This Way To Stay Programs, Not Exit Interviews

Don’t just do exit interviews. Develop stay programs. In Part One of this series, I made it clear that, in my view, an exit interview is like an autopsy. It confirms, perhaps, why a person is leaving. But since it happens on an employee’s last day with the company, it does little to make them stay. So if your goal is to develop programs and policies to make your valued employees stay at your company, then maybe you need better and more current information than that provided in an exit interview. I know, many of us prefer the term “Retention Program.” But seeing as we don’t always do so well using that name, let’s try a different approach and a different name. Besides, trying to “retain” a person sounds a little too architectural to me, while “stay” seems to have a more human tone. (Unless one considers training your puppy: “STAY! STAY!”) But what is wrong with some of the programs that are already in place?

  • Suggestion boxes or suggestion websites. Usually you will get “knee jerk” input from employees primarily venting over the “incident du jour.” (An employee cut off in the parking lot by another employee might make a suggestion like, “All SUVs with youth soccer bumper stickers should be required to park in the back of the lot!”) The fear of being identified by your email address or being observed dropping off a suggestion also curtails participation, since it requires an individual decision to make an individual comment rather than participate in a community effort.
  • Employee Reviews. These are a time when most companies ask their better employees for input and suggestions on what the company is doing well, and what it’s not doing so well. But during this timeframe, your employee is hoping to get as good a raise as possible. It is a commonly held belief of most employees (one based on reasonable observation) that the “quiet, agreeable employees” do better on reviews than honest ones. (“What should the company do to be a better place to work?” “Huh! Make the work week 60 hours so we can stay here longer and enjoy the wonderful environment and great bosses like you all the more!”)
  • Employee Surveys. Pah-lease! Does anyone in human resources/staffing honestly think the paperwork we hand out to employees gets taken seriously by enough people to make the overall input useful? Reflecting back on the first column, if you do not use “filters,” you risk a survey that does not eliminate inflated data. But if you do use filters, you risk making the input so neutral that doing nothing would have had more impact.
  • Look, Listen, and Copy. Often we install programs because we heard about another company that did it…”and the results were great!” But rarely do we consider the differences between the two organizations, their respective populations, or the fact that the program may have been the result of “their employees” input. This may well be a different community with different pre-existing conditions, different expectations, and different belief systems that affect the company’s ability to actually listen, design, and deliver custom and effective programs based on employee input. (The battle cry of the mediocre: “Let’s be different, just like them.”)

So what exactly is missing in most existing stay programs? Well, specifically:

  • Personnel financial rewards. (Everything important has value in a capitalistic system.)
  • Group participation. (Concealment in the herd.)
  • Senior-level commitment and acknowledgement. (“It’s important because I am the CEO and I say it’s important.”)
  • Success stories. (“I wrote 800 recommendations and got 800 thank you notes and 800 nothings!”)

Guidelines for Successful Stay Programs Here are some suggestions for basic guidelines of a successful stay program:

  1. Before the new hire starts, send them a questionnaire with a signed confidentiality policy statement, and ask them to list the keys reasons they decided to work for your company. Ask about the people they met and the impressions they made. Ask about their expectations for career development and professional growth. Get a realistic impression, now that they are coming on board, about what they think “it” is going to “look like.” No doctor can effectively treat a patient without a patient history, and that is what you start building on the first contact. As part of their first 90-day review and their annual review, their “dream sheet” should be updated based on the results of a face-to-face with HR/Staffing or a third-party consultant. Look for downward trends in goals and expectations. Do they still sound excited and engaged? A doctor always checks a patient’s temperature and then checks it against their patient history. Have the cover letter explaining the policy signed by the CEO, get the message out fast that as an employee their opinion always matters and is always listened to without prejudice (or risk of career suicide). Include a $50 gift certificate as your way of saying “Thanks” and “Welcome Aboard!”
  2. Have a quarterly (or annual) “Five Top Reasons I Stay” contest and a “First Thing I Would Fix” contest. Offer a substantial first prize and decent follow-up awards and prizes. If the cost of replacing a critical employee is anywhere from two to three times their salary, how much is “too much” for ideas and inputs that could significantly reduce your turnover? You can catalog the ideas based on the employee, their place within the organization and their ranking as an employee. But never forget that these ideas are emanating from the people you want to retain; do not ignore these inputs. Do not be afraid to install independent “stay” incentives across divisions or groups based on their input. If your QA folks want more “flex time” and your accounting people want more certification training, give each what they want. Do not try and placate one with the wishes of the other. Publish the input, good and bad; show pride in your efforts and your employee’s opinions by admitting them, out loud. Again, have the CEO involved in the recognition or awards process.
  3. When an employee announces they are leaving, meet with their peers as a possible preemptive strike. Determine if the exiting employee’s peers have related issues. Make this a “we are concerned about you” meeting and not a “what the heck is going on here” meeting. This, too, can be done with a third party’s assistance and conducted offsite. It can be made into a positive event if done well and with consideration and forethought. It is critical that you make it clear you are not looking for “stories” about the person leaving. (“If John works in this group and is unhappy, we want to ensure it is a personal or private issue and not a fault or flaw that the company has caused and could remedy.”)
  4. Routinely have selected employees representing a cross-section of your total population meet with a third-party consultant, off site, to answer the basic questions of what has gone well during the last year and what has not gone so well. Pay them an “honorarium” for participating. Avoid just speaking with your top 20%. Bad policies may contribute to your “troublemakers'” attitudes. If you merely look to your “best and brightest” for input, you deny your organization the opportunity to “grow its own.” Your goal is to collect ongoing data as to why good people stay and what turns good employees into unhappy employees, who will ultimately leave. This way you may be able to develop concepts and recognize trends in troubled employees of value before they become exiting employees.
  5. Place a “report card” on the company intranet that can be printed or forwarded online with the option to conceal the identity of the source. (Your IT department will need to create a universal “dummy” email address as one way to provide personal protection.) Insure you have a policy in place making it clear that this is not a replacement for any existing grievance policy or a substitute for individual responsibility in reporting violations of corporate policy as well as state or federal labor laws. This is not a format for “venting” on an individual issues with an individual manager. But it is a good accumulator to develop an overall sense of corporate morale in concert with more personal and awards-driven programs. The number of responses, the issues most often or least often mentioned, the severity or levity of the issues, all combine to give you a clear over-all composite of the companies true moral. If the responses are few and dismal, the individual comments tell you less than the general apathy reveals. This kind of open door process gives you an ongoing temperature check. If a population considers a particular policy positive or odious, I assure you, the sudden eruption of comments will keep you current. Or, if the “big announcement” causes no employee input, maybe the rank and file was not impressed. But do not just look for “spreadsheet data.” Learn about trend analysis, mass communications, and mob physiology. This is not a true/false quiz. This is about understanding people. Although I do not think “Suggestion Boxes” are effective in and of themselves, they can be a secondary check of employee attitudes to programs as you initially install them.

Why Stay Programs Work A client of mine once said that they discouraged these kinds of programs since they foster a lot of complaining and venting. (You know, by uncovering the truth and confronting you with reality in a form that is hard to deny.) However, to my way of thinking, the most repeated complaint employees have about their current employer revolves around the fact nobody every asks their opinion or offers to act on their opinion until the day they are LEAVING. So, just by putting pre-termination attitude checks in place, you are going to amaze the heck out of a lot of good people. By creating programs that compensate for information, you are placing a real value on the information you develop and should thereby stimulate people to give you real data. By having senior staff involved and handing out the awards and rewards, you are showing that input is another form of recognition and advancement. After all, anybody ever have an exiting employee tell them, “I am leaving because you people listen to me, react to my input, and respect my opinion. You thoughtful and caring monsters! MONSTERS!”? People rarely leave a company over one issue; rather, it usually the result of the frustration that accumulates when there is no way for them to address issues internally. So they resolve their frustration with the “feet” instead of their “voice.” In my opinion, 75% of all employee issues that ultimately lead to resignations could have been resolved positively by the simple act of listening, sincerely, to the issue and periodic changes in the corporate environment that employees could trace back to their own, or their peers comments and recommendations. Your employees do not expect to always “win,” but they do expect to always be “listened to” when they have something to say, when they want to say it! Exit interviews have their place and are a unique form of punishment (for both the exiting employee and any errant HR/staffing professionals on your staff you want to make miserable). But they merely provide lip service information as to why a particular person has decided not to stay, or the reasons they decided to tell you in lieu of the truth. Any trend analysis data is always 20/20 hindsight and can lead to new policies addressing trends that have already shifted. (Sort of like riding in the last car of a roller coaster, you are still heading down while everybody else is started back up.) People currently employed and totally involved in your company are the key to retention data. But to succeed, remember that you must:

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  • Make it exciting! (Arrange contests and special events.)
  • Pay for the data! (Offer prizes, bonuses, gift certificates.)
  • Act on comments! (Make changes, make it visible.)
  • Get executive backing! (Not just signatures, but active support and encouragement.)

But most importantly:

  • Put someone in charge of the program who truly cares.

Many HR/staffing retention programs fail because their stated mission is, “We Care,” and, horrible truth be told, many of these programs and many of us do not truly care. We are on a “fill in the blanks” data expedition. As with exit interviews, the function of “checking out” an employee’s attitude often gets confused with the act of “checking them out.” (“I see here on your checkout sheet that you still have to turn in some of your office supplies! Is that why you are leaving the company, to steal our staple puller? Hmmm! Answer me! ANSWER ME! Note to self: All office supplies should be stamped in the future with an ID number…”) So listen to them while they still work for you and still want to work for you. Ask them in a way that proves it is important to you. Make it important to them. You see, the exiting employees usually bring up the first thing they can think of because they are in a hurry to get to Chili’s for their going-away party (Probably still have that staple puller in their briefcase). They waited for two years before this day for somebody to ask them what’s wrong while it still mattered to them. But if you waited until now, their last day, to listen, it really doesn’t matter any more, does it? Have a great day recruiting!

Ken Gaffey (kengaffey@comcast.net) is currently an employee of CPS Personal Services (www.cps.ca.gov) and has been involved in the Department of Homeland Security, Transportation Security Administration project since its inception. Prior to this National Security project Ken was an independent human resources and staffing consultant with an extensive career of diversified human resources and staffing experience in the high-tech, financial services, manufacturing, and pharmaceutical industries. His past clients include Hewlett Packard, First Data Corporation, Fidelity Investments, Fleet Bank, Rational Software, Ericsson, Astra Pharmaceutical, G&D Engineering, and other national and international industry leaders. In addition to contributing articles and book reviews to publications like ERE, Monster.com, AIRS, HR Today, and the International Recruiters Newsletter, Ken is a speaker at national and international conferences, training seminars, and other staffing industry events. Ken is a Boston native and has lived in the greater Boston area most of his life. Ken attended the University of South Carolina and was an officer in the United States Marine Corps.

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