Despite our best efforts to drive frequent, open communication in our 1:1 catch-up meetings, too often we arrive at a point when an employee decides that they want to leave the company, and this frequently comes as a surprise to managers. (Though not always. In my time spent managing people, I’ve had three people who’ve left on my watch, and in all those cases, I was aware of the issues that were likely to make them move on, and was organisationally powerless to stop them.)

We then end up trying to “solve” this problem with an exit interview, which is the dictionary definition of “too little, too late”. It might allow for feedback which allows us to prevent others in the company from reaching that point, but wouldn’t it be better if we felt more comfortable sharing such feedback while we’re still healthy, committed members of the team?

The “stay interview”

I’ve been espousing the benefits of the “stay interview” for many years, yet the concept doesn’t seem to have reached mainstream traction yet. We should all be having this style of conversation, even if we don’t give it such a loaded term.

The idea of a “stay interview” is to regularly (and privately) ask our employees about issues which - if left unchecked - could snowball into a situation where somebody might eventually opt to leave the company. While people do often move-on from organisations for reasons other than job dissatisfaction, wouldn’t it be better if our career moves weren’t always driven by unhappiness?

The sort of questions which you might look to include in a “stay interview” are:

  • What do you enjoy most about your role at the moment?
  • What do you like the least (what would you change if you could)?
  • Where do you feel like your skills are being under-used?
  • When was the last occasion that you thought about leaving, and what triggered it?
  • What scenario might occur in the future which could trigger such a thought?
  • How do you feel about your current work/life balance?
  • What does your “dream job” look like - and how does your current role differ from that?

(For a more thorough list of questions, see Academy to Innovate HR: 21 Best Stay Interview Questions to Ask and Built In: What Is a Stay Interview?.)

Alternatively, as a solo exercise, you could try writing a fake resignation letter. Imagine you were actually announcing your departure today: What reasons would you give for moving on? What sort of company would you theoretically be looking to join instead? What would that company offer you that you’re not getting at the moment? As a result of this, you’ll have a list of talking points with your manager about possible dissatisfaction in your current role, or areas that you’d like to introduce into your role that you’re not currently benefiting from.

(A word of warning though: I wouldn’t draft this “fake resignation” anywhere near your actual email client, or possibly even on your work computer at all. You don’t want to end up one click or one file scan away from accidentally announcing an unintended departure!)

I took similar measures to shift my thinking earlier in the process when considering three competing job offers recently. While I made various lists of pros and cons, I also tried a writing technique: I wrote (but didn’t send!) rejection emails for all three roles, specifying what my reasons would have been for declining each position. I then looked at the issues that I’d identified with each one, spoke to the respective companies to find whether I had room for negotiation which could nullify some of the points, and ultimately learn which of the negatives were insurmountable.

In my case, this ultimately led to my declining an exciting role because it wasn’t financially viable for me to accept it. I was able to negotiate non-fiscal areas of the package which got me very close, and while I’m always an advocate for taking the best role over the highest-paid role, “I’d have to work my arse off to avoid losing our house” is pretty high on the negatives list.

Key takeaways 📝

  • Let’s have discussion about workplace dissatisfaction while it’s still manageable.
  • What would your resignation letter look like if you wrote it today - and are those issues surmountable?
  • Consider using similar techniques during a job search - why would you decline a role, and is there a way around it?