As featured in INSIDE Public Accounting

After two full years of pandemic-related upheavals and historic turnover, firm leaders scrambled to keep their people. Stay interviews as opposed to exit interviews, when it’s too late helped determine what team members are looking for to keep them interested, involved and rewarded.

Professionals had plenty of options to work elsewhere, including from their own homes. Larger firms, not to mention firm clients, recruited aggressively throughout the country. Many firms were so short-staffed they were turning away work. Recent data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that through October 2021, an average of 3.8 million workers quit their jobs each month of the year with a record 4.5 million in November the highest average since the bureau began tracking resignations in December 2000.

Stay interviews are just one tool to boost the odds that top performers will remain with the firm. Though not a retention cure-all, these types of thoughtful, genuine, structured conversations improve communication at the very least. If staff feel they are not being heard, that their opinions don’t count and that their supervisors can’t be trusted to solve problems, they’re far more likely to leave, observers say.

To learn more about the successes and missteps that can come with stay interviews, IPA spoke with Chairman of the Board, Greg Kniss of Pasadena, California-based KROST (FY20 net revenue of $57 million) and Yvette Lee, an HR knowledge advisor from the Society of Human Resource Management (SHRM).

KROST has been conducting stay interviews for five years and turnover among managers is extremely low. While Greg acknowledged that he can’t draw a straight line between stay interviews and better retention, communication is ongoing and caring – a goal under any circumstance. “Over time it will continue to pay dividends.” — Greg Kniss

He does know that stay interviews have resulted in at least a few instances of staff moving into different roles based on their interests and skills. One accounting manager, for example, told Kniss that he wasn’t even sure he liked accounting. He moved to auditing, loved it and stayed with the firm. “How would I be able to help him if I didn’t ask him?” — Greg Kniss

One KROST professional moved from tax to wealth management, while another expressed an interest in doing more business development and less technical work. “If they’re good at it and that’s what makes them happy, why the heck wouldn’t I take away billable hours from somebody and say, ‘OK, go do more business development. It’s what makes you happy and it’s what you’re really good at.’ ”

Getting honest answers to potentially uncomfortable questions takes a level of rapport that comes with trust. Lee believes trust is earned over time, and it takes preparation and practice to get stay interviews right. “The more an employer can show that they want to be transparent and get that conversation going, the more employees will be willing to provide feedback.”

Firms looking to conduct stay interviews should pay attention to the following five important C’s:

Culture The foundation of a successful stay interview process is a culture that encourages openness. Make sure it’s clear that supervisors are interested in getting employees’ perspectives, that performance will not be part of the discussion and that the intention is to make it easier for everyone to do their best work.

Coaching Lee recommends coaching supervisors beforehand to do more listening than talking, and to repeat back what they’ve heard to make sure they understand. Avoid confrontation and always thank the interviewees for providing their opinions. At KROST, managers are given guidelines and specific questions to ask. Some of the conversations can be uncomfortable, Kniss says. “It’s a learned skill for some of these folks, so it’s a process.”

Consistency Set a regular schedule. At KROST it’s every 90 days, but the frequency can vary based on the size of the firm and individual circumstances. Some companies target the best and brightest, as KROST does; others interview all employees. Lee suggests that high performers may be recognized and appreciated too late – after they’re gone and the significant gap left in their wake becomes apparent. Stay interviews with all levels can avoid that unfortunate situation. Managers must also put up some guardrails. The conversation shouldn’t turn into a gripe session and interviewers shouldn’t waffle about company policies. “You can’t get caught up in, ‘I hear you, I hate that policy too,’ ” Kniss says.

Compilation Look for common themes among stay interviews and solutions that are unique to the individual. Develop a game plan with managers involved with the employee. “Most of the time we can help and sometimes we can’t,” Kniss says. “Not everyone should be at our firm and sometimes counseling them out is the right answer.”

Communication If you don’t address the concerns or tell interviewees why the company can’t address them, you might as well throw out stay interviews and stop wasting everyone’s time. More flexibility and better benefits are frequent topics in stay interviews, but benefits can’t be changed immediately. Communicate that. “Convey to employees that you’ve heard them, that we may not be able to fix everything overnight, but these are the things we can move forward with sooner than later,” Lee says. Sometimes an employee simply wants to communicate how difficult their job is. “Even a thank you for what they do can go a long way.”

You can’t stick your head in the sand and hope everyone likes it at your firm, Kniss says. “We’ve got to stay in front of them and make sure we know what’s going on in their heads, make sure they’re happy, and make sure we’re doing all the things we can to be sure they’re happy.” Not everyone gets what they want, he continues, “but being heard is super important.”

Five Questions to Ask During Stay Interviews: These questions, suggested by SHRM and used by KROST, were developed by Dick Finnegan, author of The Power of Stay Interviews for Engagement and Retention.

  1. What do you look forward to each day when coming to work? Follow-ups: Give me an example. Tell me more about that. Who do you look forward to working with the most?
  2. What are you learning here? Follow-ups: Which other jobs here look attractive to you? What skills do you think are required for those jobs? What skills would you have to build to attain those jobs or some responsibilities of those jobs?
  3. Why do you stay here? Follow-ups: Tell me more about why that is so important to you. Is that the only reason you stay or are there others? If you narrowed your reasons to stay to just one, what would it be?
  4. When is the last time you thought about leaving and what prompted it? Follow-ups: Tell me more about how that happened. Who said what? What’s the single best thing I can do to make
    that better for you? How important is that to you now on a 1-10 scale?
  5. What can I do to make working here better for you? Follow-ups: Do I tell you when you do something well? Do I say and do things to help you do your job better? What are three ways I can be a better manager for you? IPA

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