We’re in the throes of economic recovery. At least we hope that’s true. If it is, it’s great news for business, except for organizations that ignored their talent during the recession. Implications are even more dire for companies that distributed pink slips and pay cuts, along with more work, and showed disrespect or disregard for those employees who remained. Talent leaders at any level in one of those organizations have better act now to prevent turnover related to economic recovery. They should bolt the doors and ask their best people to stay – at least long enough for an important chat.
Show Some Appreciation
Imagine this scenario. A boss calls a key employee in for a meeting and says, “I probably haven’t told you this often enough, but you are important to this team and to me. I can’t imagine losing you. I know we’ve been through a rough time lately, and I want you to know how much I appreciate all you’ve done and the way you’ve done it. I’d like you to know that I want you to hang in here. I’d also like to know what you want to do next. What do you want to learn? What career goals are you thinking about? What can I do to help you reach those goals? I’d like to know what will keep you here. And I’d like to know what could entice you away.”
How many employees have has a boss take that kind of proactive interest in them or exhibit that level of appreciation for them? The answer is, sadly, very few. Yet this type of interaction can make an employee feel important and valued. It’s ironic that many talent managers often find out what talented employees want as they exit the organization, especially if they could have offered or intended to provide those things.
Some talent managers don’t hold stay interviews because they fear they won’t be able to deliver on unexpected employee requests. That is particularly true during economic downturns, with their associated belt-tightening. But evading or avoiding these critical conversations often creates more problems. Managers who suspect they might not be able to deliver on employees’ requests can take four steps.
- Tell employees how much they’re valued. For example, “You’re worth that to me and more.”
- Tell the truth about obstacles – e.g., pay freezes, projects closing down.
- Care enough to look into it. For instance, “I hear your request. Let me look into it, and let’s meet again next Friday to talk about possibilities.”
- Ask, “What else?” Research shows clearly that people want more from work than just a paycheck. When managers ask the question “What else?” they will likely hear at least one thing that employees want that they can provide.
Why Employees Stay
Between 1997 and 2010, we’ve asked more than 17,000 employees, representing virtually all levels, functions, ages, industries and geographies, what keeps them in an organization “for a while.” The top few stay factors come up again and again, throughout every industry and at every level of the organization. In order of frequency, below are the most common reasons people stay. Note that 91 percent of respondents listed at least one of the first two items among the top reasons they stay.
- Exciting work and challenge.
- Career growth, learning and development.
- Working with great people.
- Fair pay.
- Supportive management or a good boss.
- Being recognized, valued and respected.
- Meaningful work and making a difference.
- Pride in the organization, its mission and its product.
- Great work environment and culture.
When Employees Ask, Listen
When talent leaders are bold enough to hold stay interviews with the keepers – people they hope will remain on the team and produce for them and for the organization – two things happen. First, talented employees will feel great that their managers cared enough to ask. And second, managers will collect the information they need to take action and to customize engagement and retention efforts for each individual. Here are sample requests from actual stay interviews and the solutions the employees created in partnership with their managers.
In a stay interview, Mike asked for exposure to the senior team. He hoped to move up in the organization and wanted to see how senior leaders operated. He also wanted them to have an opportunity to get to know him. Emma asked if Mike would like to go with her to some senior staff meetings. Mike said, “Yes, that would be great!” Emma was amazed and relieved that Mike wanted something so simple – and something Emma could give.
When asked, Barry confessed to Nancy that he was stressed and wasn’t enjoying the expanded role he’d been given. He said he would prefer to resume the lower-profile job he’d previously held. Together they worked out the timing, transition steps and communication to the team. Barry was thrilled to be back in his old job, and a colleague happily stepped into the vacated role. Nancy was happy to have two engaged, productive employees.
Lindsey said the only thing she’d want more of in her job was flexibility. She asked about cutting her hours two days per week and working longer hours on the remaining days. She also asked to explore the possibility of working from home occasionally. Initially Ann thought this could never work, especially since it hadn’t been done before in her small company. They brainstormed possibilities and came up with a way that Lindsey could do what she’d hoped for. They also partnered to sell the plan to teammates and executives. It worked – for everyone.
Shelby’s stay interview with Travis yielded a response that she didn’t want to hear. Travis wanted a raise. Shelby said, “You’re absolutely worth that, Travis. We’ll have some obstacles to overcome, but I’m willing to run your request up the flagpole and see what is possible. Let’s meet again next Monday to talk more about it. Meanwhile, what else? For example, what might you want to learn this coming year?” The end result of this stay interview was the promise of a raise for Travis in six months, when the salary freeze was to be lifted. And Travis found a mentor in the organization to help him increase his accounting skills, something he’d wanted and knew he’d need in order to take advantage of future job opportunities.
Beyond listening, managers need to respond, and what they say is critical. Responses such as “That’s unrealistic” will immediately halt the dialogue and might even cause employees to start a job search. Managers need to look for ways a request could work rather than immediately come up with reasons why it won’t.
Holding a stay interview is an exercise in sincerity. It doesn’t need to be a scary or uncomfortable event because managers don’t need to have all the answers. It’s about brainstorming possibilities and creating a workable plan together. Nothing needs to be set in stone. Solutions or request responses can be experimented with, tried out, discarded or fine-tuned until they work.
If the idea of holding a stay interview prompts thoughts such as, “If I tried this stay interview thing, my employees would fall over in a dead faint. I don’t even say hi in the hallway,” let the stay interview be the first step of many necessary steps to build an effective employee-manager relationship. Ease into this type of process slowly and simply. One could conceivably start with saying hi in the hallway, but start, and do it soon.
Manager’s efforts to engage and retain talent should be perennial. They should hold stay interviews on a regular basis no matter what the economy, knowing that their caring and curiosity will pay off over time. People will not forget how they’ve been treated during tough times, and they will reward managers with their loyalty and a high level of discretionary effort.
Also, leaders at all levels need to stop guessing what will keep their stars engaged, productive and on the team. They will do well to gather their courage and conduct stay interviews with the employees they want to keep. Further, it’s important to stop guessing or assuming employees all want the same things, such as pay or promotion. And it’s vital that these leaders don’t wait to take action. The economy’s lights are flickering, and the scramble to find and keep top talent will resume sooner than one might think.
Beverly Kaye is founder and CEO of Career Systems International. Sharon Jordan-Evans is president of the Jordan Evans Group and a professional certified coach. They are co-authors of Love ’Em or Lose ‘Em: Getting Good People to Stay and Love It, Don’t Leave It: 26 Ways to Get What You Want at Work. They can be reached at email@example.com.