7 'stay interview' questions to gauge employee satisfaction

In today's challenging hiring environment, retaining talent is more important than ever. Consider these 'stay interview' questions to help your top team members feel valued
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One of the most valuable things to come out of The Great Resignation has been a refocus on people. As leaders, we need to show up for our people every day. We need to understand their concerns. We should show appreciation and help them feel valued. We must be present.

Stay interviews are an excellent tool for understanding our people. Exit interviews help us discover why people are leaving. Stay interviews help us determine where people find value in the organization and why they may be inching towards the door. They are an invaluable tool to implement continuous improvement and show people that their voice matters.

I’ll admit the name “stay interview” is a little wonky. If I heard it as a direct report, I might think, “Should I consider leaving?” Instead, shape the conversation as “I’d love to get your perspective on a few important topics to help me serve you better.” Lead by clarifying the benefit to the employee.

[ Also read 10 CIOs share advice on career development. ]

Honest feedback is critical for stay interviews to be successful. Create a safe space where people feel comfortable speaking their minds without fear of reprisal. Be prepared to be vulnerable. It’s tough hearing about areas where you aren’t effective and the organization is falling short, but it’s essential to have these conversations.

What to ask during a stay interview

Let’s examine seven powerful questions to get the most out of your stay interviews.

1. What talents do you have that aren’t being used in your current role?

Even your all-star software developer doesn’t necessarily dream in code. People are dynamic. Everyone has interests that go beyond their core competency. Many like to nudge the boundaries of their comfort zone to develop new skills. This is how we grow. When people are underutilized, they may feel the itch to explore outside options that allow them to maximize their career development.

2. How would you like to be recognized?

During a recent check-in, a team member said, “I enjoy being recognized for the things I’m doing, but I never want to be called out for it at a company meeting.”

This interaction was a great reminder that people want to be recognized – but in their own way. Gary Chapman discusses in his book, The 5 Love Languages, that we all need love, but each of us receives it differently based on our unique needs.

Explicitly ask people how they prefer to be recognized and adhere to that. A revealing follow-up question: “Do you feel we regularly show appreciation for all the great things you do?”

3. Do you feel we provide professional growth opportunities in the areas you want to grow?

At Improving, we offer a buffet of options for professional development, from one-on-one coaching and certification study groups to leadership training and soft skill workshops. Some people take advantage of these offerings; others don’t. Just because leadership sees value in these efforts doesn’t mean everyone shares that view.

Always explore how your development offerings fit the needs of your people. Search out the learning gaps your people are starving for and work to fill them.

[ Also read Hybrid work: 5 tips for prioritizing the employee experience ]

4. What does our organization do well?

A few months ago, I attended an internal leadership meeting in which we evaluated our culture and initiatives. While I value our leadership team's feedback, the exercise ultimately felt hollow since we weren’t asking our most important stakeholders how they felt.

Your employees’ opinions are the ones that matter, and this question asks that. What are you doing that resonates with your people and sets you apart? Why do these people stay when others have left? It’s beneficial to know where things are working well so you can build on that.

5. If you were a manager for a day, what would you change?

This asks your people to imagine a more perfect organization. What pain points would they focus on solving?

Some will be obvious (salary increases, better health care), but others may be more minor things that don’t often show up on your radar. For thornier issues, I find it helpful to lead with transparency and talk through why that change is so challenging. For doable things, ask them to walk you through how they see that change being implemented. Imagine the power of your people seeing positive organizational change based on their feedback.

Imagine the power of your people seeing positive organizational change based on their feedback.

6. What would you like to see me, as your organizational leader, do more or less of?

This asks your interviewee to assess you. How are you as a manager? Where are you missing the mark? Where do they feel you need to adjust your approach?

This is a vulnerable place, and you need to receive feedback appropriately. If you react defensively, you’ll tarnish trust, and your employee will likely revert to telling you what you want to hear. Don’t scare away the honesty you are trying to draw out.

7. Jump ahead in your career three to five years. Where do you see yourself?

I’d tack on, “It’s ok if we are not in that vision.”

A few years ago, one of our people mentioned during an exit interview he was leaving us to go to a firm that specialized in security. While security is part of every project we deliver, our pipeline of pure security projects isn’t overflowing. We are actively looking to solidify that side of the business through acquisition, opening up the possibilities he was craving.

Would that have changed his mind had he known that? Maybe not. But sharing the roadmap of where we are headed could have shown him that his dream was part of our future.

The key is finding ways to open up possibilities people may not realize are there. (Granted, if he’d said his dream was to start a goat farm, we couldn’t have helped him, but I’d be super curious about what motivated that newly discovered passion.)

Stay interviews are pointless without follow-through. Follow-through should start at that moment by explaining why certain things are done. These conversations should spark exploration among leadership to determine which changes make sense. It’s essential to let your interviewees know you’ll follow up with them and when. If you fail to follow through, your employees won’t feel heard or valued.

The Great Resignation is ongoing. According to Willis Towers Watson’s recent survey, 53 percent of employees today are job seekers. As talks of recession grow louder, job shuffling could give way to a greater desire for job security. Regardless, it’s essential to focus on putting people first. Stay interviews should be a staple leadership tool to deepen your understanding and awareness of what is important to your people.

[ Check out essential career advice from 37 award-winning CIOs! Get a variety of insights on leadership, strategy, and career development from IT executives at Mayo Clinic, Dow, Aflac, Liberty Mutual, Nordstrom, and more: Ebook: 37 award-winning CIOs share essential IT career advice. ]

Mark Runyon works as a director of consulting for Improving. For the past 20 years, he has designed and implemented innovative technology solutions for companies in the finance, logistics, and pharmaceutical space. He is a frequent speaker at technology conferences and is a contributing writer at InformationWeek.