“Can we do it?” is a lot more interesting to me than “we must do it because that’s what you’re supposed to do.”

-Jason Fried, Basecamp Founder & CEO

This book by Richard P. Finnegan discusses the shortcomings of exit interviews and employee surveys, but really focuses on the solution: stay interviews. The idea is that direct supervisors have the greatest impact on whether an employee stays with or leaves an organization.

What is a Stay Interview?

It’s an annual one-on-one interview between a supervisor and each of his employees, with the aim of determining employee motives for staying or leaving, and how the leader can help them meet their goals. It is not a performance evaluation, and should probably be held 6 months away from any performance evaluation so that they are kept totally separate. There are at least 3 major benefits to stay interviews:

  1. Immediate guidance: no waiting months for survey results
  2. Individual needs can be discussed
  3. Independent solutions can be planned

Why Do Stay Interviews Matter?

When you’re conducting an exit interview, the person has already left. They have no vested interested in telling you what they think. When you’re conducting an employee survey, the result is average responses and company-wide programs that do little to drive retention. Good supervisory skills matter far more than “feel-good programs” when it comes to engagement and retention. Disengagement and turnover cost real money, and every organization should figure out how much these cost them.

How to Increase Retention

Think about what makes your organization unique, and use that to keep employees. Remember that supervisors have the greatest impact on E&R. Therefore, they – not HR – should be held accountable for specific retention goals. The most important quality in a supervisor is trustworthiness; build this by focusing on behavior, not character. When hiring, “narrow the front door”, which means being more selective about who you bring on in the first place. Have a clear course of events during a new hire’s 1st 90 days, concluding with a stay interview. Supervisors should accept responsibility for company policies (“I/we” not “they”), but should also challenge policies to ensure retention. Workstyle and schedule flexibility are the #1 policy reasons people leave.

The Saratoga Institude found that poor leadership causes over 60% of all staff turnover.

What’s That About Trustworthiness?

Trust is the most critical characteristic employees want in their supervisors, followed by fairness, care, and concern. Have managers reflect on trust-breaking experiences in their career and how it changed them. Make them reflect on whether any of their staff view them that way.

Trust is about behavior, not character.

How to Make the Most of Them

Use open-ended questions. What makes you stay? Why would you leave? What are your goals? What does a good day look like? How can I, as your supervisor, help you succeed? The management team can tailor these questions to specific concerns that short, frequent employee surveys reveal.

Take notes, listen, and don’t be content with initial responses – probe for the truth. Develop an effective stay plan for each employee. Remember than challenging work is the best way for employees to learn and grow. Have standard form (for data purposes), but be ready for the conversation to develop in unexpected ways.

Your 3 Tools and How to Improve Them

Employee surveys procure engagement data that serves as a benchmark (eg. “On a scale of 1-10 how would you rate internal communication?”). Stay Interviews allow supervisors to dig into the concerns uncovered by employee surveys. Exit surveys confirm the data.

Exit Surveys

  1. Short and focused, look for trends
  2. Report comprehensive data – length of service, performance level, voluntary and involuntary resignations; KPI: Number of leavers and their performance level by manager (you should know the company-wide data, too)
  3. Ask the “net-promoter” question: “How likely are you to recommend this company as a place to work to your friends and colleagues on a scale of 1-10?” 9-10 is a promoter, 6-8 is passive, 1-6 is detractor. Subtract detractors from promoters to get your score.
  4. Require managers to meet with their supervisor after every exit interview. Review what can be learned, and possibly withhold approval for new hires until this is done.
  5. Track improvement. If you’ve done 1-4 and there’s no improvement, stop wasting your time on exit interviews.

Employee Surveys

  1. Short and frequent – these are benchmarks, about broad issues, and should be kept to about 10 questions, but regularly
  2. Do them about 1 month before your Stay Interviews, and use the data to tailor these. Then wait about 6 months before a performance review.
  3. Ask the “net-promoter” question here, too.
  4. Be Quality Control for Action Plans – they should be specific, not vague, and actually work toward a better employee
  5. Hold Managers Accountable for Achieving a Survey Standard

Also, implement Manager Scorecards for perusal by the CEO. They should cover things like:

  • manager’s survey score vs company score vs standard
  • manager’s turover vs company turnover vs standard
  • turnover by reasons
  • turnover by performance level
  • turnover by length of service
  • net promoter scores for current employees and leaving employees

These things are just as important as revenue and profit per employee, customer satisfaction, etc.

We see a future where if you don’t believe in what the company you work for does, the best workers will leave and go work for someone else. When you come together around a purpose, great things happen: employees stay longer, it’s much easier to recruit, they’re more profitable in the long term, and investors tend to be happier.

–Eugen Sakhnenko, Worker Bee Supply Co.

I’m about a third of the way through this book, which has tons of gems on successful management and personal growth. Here are some of my favorite ideas from what I’ve read so far.

Managers must loosen the controls, not tighten them.

People are talented; they want to do their best work and contribute to the success of the company. Managers should do everything in their power to facilitate this: they should clear roadblocks and address causes for fear without delay. Rather than keeping people from talking to each other, they should actively encourage direct communication between team members. They should willingly hire people that seem smarter than themselves, because,

Getting the team right is the necessary precursor to getting the ideas right.

In fact,

Getting the right people and the right chemistry is more important than getting the right idea.

Our primary goal in whatever we do must be quality, not efficiency. And we shouldn’t toot our own horn.

Excellence must be an earned word, attributed by others to us, not proclaimed by us about ourselves.

And remember, just because you have a good idea, or a bad idea,

You are not your idea, and if you identify too closely with your ideas, you will take offense when they are challenged.

Why is this important to remember? Because you will have bad ideas, and your team members (including any subordinates) have a responsibility to be forthright about this. They need to know that when they tell you your idea is terrible, that you won’t blow up at them, or quietly sulk, but simply be happy that you have avoided a bad decision together.

So what sort of people should we surround ourselves with?

Draft into service those around you who exhibit the right mixture of intelligence, insight, and grace. The people you choose must (a) make you think smarter and (b) put lots of solutions on the table in a short amount of time.


Seek people who are willing to level with you and when you find them, hold them close.


Okay, those flowed together really well. Here are a few other points I appreciated.

You don’t have to ask permission to take responsibility.

In fact, I’d say taking responsibility demonstrates you can be entrusted with responsibility.

What these forces are that make people do dumb things, they are powerful, they are often invisible, and they lurk even in the best of environments.

Coupled with that,

The good stuff was hiding the bad stuff. When downsides coexist with upsides, as they often do, people are reluctant to explore what’s bugging them, for fear of being labeled complainers. This kind of thing, if left unaddressed could fester and destroy.

Just because things are peachy, or mostly peachy, doesn’t mean we should ignore the bad. We have to be alert to tear it out before it’s overwhelming and the whole thing must be thrown out. Rather than feeling like a complainer, we should be focused on improvement; offering specific solutions can help alleviate the perception of complaining others might have.