To Keep Employees, Conduct ‘Stay Interviews’

© AdobeStock
Understanding employees’ needs is key to retaining them, says Juanita Kendall, CHRO for Hall Booth Smith.

HR leaders are of course well practiced in interviewing potential employees to recruit talent, but how many are using “stay interviews” to keep them once they’re hired?

For Juanita Kendall, CHRO for Hall Booth Smith, an Atlanta-based law firm with more than 800 employees in 30 offices across 12 states, the tool is critical today. She spoke with StrategicCHRO360 about how to do them well, combatting burnout and how to counteract poaching.

Why are stay interviews important to help raise employee retention rates?

If we’re only speaking with employees when they leave us, we’re not being proactive leaders, we’re not demonstrating that we value how our employees feel at work, and ultimately, we’re not helping our retention rates.

When used effectively, stay interviews can support employees by giving them a place to raise issues or concerns as they come up—and even before they become a problem. After all, most employees don’t leave their company, they leave their manager. And while many managers might assume all is well if their employees are meeting expectations, that doesn’t mean they aren’t struggling or unhappy at work. It’s therefore our responsibility as HR directors to ensure employees know we’re there to help them.

Likewise, by proactively asking questions such as, “Where do you see yourself in five years?” we can identify avenues for advancement that perhaps employees hadn’t even realized were available, and we can make the company more efficient by pinpointing which of their skills and talents might be underutilized. 

Stay interviews are also useful when work performance is declining (and that’s why regular check-ins are so important, because you don’t want your first meeting with the employee to happen when they’re not doing well).

That conversation might begin by looking back to when the employee was performing well and noting that, “At this point, you were meeting your numbers, but we’ve noticed in the past few weeks that your productivity has gone down. How can we help you bring it back up again? Is there anything we can assist you with?” Then, leave that conversation open to the employee to say, “Hey, I’m having family problems” or, “I’m overloaded with work. I feel like I need more help.”

If the problem is not work related, be sure to point the employee to the resources they’ll need to manage the issues, including the company’s employment assistance program if it has one.

Nine times out of 10, when you’re checking in regularly with employees, it’s unlikely that they’ll start interviewing elsewhere and decide to leave the company.

What can a company’s employee assistance program do to prevent mental stress and burnout?

All organizations should consider adding employee assistance programs, or EAPs, which exist to help employees with personal problems. Not only are employees increasingly likely to become burned out or stressed due to their workload, but as HR directors we must also think about how non-work factors such as family issues, financial problems, depression or substance abuse can affect an employee’s overall performance. The fewer tools employees have available to balance these issues, the less likely they are to meet expectations at work and the more likely they are to leave.

So, why not be the type of organization that connects employees with counselors and coaches who can provide confidential help?

When browsing vendors offering these services, I recommend looking for peer-to-peer services. That means the counselors have experience working in your company’s industry and can therefore provide the best guidance.

Employers can also distribute resources to employees about various issues. At Hall Booth Smith, we’ve implemented a quarterly newsletter on wellness-related topics, including burnout and stress. We also worked with our insurance broker and EAP to train our employees on how to maintain work-life balance. Communication is key—and it’s always a good idea to proactively share information such as substance abuse and mental health hotlines.

What is the best way to make sure employees do not leave for your competitors?

Turnover is high across the workforce, and there’s plenty of poaching going on. Recruiters are likely reaching out to your employees through LinkedIn, calling their office phone or looking them up on your websites, and many are able to offer increased compensation and additional benefits. But there are things you can do to make it easier for employees to ignore those calls and emails from competitors.

In addition to regular check-ins with employees, benchmarking is key. Your organization should annually measure its performance, compensation and benefits against what other companies offer. Make sure your organization is in line, not just with competitors but also with your industry.  

If an employee does leave for a competitor, use that as an opportunity to ask lots of questions in their exit interview. What caused them to look elsewhere? Was it salary? Was it their benefits package or hybrid work model? The company culture? I always ask, “Did you take a look at the benefits package?” and go over what we offer. Employees might not realize that you contribute, say, $3,000 annually to their health savings account, for example.

Lastly, one very simple but effective way to retain your employees is to regularly show your appreciation for them and their work. At Hall Booth Smith, we have a “well-done initiative,” which gives supervisors the opportunity to blast a message out to the entire organization praising specific team members for a job well done. This concept is based off Ken Blanchard’s book, “Whale Done! The Power of Positive Relationships.”

Why is promoting within the best way to increase engagement and morale?

The exit interviews I’ve conducted in the legal and healthcare fields have taught me that most employees leave because they feel there’s no opportunity for advancement. That’s why it’s important for organizations to create those opportunities. At Hall Booth Smith, for example, we’ve created a Pathway to Promotion program. We explain the ins and outs of each role at the firm and what skills and experience are required. We then work with our employees to set goals for their chosen pathway so that they know there’s always room for advancement.

Not only does this skill-up your employees, it also saves your organization money on recruitment costs, interviewing, onboarding and training. When filling a position, why not select someone who’s already familiar with your company and its culture? Promoting from within also signals to other employees that yours is an organization of opportunity.

Mental health issues and substance abuse are a major problem, especially among attorneys. How do HR managers support those who are struggling?

The legal industry has long suffered with high rates of depression and other mental health issues, and that has only worsened since the Covid-19 pandemic. Many state bar associations offer free counseling to attorneys, but these problems remain.

HR managers must therefore create an environment that supports employee mental health and well-being, and one way to do that is by utilizing the organization’s EAP to connect employees with counselors who can provide confidential support. Regular check-ins, again, are crucial for ensuring employees are doing OK and offering additional help. If employees return after a leave of absence, HR directors should check in immediately and offer these resources regularly.

The biggest challenge when assisting employees with substance abuse issues, in particular, is that the road to recovery is not usually linear—relapse is common and unpredictable. Helping employees maintain their sober lifestyles and making sure they don’t return to a depressive state is therefore very difficult. What’s more, we’re only able to manage their work environment. Once they leave work, we don’t know what’s happening at home and how that’s affecting their recovery. We can only do our best at work to help equip them to balance those personal issues when they go home or log off.

Get the StrategicCHRO360 Briefing

Sign up today to get weekly access to the latest issues affecting CHROs in every industry