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For organizations, turnover can be expensive, averaging $22,279 in recruiting costs and lost productivity.SDI PRODUCTIONS

Six months after the pandemic hit, Jocelyne Beaulieu started conducting ‘stay interviews’ – informal one-on-one discussions between supervisors and staff – to understand how they were coping.

She was working as the head of people and culture for a Toronto-based food manufacturing and retail company at the time, trying to better understand how employees were navigating the newly dispersed workforce.

Ms. Beaulieu was also trying to determine if there were opportunities to change how the organization was handling the COVID-19 crisis.

“It served as a touch point in a rapidly-changing work environment,” she recalls.

Ms. Beaulieu also implemented stay interviews shortly after moving to her current position as the director of people performance and culture at Toronto-based public relations firm Proof Strategies earlier this year.

It was a way for her to gain insights about her new workplace in the midst of what has been widely described as the “Great Resignation.” According to Microsoft’s 2022 Work Trend Index, 43 per cent of employees are considering switching jobs within the year.

For organizations, turnover can be expensive, averaging $22,279 in recruiting costs and lost productivity, according to a survey from The Harris Poll, commissioned by Express Employment Professionals.

Instead of waiting until employees quit to ask why they’re leaving, stay interviews can help organizations retain employees, says Matthias Spitzmuller, an associate professor of organizational behaviour at Queen’s University’s Smith School of Business.

He especially encourages companies to conduct stay interviews with employees who are “really important for their success,” roles that take longer to replace and train, and departments that historically have high attrition levels.

“It’s the idea of identifying employees for potential flight risk, especially in key positions in the organization,” Mr. Spitzmuller says. “It’s having a proactive conversation with them about the experiences in their job that are positive and what experiences are challenging. How can we, as an organization, as a supervisor, as an HR department, address some of those challenges?”

He also suggests incorporating stay interviews into an organization’s regular procedures during one-on-one interactions with staff, such as during performance reviews.

“You need to be proactive to have these conversations before you receive any signals that employees are submitting applications elsewhere,” Mr. Spitzmuller says.

And while stay interviews may be more popular when labour is in demand, Mr. Spitzmuller says they’re still a good practice for companies to implement during economic downturns.

“[Making decisions] that are purely based on current demands in the market is not a viable long-term strategy,” he says. “We have been willing to let employees go too fast. Retention of key, motivated employees, regardless of whether this is during an economic upturn or downturn, is a key organizational task and management responsibility that should always be taken seriously.”

Stay interviews can be a frustrating experience for employees if some of their suggestions aren’t implemented, Mr. Spitzmuller warns. He says organizations should listen to employees, be ready to make changes and communicate clearly when that isn’t possible. For example, if an employee is looking for higher compensation, but the organization can’t provide it, he suggests offering additional benefits, such as flex time, as a potential alternative.

“By giving a voice to employees, we’re also creating the expectation that something is going to happen — we’re going to try to move some mountains to make your experience a better one,” Mr. Spitzmuller says. “If that commitment and the resources are not there, it’s going to be a negative experience.”

Ms. Beaulieu has conducted nearly a dozen stay interviews at Proof Strategies and has already implemented some changes based on what she’s learned to date, including providing more detailed job descriptions and clarity on expectations for certain positions.

“I was able to glean that from the stay interviews that I conducted with individuals,” she says.

Another positive change was making development and education support opportunities more explicit to staff.

“We have a great program for supporting our team to develop both personal and professional skills, but we learned through stay interviews that there was a little bit of ambiguity as to how people can access this support,” she says, adding the company is now making those opportunities more clear in the employee onboarding process.

Tips for stay interviews:

When Ms. Beaulieu requests a stay interview with a staff member, she states that participation is voluntary and sends questions in advance so they have time to prepare. Some questions that she asks include:

  • What are you doing when you can completely lose track of time in your work?
  • If you can change one thing about your role, your team or how your team operates, what would it be?
  • What does success look like for you?
  • What obstacles could get in the way of your own development?

Mr. Spitzmuller recommends opening with a positive question, as Ms. Beaulieu has done. Some questions he suggests are:

  • What was a good work experience that you’ve had in your job in the last six months?
  • What were some challenges that you’ve had?
  • What can your manager or HR do to address those challenges?
  • As you’re preparing for the next fiscal year, or the next project that you’re working on, which additional developmental needs or educational needs do you have?
  • Are there additional materials, hardware or software that you might need to be more productive?
  • How would you evaluate your relationship with your peers and managers? Are their pain points, and how could we address them?