What the Hell is a Stay Interview?

In the last post, How to Reduce Employee Attrition: Master this Skill, we heard from one of many HR managers looking for ways to hold on to good employees. I suggested HR polish their interview skills—not only to better qualify job candidates but also to keep interviewing employees throughout their careers. In addition to job interviews and exit interviews, this means conducting stay interviews—talking to current employees about what they like and dislike about their jobs.

A stay interview is the shortest path to the root of the problem. It could also serve as a testing ground for a possible solution, and even be part of the solution itself. Therefore, I recommended it as the first step to companies facing a turnover crisis.

If your company has never done a stay interview, you might like to take a look at some examples. That’s exactly what I’m going to do in this post. Let’s see what a good stay interview looks like, who’s doing it, and what they get out of it.

The goal of a stay interview is to prevent unwanted turnover. You want to find out what the company is doing right and wrong with respect to those employees you would like to keep. So, you meet with them one-on-one and prompt them to tell you what’s going well, what’s bothering them, and why they might consider leaving the company.

There are many stay interview scripts and questionnaires on the Internet, but one size clearly doesn’t fit all. In general, you want to ask open-ended questions, the ones that invite a story rather than a simple answer. That said, you want the answer to be rooted in actual experience and past actions, instead of a pure speculation.

There are different schools of thought on whether you should use the words “stay,” “quit,” and similarly direct language during a stay interview. The alternative is to talk about preferences and feelings, without appearing to confront the employee or question his loyalty. Unless, of course, you know for a fact that the employee is searching for a new job, in which case you might as well go straight to the point.

I like the advice from Dr. John Sullivan, former chief talent officer for Agilent Technologies and a lead authority on stay interviews. His style helps managers set the tone and focus the discussion so that they can quickly uncover problems and solutions:

How to Start

“Thanks for taking the time to have this discussion. Because you’re one of our key employees, I want to informally pose some simple questions that can help me to understand the factors that cause you to enjoy and stay in your current role…” 1

How to Ask Why They’ve Stayed So Far

Sullivan likes to use the phrase “the best work of your life.” For example: “Can you list for me the factors that could contribute to your doing the best work of your life?” Sullivan notes that this is the No. 1 retention factor for top performers. 1 

How to Ask Why They Might Leave

Sullivan likes to probe into recent frustrations. For example: “Think back to a time in the last twelve months when you have been at least slightly frustrated or anxious about your current role. Can you list for me the frustration factor or factors that most contributed to that anxiety? Can you also help me understand what eventually happened to lower that frustration level?” 1

Here are a few more questions that aim to put employees at ease and draw a candid response:

  • What about your job makes you want to jump out of bed?
  • What about your job makes you want to hit the snooze button?
  • What are you passionate about?
  • What was a highlight for you this quarter?
  • What’s your dream job?
  • If you won the lottery and didn’t have to work, what would you miss?
  • What did you love in your last position that you’re not doing now?
  • What makes for a great day at work?
  • If you had a magic wand, what would be the one thing you would change about your work, your role and your responsibilities?
  • What do you think about on your way to work?
  • What’s bothering you most about your job?
  • What would you like to accomplish in your career that you aren’t sure you would be able to accomplish here?
  • What support or feedback can we provide you? 
  • Is there anything else that is important to you that we did not cover during this meeting? 2

Now to the important question: does anybody use these interviews and what’s the outcome?

The answer is yes, companies use them all the time—more so when turnover poses a serious risk to their strategy and survival. Two examples of this:

The first one is an assisted living community. Elderly care is one job market where demand has outpaced supply. It’s a given that an experienced caregiver has her choice of job offers. And yet nothing undermines the quality of care like short-handed and undertrained staff. Excessive turnover in a senior care facility can mean anything from on-the-job burnout to preventable loss of life. If you can find good people, you better hold on to them. And here’s one way to do that:

“We’re a big fan of stay interviews because we want to learn why someone would leave before they leave and we want to get to know every associate. They’re a way to personalize things and engage someone in a dialogue with their direct supervisor to find out what’s important to that person and where there are those potential sore spots. We like to ask the questions like, ‘how do you want to be recognized when you do a great job?’ and ‘What are those reasons you could leave?’” 3

The second example comes from the US Air Force. It’s no secret that commercial airlines recruit pilots from the military. As the economy improves and hiring picks up, the offers get more lucrative, and consequently, harder to refuse. At the end of 2016, the Air Force was losing pilots at an alarming rate. Active, Guard, and Reserve forces combined were short 1,555 pilots, including 1,211 fighter pilots.

In response, the Air Force conducted interviews in the field, collected exit surveys from departing officers, and called an aircrew retention summit. They found out that money wasn’t the only issue. Many pilots and other aircrew members were looking to settle down, while the job was keeping them on the move. 

Armed with their feedback, the Aircrew Crisis Task Force was able to formulate a comprehensive solution within a short time. By September 2017, they were rolling out the Second Assignment In-Place pilot program:

“Brig. Gen. Mike Koscheski, who… was put in charge of an Aircrew Crisis Task Force dedicated to solving the pilot retention problem, said… that the program is meant to provide stability to pilots later in their careers. For example, he said, some have families and children in school, and they may want to avoid having to uproot them as part of a permanent change-of-station move every three years…” 4

During 2017, the Air Force eliminated additional duties and added more support staff to allow pilots more time in the cockpit. The pay has increased, “in some cases substantially.” The task force is also “looking at innovative ways to … produce more pilots.”

You don’t need to wait for a crisis to strike before you get a handle on employee turnover. A few years ago, Whirlpool discovered it had trouble holding on to women and minorities in key roles. Whirlpool’s Talent Management and Diversity teams tackled this issue with a “retention risk assessment toolkit.” The goal was to help managers engage these employees before it was too late. The toolkit consisted of three phases:

Phase 1: Assessing the impact Whirlpool would face should an employee leave

Managers were asked the following yes-or-no questions:

  • If this employee left Whirlpool, in the current business environment would we sustain a significant revenue loss or increased risk?
  • If this employee left Whirlpool, would we lose significant intellectual capital?
  • Is this employee in a critical role or on a Succession Plan for a critical role?
  • Is there a weak or non-existent contingency plan for if this role were vacant?
  • Would this role be difficult to fill both internally and externally?

Phase 2: Understanding the likelihood that an employee will leave

Managers were asked 25 yes-or-no questions about their employees and their relationship to those employees. Each question addressed one of four retention risk factors: job/role, development and alignment to career goals, manager/employee relationship, and external support system.

Phase 3: Creating action plans to prevent this regrettable loss

The toolkit contained concrete examples of actions managers could take with the employees flagged in Phases 1 and 2. For example:

  • Have the employee complete their Development Plan / Career Compass. Gain alignment on the plan.
  • Ensure you are recognizing your employees for their contribution either publically or privately.
  • Recommend that the employee get involved with WHR Employee Resource Groups (Diversity Networks) or in the local community; foster these connections
  • Identify one developmental opportunity for the employee to attend in the next 90 days; commit to supporting with time, resources etc.
  • Ensure regular 1-1 check-ins to discuss work progress and any issues/concerns with achieving the employee’s objectives. Ensure at least one discussion per month focuses in on longer-term development as well. This could be a supervisor, a manager once removed or a functional leader. 5

At first, Whirlpool wanted the managers to punch data into a “Risk Assessment Workbook,” a piece of software that would spit out impact and risk for each employee. However, it quickly became obvious that managers had no clue how employees felt about their jobs. Before they could answer those 25 questions, managers had to talk to their employees.

To help them along, Talent Management handed out “Stay Interview Manager Reference Guides.” And a pilot batch of stay interviews was launched. Managers who never asked these sorts of questions were in for a surprise:

“The first rounds of stay interviews were awkward conversations for many of the managers and employees. For example, there were several instances in which a manager thought he or she knew an employee well, but really didn’t.” 5

After the interviews, both managers and employees filled out a survey. When the results came in, it turned out that managers still didn’t get it right. Two findings were of special concern:

  1. Managers said their relationship with their employees was stronger than what employees said about the same relationship; and
  2. Managers missed a number of engagement factors that were important to employees. Specifically: feeling valued/having meaningful work, being recognized/rewarded, and working with great people

For most manager-employee pairs, the conversations got easier over time.

“As time goes by, Whirlpool is seeing that communication between employees and managers that are involved in the pilot is getting better and employees are saying that these conversations are getting easier to have. Through building stronger relationships with their managers, these employees have also commented that opportunities for professional growth have been presented to them that may not have been in the past.” 5

However, in some cases, the distance was too wide to bridge, even with the help of the “Retention Risk Manager Guide.” For managers finding themselves in this predicament, Whirlpool has this advice:

“It is important to understand the current relationship between a manager and their employees before moving forward with the process. It is not going to be a productive process if the relationship is severely broken… Don’t try to fix these relationships using this process. The main objective is to retain talent and engaging in this process within a difficult relationship will not help. Leverage another senior leader, a mentor or sponsor for instance, to conduct the retention risk assessment and stay interviews.” 5

Overall, the pilot was a success. Not only did the managers get a reality check, but the interviewed employees were more likely to stay than those they didn’t interview.

“The attrition rate of female employees who were in the pilot program was 12 points lower (9 percent vs. 21 percent) than those not in the program and 14 points lower (14 percent vs. 28 percent) for underrepresented minorities.” 5

Smart companies use stay interviews to keep some or all of their employees. The role of HR in this process varies from one workplace to the next. Some focus on best practices and training. Some do it all. The interview itself can be part of a formal and complicated process—or a commonsense check-in with your crew. In short, there are few hard rules. What matters is that you take an interest in your people and don’t shy away from candid conversations. Apparently, it’s harder than it sounds. But the outcome is well worth it.

If you like getting to know your people, you might like my book, because it shows you how.


[1] IlanMochari,The One Meeting That Will Help You Keep Your Top Employees, Inc. January 15, 2014

[2] Beverly Kay, Help Them Grow or Watch Them GoAppleOne Stay Interview Script

[3] Tommy Comer, VP of HR, Commonwealth Senior Living. Source: Peter Corless, An Employee Retention Game-Changer: The Stay Interview, OnShift, October 03, 2017

[4]To keep pilots from quitting, the Air Force will let some stay in assignments longer by Stephen Losey, Air Force Times, September 7, 2017

[5] Case Study: Whirlpool’s Diverse Talent Retention Strategy by Jennifer London, Diversity Best Practices, September 8, 2015

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Written by

Tim Eisenhauer is a co-founder of Axero Solutions, a leading intranet software vendor. He's also a bestselling author of Who the Hell Wants to Work for You? Mastering Employee Engagement. Tim’s been featured in Fortune, Forbes, TIME, Inc Magazine, Entrepreneur, CNBC, Today, and other leading publications.


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