Stay Conversations as a Retention Tool. Have the Conversations Now.

By Leah Flynn Gallant, Ph.D.

Do you know your team? I mean really know them? According to Gallup, 52% of voluntary resignations are preventable. We cannot assume that our staff is engaged, and we cannot assume that the work that they do is fulfilling to them or to the organization. In order to prevent resignation on your team try having a stay conversation.

Stay conversations are a way to deter having to have exit interviews. While both conversations ask very similar questions (What is/was your favorite part of the job? Least favorite? What keeps/kept you working here?), people often argue that exit interviews may be too little, too late to ask those questions. Stay conversations on the other hand are conversations that happen during and throughout an employee’s tenure, not on the last day.

Stay conversations are “periodic, 1:1 discussion between manager and employee”. Questions asked during stay conversations identify and reinforce the things that are driving an employee’s engagement and identify and minimize triggers that might cause them to leave. For example, some of the questions could be: What do you look forward to coming to when you come to work each day? What do you like least about working here? If you could change something about your job, what would it be? What keeps you working here? These questions help get at how engaged (or not) your staff are. 

Stay conversations are two-way conversations designed to learn more about the employee. This is not the time for a manager to interject and/or coach; instead, it is a time for a manager to listen and to take notes, to find out what drives and engages staff and what could make their work experience better. It is not a time to make empty promises, like promotions and raises. (Those questions and discussions should be had with members of your HR team if these questions do arise during the conversation). Stay conversations are future-oriented and are meant to be followed with additional conversations. Subsequent meetings is when the manager and employee can develop an action plan together based on the initial conversation. For example, if there is something that in particular that would keep the staff member engaged (i.e. chair a committee, present to senior staff), make a plan to follow up and through on that request. This action emphasizes to the staff member that you are listening and that you care about their engagement and development. If someone says that the best part of their day is lunch, dig into why. Is it because they get to interact with colleagues? With students? How can you create more moments in their day that is like that and also benefits the institution?

Stay conversations are not to be confused with annual review or career development meetings. While a stay conversation can certainly lead to a more in-depth conversation about a staff member’s career development, it is more about staying abreast of your employee’s current engagement and keeping them engaged. Unlike annual reviews that are used to discuss performance and set goals for the upcoming year, stay conversations are more informal and an opportunity for staff to respond to manager’s questions and for the manager to listen.

Stay conversations are the most successful when there is some trust between the manager and employee. An employee that does not fully trust their manager will not be as forthcoming in the conversation, or perhaps not want to have the conversation at all. That’s why it’s important to start slow, and use the opportunity to ask some basic questions, “What are things that you are most excited about in your work? What things could you use more help with? What barriers could be removed, and what resources do you need to help you be more successful?” It’s never too late to build a foundation and culture of trust. In fact, stay conversations are shown to lead to more trusting relationships between managers and their staff. It’s important to prepare employees for these conversations before you have that meeting.

 Managers should let employees know that this is 1:1 time is to find out what is keeping them engaged at work. What gets them excited and what do they want more of and out of their work? These periodic conversations keep a manager’s “finger on the pulse” of what staff needs and therefore increasing overall retention of the team. Managers that demonstrate care and understanding of their staff’s overall engagement have lower turnover and higher attrition rates. Having frequent conversations will not only build trust between managers and their team members, it will also provide managers with valuable information about their staff and aid in future succession planning and strengthening their talent bench. It is easy to argue “I don’t have time to have one more conversation or meeting in my day,” however, having these conversations now will save precious time in the long run, prevent frequent turn-over, increase engagement and productivity overall, and reduce stress. Have the conversation now.

Leah Gallant Talent Development Consultant and Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Officer, MIT Dr. Gallant is currently the Talent Development Consultant and Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Officer at MIT’s Office of Resource Development and the Alumni Association. Dr. Gallant has over 20 years of progressive experience working in higher education, including building and facilitating teams and navigating complex organizations.

Dr. Sandra Miles
Head of Practice, Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion
Sandra joined Academic Impressions in 2022 having served as a leader and administrator in higher education for two decades. She has served as a subject-matter expert for Academic Impressions, facilitating trainings and workshops in higher-ed. Her passion is making DEI concepts resonate for individuals from all walks of life.