan says that any company that wants to hang onto its talent needs to ask one question: “What can I do to make your job better?”

Finnegan, CEO of C-Suite Analytics, a company specializing in engagement and retention, says that once this question is asked, it can get the ball rolling. An employee may address how he or she would like to work on more interesting projects, for example. On the other hand, the manager may also get a blank stare, a shoulder shrug and an “I don’t know,” response.

Whatever the reply, managers need to probe deeper as they begin this retention process, he says.

“Even if the person doesn’t seem to have an answer, say you want to talk again in three days,” he advises. “What you’re trying to do is the get the person to trust you, and it’s a process.”

That means bosses can’t send an email requesting an answer to the question or be impersonal. “This is a conversation,” he says.

Finnegan is aware that many managers will balk at having such conversations, and he’s heard many of the excuses before. From “I don’t have time,” to “to “We already collect employee data.”

But that won’t wash, and many managers know it. If they’re asked what really matters most to Bob or Heather, they’re likely to give superficial answers and be unable to offer specifics because they’re relying only on surveys or analytics. The deeper probing through listening sessions is never attempted by such managers.

Until a leader spends the time asking individual employees what will keep them engaged and productive in their jobs, they’re only making educated guesses on what engages their workers. That’s why having such a conversation is key, Finnegan says, so that you can track which employees are in danger of walking, and which ones are thriving and productive.

Finnegan says that managers can begin stay interviews by asking questions such as:

  1. When you come to work each day, what things do you look forward to?
  2. What are you learning here?
  3. Why do you stay here?
  4. When was the last time you thought about leaving our team? What prompted it?
  5. What can I do to make your experience at work better for you?

Some employees will balk at answering such questions. Who wants to tell the boss they’ve thought about leaving? That’s why it’s important that managers enter these conversations not as a way to improve employee performance, but rather as a way to understand the employee’s mindset. By asking questions – and listening carefully – you can begin to gain a better understanding. Don’t fall into the trap of defending yourself, he stresses.

For example, if an employee says that you micromanage and check on her like a third-grade teacher, you don’t respond that you check on her because she makes mistakes – and you liked your third-grade teacher!

Instead, you say something like, “So I hear you saying that I provide too many instructions, that you don’t  get to think on your own. Does that sound like a fair description to you?” he suggests.

The key is remembering that these “stay” conversations don’t include solutions, Finnegan says, but rather show a commitment to consider what is being said, get more information from others and possibly come back to her with changes.

“From the employee’s perspective, responding to any type of complex request with a one-sentence action plan seems like a way to escape the topic and head toward the door,” he explains. “Complex problems require carefully considered, detailed solutions that actually work.”

Once you’ve gathered knowledge on your employees likes and dislikes, you can begin to forecast who you believe will stay and who will go in the next year, the next six months – or even sooner than that. He suggests assigning codes to various forecasting elements. (Looking beyond a year can be unreliable, Finnegan says.) You also want to code differently for your best performers versus low performers – having top talent walk out the door is a much more urgent problem.

If the employee does quit, you can compare the ‘quit’ timeline against your forecast, and also try to have supervisors do the exit interviews instead of a third party or HR, he advises. Supervisors can then be asked questions such as, “Did you see this exit coming?” or “What lessons can you learn from this exit?” to improve future stay interviews, Finnegan says.

While there may be outliers, such as employee quitting abruptly because of personal situations or refusing to engage because they weren’t a good fit for the company, stay interviews can boost retention and engagement, Finnegan says.

Always keep in mind, he stresses, that employees are driven by their work environment, such as trusting a leader, liking and respecting their colleagues and being challenged in their work. As a leader, you have the responsibility to make sure that you are helping your team head in a direction that will pay off for everyone.

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