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The Power of Stay Interviews for Engagement and Retention
By Richard P. Finnegan
Society For Human Resource ManagementCopyright © 2012 Richard P. Finnegan
All rights reserved.
Making the Case: Why Stay Interviews Are Better
For decades, organizations have struggled to find clear solutions to better engage and retain their best employees. At some point does it make sense to say, "Why don't we just ask them?"
Well, we do ask them. We ask them through engagement surveys, opinion surveys, climate surveys, and exit surveys. We survey online, over the phone, and with live and recorded voices. These surveys generate reports, and from reports come scores and rank orders, which then become benchmarks. From benchmarks we set goals to improve our scores on the next survey.
The primary outcome of all our surveys is we build programs. To improve recognition we add employee appreciation week and employee of the month. To improve communications we hold town hall meetings and write more informative newsletters. To improve careers we hold brown bag lunches and career fairs.
Our client executives tell us this ongoing survey process is like a hamster on a wheel. In the beginning, utilizing expanding technologies to measure employees' opinions as a pathway to improving them made sense. But over time these surveys have morphed into redundant administrative processes that effect few new outcomes. Instead they have become periodic rituals like preparing budgets, leading to jaded comments like "Is it that time again?"
The good news is that we have a better way to strengthen each employee's engagement and retention, and that better way is simple.
The Good and Bad News about Surveys
Let us look at the ways companies use employee surveys and examine what works and what does not work.
Exit surveys can be called the original retention tool. We have long believed that knowing why employees leave will direct us to retention solutions for survivors. But while based on logical thinking, exit surveys rarely lead to retention or engagement solutions. The primary obstacles are the following:
Leaving employees often do not tell the truth.
Employee participation is too low in part because surveys are too long.
Surveys are designed to accept "attendance" and "better opportunity" as reasons for leaving, which fail to trigger solutions.
Companies are reluctant to make policy or management changes based on "autopsies," on the words of employees who no longer work there.
Over the last few years, I have polled hundreds of HR professionals to determine if they had ever improved their companies based on exit survey results. The number who indicated they had improved their companies in any way was zero.
The belief that exit surveys are a must-have tool has been reinforced by vendors that have leveraged technology to make gathering survey data easier for HR executives. Companies now purchase electronically delivered exit surveys that lead to pages of reports telling us how leavers rated their pay, benefits, communications, and other variables. Missing too often is learning why the employee left, although there is no guarantee that executives could improve their companies if they actually knew (see Table 1.1).
Various types of employee surveys have offered hope too. Learning how employees feel about a number of key items makes sense and will provide clues about what improvements companies must make to retain and engage them. And vendors have made surveying an easy process for companies to gather data and distribute reports.
These surveys provide value by supplying companies with benchmark data for internal and external comparisons, and they also offer rank-order scores for managers' effectiveness at supervising their teams. While providing data is their strength, detailing real engagement and retention solutions is their shortcoming (see Table 1.2).
Again, the dilemma with this approach is that all solutions are programs. By their nature, employee surveys are confidential, so you do not know what your best performers think, and all data represents average thinking. Further, survey results typically report all items as equal in importance for driving retention and engagement, whether your survey includes 12 items or 70. The result is that managers focus on driving up lower scores without knowing if those lower scores represent items employees care most about. And the solutions they provide touch all employees in the same way, regardless of the unique needs of each employee.
One way to measure the effectiveness of employee surveys is to ask, "Will our resulting action plan lead to improved engagement and retention for our top performers?" The real answer is you just don't know.
The Stay Interview Advantage
A Stay Interview is a structured discussion a leader conducts with each individual employee to learn the specific actions he or she must take to strengthen that employee's engagement and retention with the organization.
Stay Interviews do three things that surveys do not. They bring information that can be used today; they give insights for engaging and retaining individual employees including top performers; and they put managers in the solution seat for developing individual stay plans. Gone are the following obstacles and distractions from implementing real engagement and retention solutions:
Time delays. Delays occur from surveying employees to distributing reports to writing action plans to implementing those actions. How soon does data become stale?
Watered-down solutions. Since all data is aggregated into groups, only group fixes can be developed which paint all employees with one brush regardless of whether they are your best or worst performers.
Short-term, feel-good programs. Perks like casual Fridays or free coffee check the box for new initiatives but do nothing to improve supervisory skills, and ultimately have no bearing on whether employees stay or leave or increase their engagement.
How much can your company improve engagement and retention with programs alone, without effective day-to-day supervision and leadership? When is the last time you heard a good employee say, "My boss treats me like dirt, but I'm holding out for employee appreciation week. I'll get a balloon and a hot dog, and I'll be re-stoked for another 52 weeks"?
Leaders who substitute programs for fine-tuned supervision skills take few steps if any toward actually becoming better leaders.
What Are 'Engagement' and 'Retention'? And How Much Are They Really Worth?
Here are our definitions for engagement and retention as we refer to them throughout this book:
Engagement:Employees are fully committed each day to giving their all to help their organizations succeed.
Retention:Those employees the organization wants to keep stay with their organizations.
Our definitions are pure and deliberately simple: Employees who give their best each day, and they stay. Disengagement then means companies having employees who underperform, and turnover refers to companies losing employees they wish to keep. We recognize that good employees sometimes leave for reasons beyond their organizations' control and that many examples of turnover do indeed create healthy opportunities for others. But our fundamental approach is that organizations want all employees to be fully engaged and that they also wish to keep all employees they want to keep.
Disengagement and turnover are extraordinarily expensive. A Watson Wyatt study tells us that a one standard deviation improvement in engagement is associated with a 1.9 percent increase in revenue per employee. To put this amount into perspective, typical employees in the study's sample work at firms where productivity equals about $250,000 per employee, meaning that a significant improvement in engagement is associated with an increase in revenue per employee of $4,675. For a typical S&P 500 organization, this amount represents a revenue increase of $93.5 million. And the proportional increase is just as large for small- and medium-sized companies.
Regarding turnover, the Saratoga Institute tells us that turnover costs organizations over 12 percent of pretax income, up to 40 percent for some. Another study indicates that turnover across the U.S. costs $25 billion annually, just to train replacements. A third study tells us that turnover reduces U.S. corporate earnings and stock prices by 38 percent in four high-turnover industries.
So finding real solutions to engagement and retention is essential for corporate success.CHAPTER 2
The Rethinking Retention Model®
In my previous book, Rethinking Retention in Good Times and Bad, I presented the first-ever comprehensive model for employee retention. This model is based on research in that each solution has worked consistently to improve retention in organizations, and respected academic and professional studies have proved the value of many of these solutions. The model is also based on processes, as it is accompanied by tactical solutions that must be implemented and kept in place forever in order for these processes to work best.
Figure 2.1 depicts The Rethinking Retention Model.
The "elevator speech" for the model is that employee retention is a shared responsibility for human resources and line managers, and that solving turnover with programs alone is at best a partial solution. This is no slight whatsoever to HR professionals who every day invent creative, effective ways to connect employees to their organizations. However, the role of first-line supervisors in retention is so powerful that HR managers can only be held responsible for retaining the employees who work in human resources.
The model also describes where human resources can make its best contributions. Let us take a closer look at the principles and strategies.
The Principles at the Foundation of Retention
1. Employees quit jobs because they can. Workplace demographics leave high-performing employees with too many job choices, even in down economies. Avoid the dead-end road of basing retention solutions on exit surveys and other reasons you believe employees leave. Instead, build a proactive solution you can control.
2. Employees stay for things they get uniquely from you. Who are you as an employer? What does your organization offer that others do not? How do you know why each individual employee stays, including your top performers? Build hiring, training, and all other processes on the things that are uniquely you.
3. Supervisors build unique relationships that drive retention ... or turnover. Supervisory relationships are one-of-a-kind levers that deeply impact employees' stay/leave decisions. Some employees stay for supervisors; some leave because of them; and some are indifferent to them.
The Strategies of the Rethinking Retention Model
4. Hold supervisors accountable for achieving retention goals. Supervisors will not achieve any other goal you assign them if they lose their best or even good performers, so make them accountable and give them "skin in the game" for increasing retention.
5. Develop supervisors to build trust with their teams. Communication, recognition, and development all fall behind trust. Who values information and praise if you do not believe it? Employees cannot trust jerk bosses and the definition of jerk bosses is those you cannot trust.
6. Narrow the front door to close the back door. New hires must align with who you are, accept doing the worst aspects of your jobs, and give clear indications they intend to stay.
7. Script employees' first 90 days. Supervisors must know historic tipping points for how long new hires should stay before the initial turnover surge has passed. What built-in connection points do you have for new employees after onboarding and training?
8. Challenge policies to ensure they drive retention. Discard last decade's thinking, and drive your rules toward retention. The best solution to work/life balance is schedule and work style flexibility.
9. Calculate turnover's cost to galvanize retention as a business issue. Dollars speak louder than numbers and percents and must be tied to retention goal achievement.
10. Drive retention from the top because executives have the greatest impact on achieving retention goals.
Compare your company's approach toward retention to its ways for improving sales, service, quality, or safety. In most organizations, sales are driven from the CEO down to sales managers and salespersons with clear goals, accountabilities, and consequences, both good and bad. The line or operating side of the organization accepts full responsibility for sales outcomes and looks to staff support departments for help with sales training, sales tracking, sales promotions, and the formation of sales awards. When sales goals are exceeded, sales managers and their teams win trips to Hawaii, and few send postcards to their helpers in staff support departments.
This is as it should be, except for the postcards, because consequences work both ways for those who actually sell. Similar consequences must be in place for those who are responsible for engaging and retaining their teams.
The point is that companies struggle with where to place accountability for retention and usually miss the mark. In research asking if managers are held accountable for achieving retention goals, one study reported 14 percent of companies had installed such accountabilities, and another study reported just 11 percent. And these "accountabilities" probably took many forms, from clearly established goals with consequences to references about employee retention in the talent management section of performance appraisal forms.
This absence of accountability happens at the top of organizations as well as in the middle. We recently completed a research study with ExecuNet and found that only 6 percent of CEOs indicated that their pay or bonus is directly hit when they lose a key executive.
Figure 2.2 asks whether your organization approaches retention as process-driven by leaders or as program-driven by human resources. The Rethinking Retention Model® makes clear that both sides must play key roles in retention and that line leaders must accept and be held accountable to employee retention goals ... just as they are held accountable for sales, service, quality, and safety.
A large volume of research affirms that the Rethinking Retention Model is valid. Stay Interviews, then, produce synchronized connections with four parts on the Model as these points are described on pages 10 to 12:
Point #2: Employees stay for things they get uniquely from you.
Point #3: Supervisors build unique relationships that drive retention ... or turnover.
Point #4: Hold supervisors accountable for achieving retention goals.
Point #5: Develop supervisors to build trust with their teams.
Stay Interviews become important if not essential tools to help supervisors achieve their retention goals. They empower leaders on all levels to move from implementing one-size-fits- all programs to building focused, one-on-one retention plans with each employee. The leader's role is then clearly stated — to make the plan succeed and to retain the employee — all while deepening engagement and gaining the added productivity that results.CHAPTER 3
Supervisors' Mighty Power to Drive Engagement and Retention
Most of you who read this book already "get it" regarding the impact of the supervisor-employee relationship on engagement and retention. You have learned this from your own personal experiences at work as well as by observing the outcomes that high-performing supervisors bring to your organization. But let us take a look at relevant research in this area to strengthen our beliefs and, if necessary, to convince others.
As we study the following data, let us draw a clear boundary between the impact leaders have on engagement versus the impact well-designed and well-meaning employee programs have on engagement. "Leaders" in this context means supervisors on each level from CEOs down to first-line leaders. "Programs" refers to one-size-fits-all initiatives that are intended to improve engagement and employee morale. While the impact of leaders and programs is sometimes hard to separate, there is convincing data that the relationships leaders form with their teams is directly related to those teams' levels of engagement.
A study by Development Dimensions International (DDI) found that "engagement is strongly influenced by leadership quality" and that employees' levels of engagement were considerably higher when their supervisors had higher levels of engagement as well. DDI also found that employees who report to highly engaged supervisors were less likely to indicate they may leave the organization within a year. More compelling are the six personal characteristics DDI identified as closely linked to engagement. As you read these characteristics, consider whether employees are likely to improve in these areas as a result of one-size-fits-all programs designed to accommodate everyone:
Adaptability. Openness to new ideas and experiences; readily modifying work approaches in response to change
Achievement orientation. Pushing oneself through a continual cycle of setting goals, reaching them, and setting progressively more challenging goals
Attraction to work. Maintaining a positive view of one's job despite periods of stress and frustration
Emotional maturity. Avoiding impulsive actions and extreme or sustained emotional reactions that would negatively impact work effectiveness and co-worker relations
Positive disposition. Demonstrating agreeableness with customers and peers; eagerness to help others accomplish work goals
Self-efficacy. Exhibiting secure, unyielding confidence in the ability to succeed in the job and to advance beyond one's current position
Excerpted from The Power of Stay Interviews for Engagement and Retention by Richard P. Finnegan. Copyright © 2012 Richard P. Finnegan. Excerpted by permission of Society For Human Resource Management.
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