Employers roll out 'stay' interviews as record number of Americans walk off the job

Americans are walking away from their jobs in record numbers as remote work has uncoupled jobs from geography, and droves of employees are re-evaluating the relationships they have with their employers.

To keep workers happy and on the job, more companies are turning to “stay interviews,” one-on-one meetings with top performers to give those key people the chance to talk about what works, and what doesn’t work, about their current jobs.

“This has become an extremely popular topic ... to try and help retain employees as much as possible,” said Robyn Hopper, a human resources knowledge adviser for the Society for Human Resource Management. Managers who conduct stay interviews are coached to ask workers open-ended questions about what they like most about their jobs, what they dislike and under what events or circumstances they might leave.

The idea, Hopper said, is to ask questions similar to what employees might be asked in exit interviews — but before they actually quit. “It gives employees more of a voice as far as the good, the bad and the ugly,” she said.

Scott Bonneau, the vice president of global talent attraction at Indeed.com, said: “With the labor market conditions the way they are, it’s very much a buyer’s market for talent. Employers, particularly in certain sectors, are seeing people leave at a faster rate. I think stay interviews can be quite effective. ... It promotes and fosters trust and open communication.”

Sometimes workers switch jobs in pursuit of higher salaries, but recruiters say a significant factor is the higher expectations of job candidates today when it comes to feeling seen and supported by their bosses. “People don’t leave companies. People leave managers,” said Dave Carvajal, the CEO of Dave Partners, a tech industry recruiting firm.

“People’s desire for how they work has changed. The leadership skills and training required have also changed significantly ... and a lot aren’t listening to their people,” Carvajal said.

Other departures are spurred by chances to have more flexible hours, remote work or professional development opportunities. “It can be difficult for employers to keep up with the demands of the market,” Bonneau said. “Stay interviews are ways for employers to hear directly from employees.”

While experts say stay interviews can be a valuable tool to retain top employees, there is one big caveat: Bosses have to actually follow through on the feedback they solicit.

“At the end of the day, you can promise the best things in the world, but if you can’t execute and deliver, people will tend to look elsewhere,” said Thomas Wu, who recently took a job as the director of finance at an NFT startup.

Wu speaks from experience. At his old job, he said, the CEO would regularly check in to ask about challenges and concerns but didn’t follow up and actually solve the problems.

“The feedback was heard, but execution was slower than I hoped,” Wu said. He said the disconnect was one of the reasons he left. The experience also impressed on him the importance of both soliciting feedback and addressing concerns employees have raised with him in his new role.

“Any input and feedback is really appreciated,” he said, adding that fierce competition in the tech sector makes keeping workers happy a top priority. “I would say definitely I’m more cognizant of how people would react, especially with this frothy market — money is being thrown around in the startup world. Our team’s culture is the biggest driver. Everybody loves working here.”

Carvajal said small businesses, which struggle to compete with huge companies in salaries and benefits, have more at stake and tend to use processes like stay interviews more frequently. “They can’t afford to lose talent, so that cultural aspect is so much stronger and so much more important,” he said.

Dale Winston, the chairwoman and CEO of the executive recruiting firm Battalia Winston, said the topics covered in stay interviews might have, in pre-pandemic workplaces, taken place informally over coffee or lunch. “I think the fact that people are working remotely, there’s less chit-chat at the coffee-maker,” she said.

As people work remotely, stay interviews can be an important way to facilitate that kind of communication. Winston added, however, that while it is positive to create a formal structure to address such issues in the absence of casual, organic interactions, companies run a risk of making the process too rigid — or too infrequent.

“These are questions that, in my view, should be asked on a regular basis,” she said. “Implementing this on an annual basis isn’t necessarily going to solve the problem.”

Bonneau said: “With many industries having gone fully remote, you’re missing out on some of the human element ... but this can be an opportunity to hit the reset button.”

Because one stumbling block is that workers may be reluctant to raise concerns or talk about issues with their current jobs, the onus is on managers to set clear expectations in advance of meetings and ask direct, specific questions about employees’ satisfaction, Bonneau said. “If there’s mistrust between leaders and employees, this could be particularly challenging,” he said.

Bonneau added, however, that workers who want to stay with their current employers should be honest about their perspectives if they are asked to participate in stay interviews.

“If there are things you’ve wanted to get off your chest or things you would really like to see changed ... if your employer is going to the trouble of doing this in good faith, this is your opportunity to say those things,” he said.