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Do You Know Why Employees Leave? Do You Know Why They Stay?

I have mentioned the idea of doing stay interviews once or twice over the years. Thus, when I saw this post about them I was intrigued to read more:

The stay interview can reveal more about employee satisfaction than any engagement survey a small percentage of our workforce dutifully fills out. Additionally, the number of responses and accuracy of that data will likely be much higher; a one-to-one meeting is more accurate and difficult to evade than an anonymous, optional survey.

I second this sentiment. An interview is a massive improvement over the information you get from a survey. Let me give you an example from last year where I saw just how much different it could be. We did some onboarding of new hires last year. We came up with a plan that involved a 3-4 week process and ran through it with them. The first group was in early 2022 when I was still working as a consultant and not dedicated to the training and onboarding process. After that was completed there was a survey sent to the new hires and also to everyone who contributed as an SME to the process. There was some feedback. some of it was even good and actionable and it helped. Then in the Summer, we had a whole new group. This time, coordinating and overseeing this process was actually my responsibility and when we got to the end instead of sending out a survey, I did a 25-minute one on one with each of the new hires and then 2-3 group meetings with the SMEs who were involved.

What I learned through this process was that an employee survey, of any kind, will catch a certain kind of feedback from a certain kind of employee. The super-engaged and excited employees filled out the survey and provided decent responses to the questions. Others simply didn’t fill it out.

It reminded me very much of what it was like to do student surveys after customer training. You would get responses from the most excited students who were surprised by how good the training was, and you’d get responses from the students who wanted to complain about something. If you were on the right track in your training the vast majority of students would have gotten the training the expected and wouldn’t bother completing the survey. This can be a difficult thing to grasp, that just because the surveys you do get suggest you should make drastic changes, the 80% of students who don’t respond would suggest the exact opposite.

I digress. Let’s get back to that second group. The ones I made time to have a conversation with. Two things happened in those conversations:

1. I could ask questions about what they liked, didn’t like, would do differently, what was missing, what was too much, etc. I got much more nuanced answers than I would have from a survey. I was able to discover that certain aspects were only middling in effectiveness and the reasons why it was not quite where we wanted it to be.

2. I got feedback and ideas that I wouldn’t have gotten because it wasn’t a survey question that had occurred to me. When new hires responded to the survey that’s exactly what they did. They answered the questions asked of them. When we had more of a discussion we were able to identify areas for improvement outside of the questions we had been asking. For example, we discovered that there was an area of the business that we weren’t covering, assuming it was too niche for every new hire, but it was something they wanted to know more about. There was no survey question about the topic. Once it came up in conversation a couple of times, I made it a point to ask it more in future meetings. Conversely, in my conversations with the SMEs, we learned a lot about how a new hire should come prepared for the onboarding session and made some changes to add some prep work with them before handing it over to SMEs. We hadn’t even considered having a question in a survey that would have addressed that.

My point isn’t to toot my own horn. It’s to give you a concrete example of what a difference sitting and talking to your employees can make in terms of understanding what works for them, or doesn’t work for them in the workplace. A survey has a purpose, especially when you realize that meeting one on one with all of your employees doesn’t scale very far. If you really want to know what’s going on, though, don’t wait for someone to leave so you conduct an exit interview. A stay interview might prevent them from leaving in the first place.

And for god’s sake, conduct exit interviews too, and be willing to act on them. These people are telling you what went wrong, why wouldn’t you want to know that?


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