Exit Interviews? Why Don’t We Focus on Stay Interviews Instead?

Illustration by Dreamstime
Illustration by Dreamstime

I got to thinking about exit interviews after I read the article here on TLNT by John Hollon titled Exit Interviews: How Can We Make Them More Than a Waste of Time?

I have never cared for exit interviews. Yes, I know most companies have it on their checklist of things to do when someone leaves the company. But really — what you think you will gain from doing them?

Just as John said, people don’t want to burn bridges. Or, they will pick the easiest reason to give in an exit interview which is usually, “I was offered more money.”

One of the most forward-thinking companies I ever worked for started a practice a long time ago — long before companies started doing it — and calling it by the term “stay interviews.”

Why not interview your best performers instead?

At this company we decided that doing exit interviews, getting questionable results at best and feeding it into a report to management was a wasted effort. Frankly it was a “bummer” showing poor results/comments. It brought everyone down! It made us feel like — gee, we’re so bad, how can we ever climb out of this hole!

We decided to attack this from another angle. What if we did casual interviews with our best performers, our high potentials, etc? What could we do with what we learned?

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So we compiled a list of high performers and high potentials and started our project. Each of us took 3-4 employees at a time. We did this very informally. No “professional” surveys purchased from consultants, etc. We just each took our group to the company cafeteria or a conference room for coffee and “chatted”. We told them they were appreciated for their contributions to the company and the company wanted to ask them a few questions:

  1. Why do you stay at this company?
  2. If you have been contacted by a headhunter why have you not been interested?
  3. What are the things that you enjoy most about your job?
  4. If the company could do anything better, what would it be?

Who cares after the fact?

Simple. Direct. We didn’t take notes during the meetings. We just let the conversation flow. It was like we were all friends sitting around the table talking. Having a group of people helped because they added to what each other was saying, etc. They all seemed to enjoy sharing examples of what they liked about their jobs and the company.

When we compiled our findings and took them to top management it was like day and night. They were really happy to receive good news for once from HR. They appreciated hearing about the things they were doing that were “right” and interested in what the company could do more of. And when HR stood ready to recommend some things to improve on the environment — they were happy to approve them.

It’s easier to identify good things and make them better than identifying bad things after-the-fact when no one cares — don’t you think?

Jacque Vilet, president of Vilet International, has more than 20 years’ experience in international human resources with major multinationals such as Intel, National Semiconductor, and Seagate Technology. She has managed both local/ in-country national and expatriate programs and has been an expat twice during her career. She has also been a speaker in the U.S., Asia, and Europe, and is a regular contributor to various HR and talent management publications. Contact her at jvilet@viletinternational.com.


18 Comments on “Exit Interviews? Why Don’t We Focus on Stay Interviews Instead?

  1. Richard Finnegan just published an excellent book on this very topic: The Power of Stay Interviews for Employee Retention and Engagement (SHRM, 2012).

    1. Thanks for the tip, Chris!  I’ve always enjoyed the books I get from SHRM.  I will add this one to my list!

  2. Well said, Jacque. Information uncovered during an exit interview (if even completely truthful, as you point out) is often too little too late to make a difference, at least with that particular employee. Seeking regular feedback from employees about what’s working well or what could be improved at the company can reveal improvements that need to be made early on, before employees become frustrated or start looking for other employment options. Plus, taking an interest in your employees’ experiences could make them feel more valued and help to increase engagement and loyalty to the company.


  3. I will agree that exit interviews are frequently useless. However, the theory behind exit interviews is solid. Exit interviews are simply not designed (in most cases) to extract the information administrators require to understand the problem (assuming there is a problem)–not with just one employee– rather to look for a trend over time. This tells us what we should be doing and hopefully will do in the future to eliminate the issue and save valuable employees.
    Don’t discard the exit interview, make it work for you by using a skillful design and application. It would not be that difficult.
    Yes, I agree, we should also design effective “good employee” survey instruments and utilize them. These too are relatively easy to create and employ. I have designed hundreds of surveys for various reasons. 

    1. Agree with you..even though frequently regarded as useless, what is important is the theory behind it..the feedback from exit interview help the organization to continue looking for improvements. It helps us to understand what are the pull factors from the other companies; sometimes dollar and cents is not the only main pull factor, it could be work arrangement the other company is able to offer, which may be good for the other organization to adopt. However, we must not overdo the exit interview by investing too much time in it. Similarly, the ‘stay interview’ should also be adopted to solicit feedback from the hi-pots and assets we have within the organization in our effort to continuously provide a conducive working environment, competitive package that caters to multi-level generations coming into the workforce, not forgetting the work-life balance.

  4. I was very interested in this article for the main reason that, yes, exit interviews seem a bit pointless. Often times you are interviewing people who may be disgruntled at not getting a raise or who have mentally “checked out” and therefore don’t care about the value it could add to a company. I also believe that by speaking with the top performers, you can get a better understanding of what makes your company culture so unique.


  5. Thanks for the great short post and nifty idea. I agree with you that the best approach is to conduct ‘stay interviews’ on a regular basis (calling them differently perhaps or that might indeed give an idea for those interviewed about moving on too quickly). I blogged about a similar idea but not at all from the ‘exit/stay interview’ angle, I called it a ‘personal effectiveness survey’ http://km4meu.wordpress.com/2011/04/06/share-your-questions-the-personal-effectiveness-and-knowledge-survey/
    Though I didn’t try it in my previous organisation I really want to give it a go in this one, with good care for the process as this kind of survey can be intimidating for staff (revealing some areas for improvement).
    Still, exit interviews if short and sweet, focused on the not-so-politically correct and backed by processes that really help can be powerful sources of insights to change. The main problem is indeed that they happen too late and as a result it takes more discipline for those staying – HR ahead – to act upon the insights gathered by the staff departing. Thanks again for the food for thought!Cheers,Ewen

  6. Thanks for the article.  It makes a lot of sense to me!  One I think we should incorporate months before the difficult “annual employee review” process!  Kudos!

  7. In either case, it depends on the type of questions you are asking, the level of rapport you have with the individual either leaving or who has chosen to stay.  When designed properly, both type of interviews can be helpful to continually improve the culture, connectedness of employees, type of work, and on-going communication that should exist within an organization.  If we lack one thing in many organizations it is the ability to keep our employees apprised of what is happening, how we are doing, what we need to improve, and what each person can do to make it better.  These types of interviews should be extensions of what already exists within an organization.  A Q-12 can many times be a very good way to begin the communication process inside an organization.

  8. Exit Interviews… I would like to see more often “manager reviews” and rankings on a national level. For example: Would you work for an employer if their management team had poor rankings? Most would say, probably not. Hitz, you probably wouldn’t be going through an exit interview but rather a stay interviews.

  9. Good article and great point.  Exit interviews should
    not be accepted as a “useless” or “pointless” given. 
    Instead, if there is any value in the employee who is soon to be an
    ex-employee, press for insight on what it would take to change the exit

    I’ll never forget a conversation I had with an HR manager I attempted to alert
    about a highly valued employee, whom I had a hand in recruiting, who was
    deciding to leave the company.  His immediate response was, “Don’t
    let the door hit him on the ass as he leaves.”  He could care less.

    I’m a big believer in making an effort, at the very least, to go for the
    salvaging of a valued employee.  Why? Isn’t there a huge investment in an
    employee, particularly a high performing one.  Since that is the case–I always
    recommend a concerted to retain the talent.  If they’re going to go…let
    them recognize you the employer wished they’d reconsider.  Let them know
    you the employer would appreciate any input they can offer to prevent such an
    outcome in the future,  For highly valued employees I’d go so far as to
    say, “If it doesn’t work out there, we’d love to have you

    Bottom line, any exit interview should be conducted with same business critical
    concern as the employment interview.  Letting a proven performer walk
    without assessing and learning from the event is like ignoring a leak in your
    sail boat.  Once you notice it—YOU address it immediately or suffer the

  10. I can see where this would be a great asset. Thank you for sharing. Do most of you perform an engagement survey also?

  11. A great idea! What might make it less ‘formal’ would be to replace the terminology “interview” with something a little less ‘clinical’ like a feedback session or a roundtable discussion or something more creative that does not sound like a survey. The ‘feel-good’ notion behind satisfied performers talking about positive aspects of the job is not such a bad idea, but there may be need to find out why people leave the company especially if the turnover is higher than average for the industry. The question about what the company could do better is particularly important, because it changes the tone of the ‘interview’ and allows the group to critically examine some of the drawbacks or obstacles to better performance without making them sound like a bunch of complainers.

    It might be helpful if after such ‘stay interviews’, HR could analyze the group to understand what really makes these employees be better performers and perhaps even more satisfied with their jobs than others. For example, is it their supervisors or their tasks, the environment or the team or all of these? The interviewer also ought to listen to any of the answers that may have a direct bearing on the mission, vision, culture and values of the company, especially when they answer the question about why they stay with the company and what they enjoy most about the company. this would help the managers understand how connected or not the employees are to the overall business strategy.

  12. Our company has conducted both exit interviews and engagement surveys for hundreds of organizations since 1997. In tandem, the data derived from these sources has been extremely valuable to be able to identify which initiatives can improve employee tenure and overall engagement, in one case by 63% annually. A well designed data collection system can identify why employees become disengaged before they start looking for work elsewhere, so let’s not throw out the baby with the bathwater. If companies can identify the early warning signals, they have the greatest chance of turning the employee around before they start listening to the latest headhunter call.

  13. I faithfully did exits as part of our turnover research for years. I submitted them to the appropriate people as part of the yearly turnover report to the Board. I figured the turnover and made suggestions for improvements. I finally stopped submitting the reports because no one was reading them and nothing was getting done with them. No changes were being attempted based on the results of the exit interviews either. The basic rule is this: If the people who can initiate change and have to actually initiate change and monitor it are unwilling to do so, then there is no reason to do any of the exit or turnover stuff. So… If you’re reading this and want the results of exit interviews and the suggestions they contain for improvement, and you expect them to mean anything, then be prepared to actually DO something with the information.

  14. I’ve never conducted a useless exit interview. Most skilled HR pros design the inquiries so that useful information is obtained, and documented and shared where it would do the most good and followed up on to make sure issues are handled properly, usually hiding the sources if possible to avoid bias, but take if for what it is, someone leaving will tend to justify their decision. Example, not ‘why’ are you leaving, but ‘what prompted you’ to be receptive to another offer. Couch it there is nothing you can say that will adversely impact a recommendation so you have nothing to lose by telling how it is, cover every aspect of their employment experience. If you don’t ask (skillfully), they probably won’t share. Done properly, everyone leaving has a lot to tell you.

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