“Stay interviews”: 6 practical questions for key employee retention

Paul Falcone

When job markets heat up, top performers may feel naturally curious to see what sorts of “greener pastures” are available in the broader job market. And let’s face it: Your top performers will always be the ones most in demand and with the most opportunities. How do you get ahead of this natural curve in the economy and keep your best and brightest motivated and engaged? And how do you obviate the need for a counteroffer discussion once the employee you count on most comes into your office with a letter of resignation?

There’s no doubt about it: Once a letter of resignation is submitted, a mental break with your organization has already occurred. And you don’t want to be forced into discussions that sound like this:

“Oh, I didn’t know you were unhappy! Why didn’t you tell me you wanted more? Let me know what your new title and salary will look like and give me a few days to see if we could put together a package that will keep you happy. Just promise me you won’t make a decision yet until you hear what we have to say . . .”

Unfortunately, this real life scenario is playing itself out more and more in organizations. But could it have been avoided? Was there something the manager could have done to avoid this snare? The answer of course is yes. Surprises regarding your best performers are avoidable if you’re in tune with their career needs and longer-term goals. So if you’ve been taking this for granted and haven’t had this type of conversation in a while (or never at all before), now’s your opportunity to open up the lines of communication and go through a “resignation drill” to ensure that your best and brightest are fully engaged, excited, and in some sort of learning curve that keeps them motivated, and committed to your team and company.

‘Stay’ interviews focus on your top performers—the top 10% or 20% of your workers who set the standard for performance and productivity and make your life so much easier. Communicating your appreciation of their contributions and interest in their future career development within your organization in general, and on your team specifically, is critical. This type of engagement exercise shouldn’t ever seem artificial, superficial, or insincere, but it may be something that your people aren’t used to or otherwise expecting from you. Therefore, here’s a way to ease into a conversation with someone you’d hate to lose to some other organization should an opportunity come their way.

First, some background context . . . If a headhunter approached one of your top employees with an enticing opportunity at a competitor firm, the headhunter might ask:

  • What’s your reason for wanting to leave your present company?
  • What would have to change in your present position for you to stay?
  • What’s your next logical move in career progression if you stay with your current employer, and how long would it take you to get there?

How would your top performing employee respond? A typical response from an unhappy or otherwise disengaged worker might be, “Well, there’s really no room for growth at my current company. I don’t see myself learning anything new – I’m just doing volumes of the same work that I’ve been doing for the past few years. And I just feel like I’m treading water career-wise. There’s no room for growth here, either in terms of dollars or new responsibilities.” So if you suspect that one or more of your key players might respond to a headhunter’s call in similar fashion, it’s time for you to spend more time with them and get to know more about their current level of job satisfaction and engagement. In other words, use this starting point as an entrée into deeper discussions about their ideas for improving the workflow in your area, building their own careers while remaining at your company, and finding new ways of reinventing themselves in light of your department’s changing needs.

Start your discussion by asking your staffer how he’d rank his experience at your organization in terms of how happy, engaged, and rewarded he feels. Also, does he feel like he gets to do his very best work every day? If he asks why you’re asking, just tell him that you want to reinvent the relationship and are looking to spice things up a bit in terms of raising the engagement level of the people on your team. However, you’re starting with your star players first to get a gauge on how they’re feeling and how they think the rest of the team might respond to similar questions.

Expect an answer of 7 or 8 on a scale of 10 (10 being extremely happy, 1 being unbelievably miserable). After all, it’s only natural that most employees are discontent to some degree at any given time. While most won’t volunteer that type of feedback directly unless you ask, they typically won’t give you, their supervisor, a score lower than 7 for fear that you’ll think they’re unmotivated or otherwise looking to leave. Likewise, anyone who defines themselves as a 10 probably is “blowing smoke” rather than being totally honest with you (barring any recent promotions or special events that really benefitted them). If the average response, then, will typically come in around an 8, ask the follow-up questions: (a) Why are you an 8? and (b) What would make you a 10?

The goal here is to find out, in a very subtle and sincere way, where they stand relative to your organization and how vulnerable they might be to becoming “recruiter’s bait” to a headhunter’s call. To drive the conversation even further, ask them what would motivate them most of the six variables that follow. “Which of the six following categories holds the most significance for you career-wise at this point?”

  1. Career progression through the ranks, and opportunities for promotion and advancement
  2. Lateral assumption of increased job responsibilities and skill building (e.g., rotational assignments in other areas, overseas opportunities, and the like)
  3. Acquisition of new technical skills (for example, via external training and certification)
  4. Development of stronger leadership, management, or administrative skills
  5. Work-life balance
  6. Money and other forms of compensation


While almost all will initially comment on the money/compensation invitation—after all, who wouldn’t want more money?—most will quickly shift over to one of the other five areas, which are the real drivers in terms of their motivation to remain with or leave your firm. Remember, employees don’t leave companies solely for money: Compensation is typically fourth or fifth on the ranking scale. The top three or four slots are reserved for open communication, recognition for a job well done, career progression opportunities and the ability to make a greater difference at work.

Use this conversational format to launch into more in-depth discussions about each of your key performer’s needs, wants, and desires, and then ask for suggestions in terms of how to get them there. Yes, you run the risk of opening up pie-in-the-sky wish lists, but in a one-on-one setting, the chances of a runaway train, in terms of unrealistic requests, diminish. Instead, ensure that you understand what’s driving your top performers and how vulnerable you and your company might be to losing them.

If your approach is sincere and selfless and comes from the heart, your employees will respect the effort that you’re making, and that alone could go a long way in strengthening your working relationship. Of course, you have to be prepared to follow up on requests for promotions, equity adjustments, and the like, but you can always clarify upfront that you can’t make any promises or necessarily control the budget constraints that the organization is facing. Explain that the purpose of your conversation is not only to gauge how they’re feeling about the organization—a mini climate survey of sorts—but to remind them how much you value them and appreciate their contributions. Tell them outright that you wouldn’t want to lose them to a random headhunter’s call, and this kind of “stay” interview is far more valuable than an exit interview after the fact.

Finally, confirm that you want to encourage them to develop a realistic and customized retention plan that will help them prepare for their next move in career progression, and that you’re willing to support and sponsor them. Likewise, ask for their input now in terms of what can be improved, made more efficient, reinvented, or recreated within your department and how you both can partner as co-leaders to make things better for the team in terms of increasing their confidence level and willingness to stretch the rubber band a bit.

Start the conversation now. Make your key performers a critical part of the team’s performance turnaround. Listen to what they’re saying and look for new ways to help them build their career internally within your organization—whether that be vertically, horizontally, or via a renewed learning curve. Engaging your best and brightest before they’re lured to greener pastures is a healthy proactive measure to avoid counteroffers after the mental break has been made, and stay interviews and resignation drills are a practical and smart approach to raising both key employee engagement and retention.

Reprinted with the permission of Paul Falcone (www.PaulFalconeHR.com), a human resources executive in Los Angeles who has held senior-level positions with Nickelodeon, Paramount Pictures, and Time Warner.  Paul is the author of a number of bestselling books published by the American Management Association, including 96 Great Interview Questions to Ask Before You Hire; 101 Sample Write-Ups for Documenting Employee Performance Problems; 101 Tough Conversations to Have with Employees; and 2600 Phrases for Effective Performance Reviews. You can follow Paul on Twitter at @PaulFalconeHR. Originally published on AMA Playbook http://playbook.amanet.org/author/pfalcone/


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