As far as you knew, your employees were happy -- until your star performer stunned you by handing in her resignation.
When you conducted her exit interview, you learned she started looking for another job two months ago -- right after she asked for $199 for a training class and the chance to take on new duties expanding the services your company offered. You told her you'd address her requests after the first of the year when you could set the 2013 budget.
You didn't realize putting off the discussion would upset your employee as much as it did. In her exit interview, your employee said your stalling her when she desired to advance her career led her to look for new possibilities.
Exit interviews, like autopsies, detail why employees leave organizations. They don't offer managers the opportunity to find out -- in advance -- what would lead an employee to consider leaving. In contrast, stay interviews uncover what really matters for each key employee -- is it a raise, the chance for training, new responsibilities, professional growth or something the manager might not even realize matters to the employee?
As a result, stay interviews give managers the ability to address factors that significantly increase employee discretionary effort and retention -- before valued employees hit the exit ramp.
If you'd like to try this strategy, begin each employee interview by saying, "I want to talk with you today about the key reasons you stay with us, because we want our organization to have a great and satisfying work environment. My goal is to learn what I can do to make us an employer of choice for you in areas we can control."
For best results, carefully word your questions. Employees may not honestly answer "Have you ever thought about leaving the company?" for fear it will make them seem less dedicated or result in other repercussions. Instead ask, "If you won the Publishers Clearinghouse and decided to leave us, what would you miss most and least?"
Other good questions include, "What makes for a great day at work," "What is something new you want to learn this year," "Is there anything you'd like to change about your job or department," "What is one thing that would make your job more satisfying and rewarding," "What kind of recognition is most meaningful to you," "When you travel to work each day, what are you looking forward to," "How can I best support you" and "How does working here compare to what you thought it would be like?"
During the interview, really listen. Don't defend the status quo or try to get your employees to say what you want them to. Instead, ask follow-up questions and really consider how you can meet employee needs.
Although you'll want to follow up each interview with strategies that meet each employee's needs, don't turn your interviews into negotiating sessions. For best results, conduct stay interviews as something distinct from other formal employee conversations. If you couple them with performance or salary reviews, you'll muddy the waters.
What if you learn you can't give your employees what they most desire? Be honest. Stay interviews produce good results even when all you can do is demonstrate that you care and will do what you can to explore options.
Finally, expect to spend 30 minutes on each stay interview -- a minor investment given the results these interviews produce. You may never again need to conduct an exit interview.
Dr. Lynne Curry is a management/employee trainer and owner of the consulting firm The Growth Co. Inc. Send your questions to her at firstname.lastname@example.org.