Would You Tell Your Boss How You Really Feel About Work? That’s the Point of ‘Stay Interviews’

When someone quits a job they often share valuable insight into what caused their departure—something one HR expert says should be mined earlier
(photo: iStock)

When Heather Wright worked as a human resources coordinator in 2010 with the Canadian Cancer Society, she conducted countless exit interviews. One after another, she watched people leave jobs without looking back—but not before dumping some hard truths onto her lap. She heard about ineffective leadership, dysfunctional teams and difficult interpersonal dynamics. “Leaving employees didn’t really have much to lose,” she says. But, at the exit interview stage, it was too late to make positive changes for those employees—changes that might have convinced them to stay. “I always thought it was such a shame.”

Now, Wright is using those learnings from her early career experiences to stop employee exits well before they happen. As vice president of people and technology at the BC Maritime Employers Association (BCMEA), Wright introduced “stay interviews” to the organization in 2019. They’re exactly what they sound like: an interview that’s conducted with employees while they’re still working at the company rather than when they’re on the way out. The goal is to engage employees to understand how they’re feeling and create conditions that make them want to stay at the organization.

Heather Wright, vice president of people and technology at the BC Maritime Employers Association (BCMEA)
Heather Wright introduced stay interviews to the BCMEA in 2019 (photo: Heather Wright)

On an annual basis, the company’s HR leader calls up to 86 employees spanning eight departments (including training, labour relations and data analytics) to meet one-on-one and talk through 10 open-ended, direct questions like, “When was the last time you thought about leaving the BCMEA? What prompted it?” Daunting for team members not used to being honest about their work-related feelings, yes, but necessary to keep employees happy, committed and engaged, Wright says. After the one-hour interview, departmental themes are anonymized and a summary goes to Wright, the CEO, and the department leader. From there, BCMEA comes up with a plan to address systemic issues plaguing staff.  

High employee engagement is simply good for business. One Gallup study found businesses with engaged workers have 23 per cent higher profit and lower rates of absenteeism and turnover. A 2021 report found that each year, employee turnover costs organizations anywhere from $23,000 to $50,000 depending on the workplace’s size.

Finding out how employees really feel about their job doesn’t happen by accident. Stay interviews at BCMEA were the result of a multi-year mission to improve the organization. In 2017, Wright introduced a 12-question Gallup survey to gauge employee engagement. The first year’s results weren’t stellar; only a quarter of staff felt actively engaged and committed to their job.

“If you ask people their opinion and nothing ever changes, it’s a waste of everybody’s time”

With a mission to up BCMEA’s survey scores, stay interviews were brought in to better understand employees needs: Which talents did they feel weren’t being used? What would they change about their department if they could? Do they see a future at the company? Year-over-year, their score rose.

The company paused the stay interviews for a while when the pandemic hit, but Wright didn’t want the scores to stall out, so early last year, they were re-introduced as a strategic way to gather data on employee satisfaction and enhance the workplace by addressing issues like process inefficiencies. Wright learned the eight-person IT team felt left out from the organization’s overarching strategy. They didn’t see how their daily work added value in the big-picture. Wright says the team wanted a deeper understanding of the company’s purpose, so she met with the IT department leader to schedule a full-day strategy session with the whole group. An outside facilitation expert broke down the company’s current plans, and the IT team collaborated to create their own departmental strategy that feeds into that wider goal. 

Last year’s stay interviews provided candid feedback on management styles, communication strategies that did not work and suggestions for more wellness initiatives. As a result, BCMEA made changes such as adding mental health services to their benefits plan to better support staff. Wright says the approach has paid off. This year, BCMEA has had their highest employee engagement scores to date, with 78 per cent of BCMEA’s employees feeling enthusiastic about both their work and workplace. The national average hovers around 20 per cent

Wright’s method has been instrumental to helping employees feel engaged, and even Gallup are asking for tips on her stay interview process. Her advice? Don’t gather data just for the sake of it, actually put it to use. “If you ask people their opinion and nothing ever changes, it’s a waste of everybody’s time,” she says.

Emily Latimer
Emily Latimer
Emily Latimer is a journalist and fact-checker from Cape Breton Island. She has written for CBC, ELLE Canada, and VICE Canada.