With the tight labor market this year, a popular topic in human resources circles has been the practice of conducting “stay interviews,” which CNBC predicted last fall would be “the big next trend of the Great Resignation.” As opposed to the typical exit interview, where you ask a departing employee for their feedback on practices and culture, a stay interview is when you ask a current employee “what keeps [them] working for the organization, as well as any aspects that need improvement or change,” according to a recent article from business.com.
I found myself paying more attention every time the topic of stay interviews popped up on an HR newsfeed. This past spring, I decided to test them out.
I will admit, I was a bit skeptical at first. Over the years, AAM has done annual workplace satisfaction surveys, new hire follow-up interviews, annual performance evaluations, exit interviews, and the occasional employee pulse survey on a variety of topics, including asking about satisfaction with our benefit programs and with how AAM has handled operations during the pandemic. Would stay interviews really tell us something we hadn’t heard already? On the other hand, if they did end up uncovering new feedback, would we be prepared to receive it? Would I have the support of management to follow through on the issues raised?
Despite these reservations, what ultimately convinced me to go forward was realizing that, though I did conduct ninety-day follow-up interviews with new hires, I didn’t have a formal process in place for following up with staff one-on-one after their initial employment. As we wrapped up our annual performance evaluation process this spring, I also began to wonder if there were ways we could be encouraging more meaningful feedback. As much as we say that the performance evaluation meeting should be a two-way dialogue between employee and supervisor, feedback in such a formal process tends to be weighted heavily on the side of the supervisor offering an assessment of the employee. Plus, I had been touting the benefits of asking for and giving direct feedback in the lead-up to the performance evaluations, and I realized that stay interviews would be a great opportunity to elicit feedback on my own work and the HR function itself.Skip over related stories to continue reading article
With the support of AAM’s leadership team, who agreed to review and act on the findings with me, I decided to go forward with the idea. I began by inviting all staff members to individual “HR check-in” meetings, explaining that they were aimed at helping me ensure AAM’s HR functions were aligned with building an engaging, inclusive, equitable, and productive work culture. Then, over the course of a month, I met with all staff members (thirty-five in total), including our President and CEO. Most of the meetings—or “stay conversations,” as I like to call them—occurred virtually, although some were in person, and ranged from twenty to sixty minutes.
For starters, I was pleased to find that 94 percent of AAM staff said they were satisfied or highly satisfied with their employment. With recent reports of job satisfaction rates being at an all-time low (with 50 percent of US workers feeling stressed at their jobs on a daily basis), I was encouraged that AAM was faring better than many organizations.
It was heartening to hear some of the most appreciated aspects of AAM’s workplace culture, which included the colleagues, AAM’s mission, being involved in the museum field, and the enjoyability of work responsibilities. Many also mentioned that they enjoy the autonomy they have in their work, value their relationships with supervisors, and appreciate AAM’s leadership. Finally, there was much appreciation shared for AAM’s flexibility with work schedules, our hybrid work model, and new leave policies established during the last couple of years. Many of these same features are consistently mentioned in exit interviews, so I wasn’t surprised to hear them.
On the flip side, there were also some trends when I asked about pain points, including concerns about capacity (feeling understaffed, burned out, overwhelmed, or stressed), recognition for the value of administrative work and taking on additional duties/providing continuity during staff shortages, compensation, transparency in decision-making, and professional development and growth/advancement opportunities. These were not a surprise either, as many had been raised in previous workplace surveys.
I also asked for specific suggestions for improvement from staff, which ranged from new ways to recognize teams for their work to more technology training in order to be more effective at everyday tasks.
After completing the stay conversations, I shared a summary of the results with AAM’s leadership team and facilitated a discussion on what areas we could focus on for improvement. The team realized several of the suggestions could be acted on relatively quickly, and agreed right away to actions such as tweaking our performance evaluation form to allow for more feedback on soft skills including how we work together and providing basic training on our software platforms.
We also realized that there were several actions already taken or in progress that would address concerns regarding AAM’s travel policy, compensation, and capacity, but that not all staff members had been updated on these pending projects. For example, shortly after the interviews were completed, we implemented a corporate credit card to eliminate the need for employees to request travel advances or expense reimbursements when traveling on AAM business. We also committed to communicating our plans to accelerate the timeline for salary increases, which had been on hold for the past two years, by breaking them down into two parts over the course of the summer, rather than waiting until the third quarter to initiate them, and held an informational session for all staff to review AAM’s compensation program and pay philosophy. In addition, we updated staff on our plans to recruit for new positions and fill vacant administrative positions to help alleviate increasing workloads.
Though the leadership team could commit to these actions immediately, we recognized that some of the concerns raised would need to be addressed over time. These long-term commitments included better promoting and encouraging learning opportunities for all staff, reviewing ways to provide training to improve the quality of supervisory feedback, further defining staff concerns around capacity so that additional action steps could be considered, increasing communications around upcoming projects and capacity so that longer-term projects can continue to move forward, and considering ways to better recognize teamwork, such as incentives and bonuses for reaching shared goals.
Personally, I learned a tremendous amount from initiating these conversations, and I believe they have helped me grow professionally. For example, I realized that one can’t underestimate the power of proactively seeking feedback. For instance, even though staff members often tell me they appreciate my “open door policy” and feel comfortable bringing their questions to me, I was surprised by some of the HR-related questions that came up during these conversations. Most were minor questions about using our benefits that they said seemed too small to bother asking about. Proactively having these conversations allowed me to take care of these small lingering issues that just needed a little nudge to resolve.
These conversations also gave me an opportunity to test and stretch my active listening skills. When staff shared feedback on something I had personal insight on, like management communications or HR benefits, it was terribly tempting to “explain” and defend the actions taken, but I realized early on that these conversations were not the place for such a response. I was much better off rebuilding trust by getting more curious—letting employees express opinions and frustrations, asking follow-up questions for a deeper understanding of their viewpoints, summarizing what I was hearing, and letting those concerns just sit in the moment. It made me realize that most of my HR communication with employees is spent explaining or recommending solutions. This was a rare chance to just listen without the expectation of anything more.
There was also an advantage to receiving direct feedback one-on-one rather than reviewing comments received on a survey. Talking to people face-to-face (or Zoom-window-to-Zoom-window), I could witness their enthusiasm, excitement, frustration, and disappointment directly. It’s hard not to feel greater empathy for a colleague’s circumstances when experiencing these emotions first-hand through their tone of voice and body language during a personal conversation.
Finally, these conversations were a reminder of how much people appreciate being asked. Many colleagues expressed gratitude that I was asking them to share their opinions, and said they wished they could have similar conversations with supervisors periodically. Several talked about how different these conversations felt from performance evaluations, where the focus is on achievements, goals, and outcomes. It was a reminder of the universal need we all have to be seen, heard, and valued. It also underscored for me that how we work together is as important as achieving our goals.
Lastly, the gratitude and appreciation I received from staff made me realize that stay conversations can be conducted by anyone, not just HR. I would encourage any supervisor interested in honing their management skills or looking for direct input from their employees to give stay conversations a try.
Despite my initial reservations about my own capacity and the time it would take to complete this project, I am convinced the stay conversations were worthwhile and beneficial to my own work and to AAM as a whole. It was enlightening to hear what my colleagues enjoy most about their work, why they stay at AAM, and what demotivates them. I am grateful to them for candidly sharing their workplace joys, insights, and frustrations. I feel better equipped to give our leadership team meaningful feedback that will help us make good decisions about how we work together. I plan to continue seeking staff input through feedback tools such as stay conversations in the future.
Thinking of implementing stay conversations at your own institution? Here are some tips to consider as you get started:
- Include your senior leadership in planning to ensure alignment on intended outcomes and support in acting on the results. I pitched a general outline of my intended goals, process, and expected time commitment to AAM’s leadership team. I was fortunate to have AAM’s Chief of Staff and President & CEO as advocates, who helped me anticipate potential challenges such as how we would address concerns and handle negative feedback. These early collaborations gave us an opportunity to discuss ways to overcome potential issues and helped generate co-ownership and buy-in from leadership for taking action on the results.
- Be transparent with staff. Their buy-in is just as important as leadership’s. A well-communicated, transparent process that explains how the feedback collected will be used goes a long way towards convincing staff that these meetings will be worth their time. In my case, letting employees know upfront that their individual feedback would be treated anonymously and only shared in aggregate with leadership encouraged more open and honest feedback.
- Prioritize the employee’s experience in the stay conversation. This helps set the right tone for eliciting meaningful feedback and having a positive conversation. For example, staff appreciated the flexibility of scheduling these conversations either in person or virtually. Sharing the script of questions in advance allowed them to give some thought to their responses prior to the conversation. Here is the script I used, but there are many other good samples online! Being fully present and in a private, distraction-free environment for the meetings (cell phones off) signals to the employee that they have your complete attention.
- Let employees know that your primary focus in the conversation is to listen (rather than react, respond, or fix). It’s never easy to hear negative or challenging feedback, but communicating this can set the right tone for a respectful conversation, even when concerns are raised. Creating channels in which negative feedback can be respectfully shared is essential to building trust amongst colleagues and promoting an environment of continuous improvement in the workplace, and leadership can foster productive outcomes by acknowledging issues raised and addressing them accordingly. As the facilitator of the stay conversations and the intermediary between leadership and staff in addressing the outcomes, I found it helpful to remind myself of the value provided by all types of feedback—an opportunity to learn (by gaining new insights and perspectives) and an opportunity to act (by continuing the status quo or making a change).
- Acknowledge and act on the feedback. I briefed our leadership team on general results and trends before sharing these with all staff. Having this preliminary conversation gave us a chance to discuss how to address the issues raised and led to a list of action steps that we later shared with all staff. Including leadership at various points during this process enabled us to better communicate the value of the feedback received and act on the results.