Please Don't Go
#evolve Magazine
July 04, 2022
For Martina Pileggi and the leadership team at Hillman Group Canada, the realization came very early on in the pandemic.
“It was probably during our first stay-at-home order,” said Pileggi, director of human resources at the Scarborough, Ontario-based builder solutions provider. “Our warehouses were working, but [the roughly 120] employees in our head office — where HR works and where I work — were sent home to work remotely.”

With its workforce suddenly dispersed, Pileggi  and the executive team quickly recognized they needed a new way to communicate with employees. And they needed to ensure that employees could communicate with each other.

“Right away, we realized our people didn’t have laptops. We had to teach everyone how to use [videoconferencing tools],” she said. “We definitely had taken for granted that we had everybody in the office for so long that we were always able to do certain things in person — have important conversations, talk about training or take a course, for example. It wasn’t until all these people were [working remotely] that we had to figure out how to communicate in the midst of a pandemic.”

To that end, Hillman Group’s HR team decided to start sitting down for periodic one-on-one chats with functional leaders and their staff.

“HR conducts them ad hoc, or when we visit facilities or when requested specifically by a manager or directly by an employee,” Pileggi said.

“HR has a very open-door flow with staff, which allows us to touch base with staff very informally without scheduling time and creating a pressure cooker space that sometimes can be off-putting to staff,” she said, adding that she has sometimes been asked to meet with team members who might be considered a flight risk or when a manager senses that an employee is off their game, so to speak.

Questions vary from formal to informal, if HR has some information about what specifically is going on with an employee or if we are targeting some kind of specific feedback,” Pileggi continued.

Some organizations call such conversations “stay interviews,” designed to help managers better grasp what employees like most about their jobs, and what might make them want to leave.

Hillman Group Canada initiated these discussions in early 2020, as a way to keep their workforce connected, and, ultimately, to help maintain engagement and drive retention. But Pileggi is quick to point out that the HR team does not refer to these chats as stay interviews.

“We don’t really call them that. We just call them one-on-ones, touch points or career path planning conversations,” she said. “For me, just the term ‘interview’ has a strange connotation. It implies a certain rigidity, a certain formality. For me, that word ‘interview’ has got to go. That’s why I like the concept of saying to an employee, ‘Hey, let’s book a touch point.’”

Whatever they call these conversations, Pileggi and the Hillman Group rely on sit-downs to find out what’s on employees’ minds, and to learn what they can do to improve the work experience for their employees. And they’re seeing results. For instance, employee net promoter scores have already increased a full point since the organization implemented regular one-on-ones, Pileggi said.

Hillman Group’s touch points are also an example of organizations moving away from one-time stay interviews toward more frequent check-ins to gather feedback from the workforce. Experts say that having such talks frequently is critical to keeping workers onboard and engaged, and predict that stay interviews will be a key tool in their engagement and retention kit going forward. 

More Than a One-time Event

Employees are heading for the exits at an historic rate.

For example, November 2021 saw a record 4.5 million Americans voluntarily leave their jobs, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Over the course of last year, more than 47 million workers walked away from their jobs and walked into a thriving job market.

In December 2021, for instance, the BLS reported 10.9 million job openings.

Against this backdrop, employers are looking for ways to avoid seeing their best talent take off in search of one of these millions of opportunities.

In this type of corporate climate, stay interviews figure to become more routine, said Wolf Gugler, president of Wolf Gugler Executive Search, a Shawnee, Okla.-based provider of talent recruitment and assessment resources.

“Stay interviews should be trending now in the midst of tremendous employee upheaval. Employees are stressed about company performance, child care and becoming ill themselves,” for example.

Being forced to “cocoon” for two-plus years has obviously hindered employees’ ability to fraternize in person, and subsequently stunted the sense of camaraderie that these in-person interactions build, added Gugler.

Periodic stay interviews that concentrate on why employees stay and what might cause them to leave are one way to show workers “that you and your company are engaged and truly committed to their career and well-being, and [stay interviews] should result in higher retention rates and keep [employees] from considering other career options.”

It’s also important to ensure that stay interviews are done on a recurring basis and are not simply a reactionary measure, said Adam Zuckerman, product leader, employee engagement software at Willis Towers Watson.

The concept of stay interviews as a one-time event that occurs after seeing a dip in retention rates, or after discovering an issue with an individual employee, is “really misguided as an approach,” Zuckerman said. “The sentiment is understandable, but it really smacks of desperation. You’re cramming for a test that you should have been studying for all along.”

Stay interviews certainly have worth, Zuckerman said. But he sees more value in focusing them “on an overall strategic listening program that gathers feedback on a year-round basis across employee milestones and life-cycle events.”

Gugler shares an anecdotal example of the risk that companies run in failing to initiate these talks on a routine basis.

“I recently spoke with someone I know well. He told me that he joined his current employer a couple years ago and has since been promoted,” he recalled.

A junior member of a leadership team composed mostly of long-tenured managers, this employee is generally happy in his role. However, the company does not conduct stay interviews in any form, “and he’s a bit in the dark about his future,” Gugler said. “He doesn’t really know where he stands should someone retire or leave. He’s uncertain if senior management considers him capable of stepping in, and he’s more than willing to learn or take on new initiatives if he knew what it was that the company wanted him to pursue.”

Ultimately, “he’s happy today, but if a recruiter were to call him and outline a position with a company that kept employees more engaged, he’d listen to what was being offered there.”

It’s also important to ensure that stay interviews are done on a recurring basis and are not simply a reactionary measure

What to Ask and Why

Experts agree that stay interviews should be done early and often in the employee life- cycle. The types of questions these discussions should entail will vary, of course, depending on factors such as the type of role and tenure with the company.

But there are certain questions that should be included in any stay interview, said Dick Finnegan, founder and CEO of C-Suite Analytics, a Longwood, Fla.-based consultancy specializing in engagement and retention solutions.

Finnegan has developed a series of five questions (see “Stay Interview 5 Questions”) that he urges organizations to ask in any stay interview. The first question, for example, asks employees what they look forward to when they travel to work each day.

This query “brings the employee’s thinking into the here and now regarding their daily duties and also begins [the interview] with a positive discussion.”

On the heels of that question, managers should ask their reports what they’re learning in the organization and in their job, he said.

“This signals to the employee that [the company is] interested and available to help with their thoughts and ambitions regarding career development.”

Development opportunities have long been a driver of employee engagement and retention, and a lack of them is a big reason employees decide to leave a company. One 2021 survey, for example, found nearly two-thirds of workers saying they would leave their job because of a lack of growth and training opportunities.

Asking employees, ‘Why do you stay here?’ helps motivate the employee to “both discover why they stay, and announce it to themselves,” Finnegan said. “It also helps the supervisor to combine the answers to questions one and three in order to identify the most important job duties that will increase retention and engagement.”

That said, even the happiest, most engaged employee has at least given thought to leaving them. Ask them when and what prompted it, Finnegan said.

This question “drives directly to your greatest retention risks and what the supervisor can do to diminish them.” Subsequently, the fifth question in the series should address what supervisors and the organization can do to improve the work experience.

Supervisors asking what they can do to make their reports’ work experience better “helps the supervisor improve the one-on-one relationship by adjusting his or her day-to-day supervisory style,” Finnegan said.

Maintaining these relationships, ensuring that employees are happy with their growth and learning how they can better aid that growth is a crucial part of Hillman Group’s touch-point conversations, Pileggi said.

“Generally speaking, [HR] focuses on the here and now — what their relationship is like with their manager, their team and their work. I always ask if the employee likes the work they do.

“I also focus specifically on what they want to do here at Hillman Group and beyond,” Pileggi continued. “We want to try to understand what staff want to do, how they want to grow and how we can help them in their careers to achieve their goals.”

The feedback Pileggi and her HR colleagues receive is typically shared with the employee’s manager, she said, adding that “elements of the discussion, if confidential, stay with HR, of course.”

She shared an example of how the touch-point conversations the company has implemented have helped alter a Hillman Group employee’s career path for the better.

“We had an employee who was working in our warehouse as an order picker,” Pileggi said.

“However, he went to school for technical maintenance, and recently decided to move on from Hillman as [he felt there] weren’t any opportunities within his [new] area of choice.”

A senior operations manager and senior facilities manager spoke to the employee “and figured out a way to spend some time working in maintenance, in order to get experience while assisting the operations team when needed,” she said. “The employee was thrilled.”

Overall, Hillman Group has between 750 and 1,000 employees, depending on the time of year. “So, it’s challenging to speak to everyone. We have incorporated semiannual surveys and more one-on- ones to ensure these opportunities continue going forward,” Pileggi said.

The company also aims to schedule more of these types of discussions “when we have a hunch that someone wants to leave,” Pileggi said. “We have learned and continue to learn that not everything is what it appears to be [in terms of a given employee’s experience]. Sometimes there’s more to it. And it’s our job to figure it out.”

“We want to try to understand what staff want to do, how they want to grow and how we can help them in their careers to achieve their goals.”

Stay Interview 5 Questions

  1. When you travel to work each day, what things do you look forward to?

  2. What are you learning here?

  3. Why do you stay here?

  4. When was the last time you thought about leaving our team? What prompted it?

  5. What can I do to make your experience at work better for you?

Source: C-Suite Analytics

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