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Why Stay Interviews Offer a No-Cost Culture Glow Up for Local Government

Posted on March 2, 2022


person waiting for an interview sitting on white chair

Today’s Morning Buzz is by Allyson Brunette, owner of Allyson Brunette Consulting, a community engagement firm based in Green Bay, Wisconsin.

Connect with her on LinkedIn.

What I’m Reading: I just finished Out of Office – the Big Problem and the Bigger Promise of Working from Home by Anne Helen Petersen and Charlie Warzel

What I’m Listening To: Running Out: In Search of Water on the High Plains by Lucas Bessire

What I’m Watching: As a reality television fiend, I’m proud to tell you that I’m simultaneously watching Love is Blind Season 2, Joe Millionaire for Richer or Poorer Season 1, and Real Housewives of Salt Lake City Season 2. Don’t come for me, please.

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If you read my last Daily Buzz piece a few months ago, you’ll recall that I left local government in late 2021 after a losing fight to extreme burnout. I’ve watched a number of my peers exit local government in the months since and I’ve heard (quietly) organizations growing worried that they simply can’t attract quality candidates to the vacancies left behind.

My two cents? The best way to maximize your return on investment in your human capital is to give them a reason to stay. A revolving door on your organization is not only expensive in terms of the costs associated with new employee recruitment and onboarding, but it also greatly diminishes the reputation of your organization as an employer of choice.

I’m realizing that the best way that organizations can keep their talent is to take better care of them and treat them like human beings.

I know that’s a stupidly simplistic take, but I have a suggestion of one mechanism you can introduce within your organization to get started: the stay interview.

Stay interviews

I talked to human resource directors and municipal administrators in a number of communities in my home state of Wisconsin last fall for a piece I wrote for the League of Wisconsin Municipalities on talent retention. A noticeable theme that I picked up on was that organizations were starting to conduct regular (1-3x annual) stay interviews in the interest of employee retention. If you’ve never heard of stay interviews, join the club. I hadn’t heard of them either until I’d already left my job and completed my exit interview.

It’s not just the public sector shifting toward this concept either. Just Google ‘stay interview’ and click on the news results that pop up. Within the last month, you’ll see recent thought pieces titled:

The Society for Human Resource Management defines a stay interview as ‘[an interview] conducted to help managers understand why employees stay and what might cause them to leave.’ Pretty straightforward, right?

Performance Reviews vs. Stay Interviews vs. Exit Interviews

The first part of understanding why a stay interview is important is understanding how it differs from a performance review or an exit interview.

Performance reviews are traditional, formal affairs. They’re often rubric-driven (like a report card), transactional (a gateway to a raise or promotion, or on the flip side, a performance improvement plan), involve little employee feedback (mostly just management issuing the review and explaining the results), and are one-way. In my experience, they’ve also been very brief and to the point. Management tells employees how they are performing and what they will receive transactionally for that performance. It often doesn’t involve a give and take where managers ask how THEY can help their employees or what their employees want or need from the organization.

Stay interviews recognize functionally that your best employees are your biggest flight risk. By opening a means of a regular, informal, two-way conversation between employees and supervisors, you leave room to understand what each employees’ unique needs are.

An exit interview is what happens when, well, for good reasons or bad, someone is moving on from your organization. The point is to avoid losing your best and brightest employees whenever possible.

What do you ask an employee in a stay interview?

So glad you asked! SHRM has a sample bank of stay interview questions you can pull from. Some questions and respective follow-ups that I borrowed from a community in Wisconsin that I particularly like are shared here:

  1. What do you look forward to each day when you commute to work?
  2. What are you learning here, and what to do you want to learn?
  3. What keeps you working here? (Follow up: is that the only reason you stay, or are there others? Tell me more about why that is so important to you.)
  4. When is the last time you thought about leaving the organization and what prompted it? (Follow up: Tell me more about how that happened. What’s the single best thing I can do to make that better for you?)
  5. What can I do to make your job better for you? (Follow up: Do I say and do things to help you do your job better? Do I tell you when you do something well? What are ways that I can be a better leader for you?)

An interview is not the end of it

If you’re a manager, you have a responsibility to follow up on what you’re hearing in your stay interviews.

Is an employee sharing that they’re under-resourced and don’t have the capacity to complete everything that is expected of them? Act on that. Take it up the chain. Insist your supervisor does the same. Let it be known that you raised the warning flag that employees were considering leaving well before they actually do.

Or, if you have a positive stay interview where an employee expresses interest and promise, make sure THAT works its way up the chain, too.

That’s literally why you are their boss – not to just demand outputs from your workers but to also pave the path so that their job is accessible and fulfilling.

Normalizing personal check-ins beyond the stay interview

It may seem weird to bring in a new interpersonal dynamic to your team but creating personal connections with team members and showing that you care about them as human beings, rather than robots, is the only way to instill a desire for employees to stay.

Trust me, the money, benefits, and flexible work arrangements are always going to be better in the private sector. A genuine human connection rooted in caring between employees and supervisors is a cultural dynamic that can’t be automated or pulled from thin air.

This process may start with a structured, 1 to 3 time a year affair, but it should grow into a regular facet of your culture. Connecting with and understanding your employees is role #1 of a management relationship. Don’t deny your team meaningful interactions because it makes you uncomfortable. Fake it ‘til you make it.

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