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Quitting Can Be Contagious at a Company. Here’s How to Stop It.

The stay interview—unlike an exit interview—focuses on remaining employees and can give insights into employee turnover.
Illustration: Lars Leetaru

We’re all familiar with “exit interviews”—the discussions with departing workers to figure out why they really decided to leave the company.

But there are two big problems with these discussions. First, they often don’t yield useful information. And second, they focus on the wrong people: the people leaving, instead of the people staying.

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We’re all familiar with “exit interviews”—the discussions with departing workers to figure out why they really decided to leave the company.

But there are two big problems with these discussions. First, they often don’t yield useful information. And second, they focus on the wrong people: the people leaving, instead of the people staying.

This focus is troublesome because there is compelling evidence that one employee’s decision to quit often prompts co-workers to follow suit. The risk of such turnover contagion may be particularly acute right now, as employees increasingly announce news of their resignations on social media, and as labor shortages continue to make headlines.

One powerful practice that addresses these concerns is a different type of conversation—the stay interview—which targets remaining employees following the departure of a co-worker. Though rarely used, these interviews represent an opportunity for leaders to gain richer insights into the causes of employee turnover, and to potentially stop the spread of resignations.

While there is likely not a single best way to conduct these conversations, organizational psychology research and insights from leaders who are currently employing some form of these conversations provide a useful road map.

Whom to approach—and how

The first step is to figure out who should be interviewed. The most obvious answer: Those who worked closely with a departed employee may have the best sense of why the employee actually quit, and be the most likely to think about doing the same.

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But don’t stop there. One human-resources leader I’ve talked to also considers other employees in the company who share the same characteristics as the leaver, in terms of aspects like tenure and performance. The thinking is that if there is an underlying cause of turnover affecting a defined group of employees, such as those at midcareer or those recently turned down for a promotion, stay interviews could help identify these issues and shed light on how to keep others from leaving.

Research indicates that employees will be more likely to feel safe to share their feelings when leaders are authentic and display humility, so being transparent about the purpose of the conversation is also important. If employees don’t understand why the stay interview is being conducted or are caught off-guard by it, they will be less likely to be fully honest.

Finally, the quality of information gathered in stay interviews will depend on how much the employee trusts the interviewer. Ideally, the direct manager will have established this relationship, but because managers are sometimes the cause of employee resignations, it may make sense for the conversations to be led by somebody from HR, a manager from another department, or even a third party.

Focus on the stayer, not the leaver

Although stay conversations are spurred by what is often a negative event—the co-worker’s resignation—they are meant to improve the work lives of remaining employees. So the tone should reflect this positive purpose, and should begin with a focus on the stayer, not the leaver. One executive I’ve talked to recommends using questions such as, “What would delight you this year?” to not only set a positive tone but also to facilitate broader thinking in employees.

The core questions in this first phase of stay interviews should be aimed at giving managers guidance on how to keep the employee from thinking about quitting. To that end, employees need at least one of four types of behavior from their leader to feel satisfied and effective in their jobs.

First, leaders need to show support and concern, and so could begin this part of the stay interview by asking about employee well-being. Questions here could range from those related to overall personal and professional well-being to what specific support an employee may need to help cope with the departure of their co-worker.

Second, employees need to feel leaders have given them the guidance and clear direction they need to do their jobs well, both in general and in the wake of their colleague’s departure. One HR executive I know offers this simple question: “Do you have the tools and resources to do your job successfully?”

Third, employees must feel they are able to participate in decision-making processes related to matters that affect them at work. Because the departure of a colleague can create the need for decisions to be made concerning the future of the work group, the stay interview is the perfect opportunity to assess whether employees feel that they can speak up at work and have their voice heard and respected.

Finally, employees should feel they have opportunities for advancement. Again, a fellow employee’s departure could create opportunities for remaining colleagues to step up and advance their careers; this is a moment to determine whether remaining employees are interested in seizing such opportunities.

Now talk about the leaver

Once the employee knows that the leader has the employee’s interests in mind, the conversation can move on to questions that may that explore why the departing employee quit. Two overarching points I have heard from HR executives about this phase of the stay interview: Be prepared to hear hard truths without getting defensive, and don’t make disparaging comments about the departing employee.

It could be, of course, that the employee doesn’t know—or want to share—the cause. But in cases where the staying employee does share, and it’s related to the company, the leader can ask the employee for insights into addressing the issue.

Action and gratitude

Critically, the leader should commit to taking actions as a result of the information gathered in the conversation. It’s key to gaining trust. As one executive told me: “Asking for feedback and not taking action based on that feedback can be more harmful than just not asking.”

The end of stay interviews should be characterized by gratitude. Over the past decade, organizational psychologists have begun to reveal the profound positive impact that gratitude has on employees. That’s why stay interviews should end with the leader thanking the employee, both for taking the time to share during the conversation and for their service to the organization.

It’s a fitting final gesture, reinforcing that stay interviews aren’t witch hunts to root out malcontents who are thinking of leaving. Rather, they are positive, future-focused conversations, designed to improve the well-being of stayers and improve the culture of the organization. When done properly, these conversations have the potential to turn the loss of a valued employee into a moment of recommitment, strengthening the connection between leaders and their employees.

Dr. Klotz is the Anderson Clayton professor of business administration and an associate professor of management at Mays Business School, Texas A&M University. He can be reached atreports@wsj.com.

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