Workplace

The stay interview is the key to retention right now. Here’s how to conduct one.

Relay Payments' Amy Zimmerman on why you should consider conducting stay interviews.

Amy Zimmerman

Relay Payments' Chief People Officer Amy Zimmerman discussed conducting stay interviews.

Photo: S. Duston

You’ve heard of an exit interview, but have you heard of the stay interview? As more companies across the tech industry struggle with hiring and retention in one of the hottest talent markets in recent memory, some are experimenting with ways to proactively spot a flight risk before that employee cuts loose.

Protocol spoke to Amy Zimmerman, chief people officer of Atlanta-based fintech company Relay Payments, about conducting stay interviews, and got advice for other companies looking to try them out.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

What is a stay interview?

The stay interview is essentially the opposite of an exit interview. Think about the kinds of questions that you ask at an exit interview: “Why did you leave? Could we have done something to keep you? What was your favorite part about working at the company? What was your least favorite part? If we could have done something different to keep you, what would it have been? What would you have changed about the company?” The problem with those questions, while informational, is that once the person's accepted another role and they've chosen to leave, it's just too late. And so the idea of a stay interview is: Ask people those questions before they decide to leave. Because if there's a chance they're going to leave, why not fix the problems ahead of them making that decision?

How did you learn about stay interviews? What inspired Relay to start doing them?

I was chief people officer at a fintech company called Kabbage prior to joining Relay, and I started doing stay interviews there about three years ago. It was a way for a manager or people-operations person to really connect with a team member, to really understand what we should double down on, what isn't working and where we need to focus on to make things better for folks. When I joined Relay Payments, it became very obvious to me and the founders that we have all these great people. How do we keep them engaged? And how do we ensure that they're loyal, especially as we go into the new year with recruiting heating up across many industries and our folks becoming a real hot commodity?

When did you start, how many have you done and what have they been like?

We did an engagement survey midyear, and we wanted to have a couple of touchpoints a year. Rather than doing another engagement survey, I decided to change it up and trained our managers on how to facilitate an effective stay interview. We're in the middle of having merit conversations right now, and we paired our stay interviews with our merit conversations.

Early feedback from a handful of the managers has been, "Holy moly, Amy, this is a game changer. Really." The feedback that our team members are giving the managers is, "I've never had a manager care so much about my well-being, about my opinions, about the company, our culture and how we operate.” Now, if I'm being honest, I've had a couple managers say, "Amy, I've got a ton of team members. This is a huge commitment in time. It takes a good hour to conduct a stay interview. An hour apiece is a lot." And my answer has been, "If there's anything more important than investing in your team, let's talk about that. Because that means your priorities aren't right." There should be no greater commitment for managers than understanding how their team members feel and what they want and need.

Why are companies doing stay interviews right now? Why did Relay decide to do this?

How do you truly know what the team member needs or expects unless you ask? And so the real “why” is engagement, retention and making sure you're creating a happy space. It's also loyalty. Each strong candidate is getting pinged by five-plus recruiters a week. So how do you keep your company top of mind? How do you keep people engaged? You can have competitive pay, competitive benefits, give them interesting work and tie the work to the mission and have an environment that they align with. There's so many different ways, but a stay interview is a really strong tool.

When in an employee’s life cycle do you conduct a stay interview? How often?

At the end of the year during our employees’ merit discussions. We talk about accomplishments, growth and the year ahead: what they are most excited about, how they want to learn and grow. And so the stay interview seemed like a really good tool to use during those merit conversations because it was really about growth and investment, and everyone gets a merit conversation. We do an engagement survey once a year, and we're going to do a stay interview once a year. One is in written form; one is a conversation. So that’s two sides of the same coin twice a year, and then we're going to do Pulse surveys monthly, two or three questions that are super fast, just to check in with folks in between.

What questions do you ask in a stay interview?

So the questions are broken into three categories: manager feedback, your role and growth in your role and finally culture and environment. On culture and environment, we ask, “What's your favorite and least favorite thing about working at Relay?” The second question is, “What might tempt you to leave?” Then on the more specific role and growth questions, we ask, “If you could change something about your job, what would it be?” A second question is, “What talents are not being used in your current role?” The third question is, “What would you like to learn in your current role?” And then the manager feedback piece is, “What can I do to best support you as your manager?” Another is, “What should I do more or less of as your manager?” Also, “How do you like to be recognized?” And finally, “What motivates you or demotivates you?”

Is the interview recorded or documented in some way?

We use a tool called Lattice, which is a goals and engagement platform. We carved out space in Lattice for each manager to do their stay interviews with their team members and take notes on their responses. It's a one-way conversation. I'm going to ask you questions as your manager, and I'm going to take notes. It’s for us to really focus on your feedback and do something with it.

Should you send them some questions ahead of time to help them prepare?

That question came up with managers who suggested it might make the conversations more efficient. And my response was that my preference isn't efficiency. It's connection. So I don't want team members to prep ahead of time. I want the conversation to be natural. They can prep for an engagement survey. A stay interview is supposed to be a little more interactive. It doesn't need to be planned, curated and thought out in that way.

Who gets to see the responses?

The manager, of course. And then my team. I have a person on my team that is going to do all of the analysis and help me understand themes from the responses. Say a manager has five people on their team; let's talk about it, analyze the feedback and look for themes. And then we'll also look for themes at the company level. And then we'll come up with an action plan, both at the manager level and the company level, to address some of the concerns that we hear so that we can continue to invest in our environment and community, as well as so that folks feel like they have a voice and that they're excited about what we're building.

What do you do after a stay interview? What do the HR team and managers do as a result?

Basically, you analyze the responses, and then you come up with an action plan. Anybody who doesn't plan on doing something with the results should not spend the time doing the interview. And if you don't plan on addressing the feedback, it's actually offensive to the team members who are thoughtfully sharing feedback that you're now not doing anything about it. We don't commit to the team that we're going to fix every single thing that comes up, because there might be some things that we don't agree are problems. But we will address everything, and we'll share some analysis broadly so folks see what some of the themes are at a high level, and so that they know how we plan on acting on the feedback that they graciously shared.

Going back to the actual interview itself, these are tough questions to answer and to ask, because they're pretty personal. So how do you elicit honesty? How do you make an employee feel comfortable speaking candidly about their actual feelings toward the work that they're doing?

The truth is, if you're dealing with a team member who doesn't feel safe, they're not going to be honest. Part of what we've created at Relay is a culture of trust. One of our success criteria is radical candor. We talk about it all the time. My hope is that we've created an environment where people feel safe and that they feel like we're asking the questions because we really, really care about the answers. Hopefully they feel like we're a company with high integrity. We're leaders that do what we say we're going to do, and that we're reasonable people. But you're right, if you're working at a company where there's a trust deficit, you're going to have a hard time getting people to answer honestly.

And you’ve said that a stay interview is the opposite of an exit interview, but how is it different in terms of format and the topics that you would ask them about?

It's not super different. If you run an exit interview effectively, many of the questions are similar. The difference is it's too late for that person to make the changes that they would have needed to stay. It’s great that you're going to take the learnings and, if you do something about it, perhaps prevent others from leaving. But the idea behind the stay interview is about being proactive.

What have the results been? I know it’s too early to say since you just started this at Relay, but what about when you did this at Kabbage? Did you notice any impact on retention?

For sure. Our turnover [at Kabbage] was consistently under market. When people ask, “What do you credit for having such low turnover?” I would say there's no single thing, but it was about having an amazing culture. We also paid competitively. I think it's the sum of everything. It's not one specific thing that lends to that kind of retention level.

Any advice for companies that are considering conducting their own stay interviews?

The biggest thing that I would say is only do it if you intend to act on it. You lose an enormous amount of credibility if you do something and you don't follow through. I advise several companies, some of whom are considerably larger than we are, and I've heard from some of them that there's just no way to do it across the board. It would be just a tremendous lift. And so my advice to those folks is to pick key people that you just couldn't live without and at least invest in having conversations with them. I like the idea of doing it across the board because I think it's important that everybody be part of the team. But at a minimum, if you can't do it right now for everybody, at least select the folks that you know you couldn't live without and have the conversations with that group.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated Amy Zimmerman's title in the photo caption. This story was updated on Dec. 27, 2021.

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