Retention Strategy — Why Do People Stay In Their Jobs

A better question is: why do you stay in your job.

This more positive approach gives significantly different answers than the traditional exit interviews. Just as a marketing expert focuses on a product's best qualities, you must focus on the reasons why people stay in their jobs. Reinforcing these factors are generally easier and more successful than trying to eliminate the frustrating elements of a job that cause people to leave!

Pre-exit interviews: how to find out why workers stay and what they expect in a job

Asking people when they leave (why they are leaving?) isn't the same as asking them why they stay. Giving people more of what “they like” normally is just easier than fixing all of the "problems" or things they don’t like. There are several approaches to take:

One, ask workers why they stay using one or more of these tools:

  • Team interviews

  • Questionnaires/ Surveys

  • One-on-one discussions with their manager (or HR)

Getting managers to talk to employees is such a powerful tool that it beats the other options hands down. I recommend splitting employees into Hi-Pers and others, because I find it makes a bigger difference in productivity. I don't ignore the average employee, Targeting hi-turnover and “key” jobs is also an effective strategy. Since it’s time consuming and expensive to do every employee just start with the ones that bring in the big bucks and have more choices/ opportunities to leave.

What should you ask them?

  • Why do you stay (people, job, rewards, job content etc.)?
  • What do you like best about your job, co-workers, and management?
  • What challenges/excites you?
  • What do you want more of and less of?
  • Describe your dream job? (Someday you would like to _____?)
  • If you ran the place what would you do differently?
  • Do the people you report to listen to and value your ideas/ decisions?
  • Do you feel people think you make a difference (do you feel you make a difference)?
  • Do you get all the information you need to do you job?
  • If you ever considered leaving…what kind of “trigger” would it take to get you to consider leaving?

Training/coaching managers on how to do Pre-exit interviews is a bit of a problem depending on how good your managers are. A less desirable alternative is to have HR people do the interviews.

A second option is to educate your employees of what they can and should expect from their managers. The following are the 6 most common manager controlled reasons why people quit their jobs. Although initially promising employee’s “better treatment” this will cause some waves it helps force managers to return to the “basics” of good supervision. I usually suggest you tell them to expect:

  • Open two way communication
  • Recognition for good work
  • An opportunity to be challenged
  • An opportunity to grow and learn
  • Some control over their work/ work environment
  • An opportunity to fix any negative aspects of their performance

Other Approaches

  • Use market research tools like focus groups to identify issues and reasons that may drive workers to leave.

  • Do a “pulse” (of the organization) e-mail survey of a random number of your employees on a monthly / quarterly basis. Ask them in a 1-minute survey what would cause their co-workers to consider leaving and on a 1-10 scale how likely their co-workers were actively looking for another job.

Post-exit interviews Expect to find a significant difference in the answers you get from post-exit interviews or questionnaires (as opposed to traditional exit interviews) because:

  1. Former employees are less emotional 6 months later.

  2. They have had time to reflect and compare "us"
    to their new situation.

  3. And they no longer have the need for a "good" reference
    from their manager "restricting" their answers.


Have a process in place for using the results of the survey to improve the way we manage. If you just put the answers in the employee file or if management does not actually act on the results…stop the process.

Don't be surprised if the answers you get differ significantly from your traditional exit interviews! Expect the top reasons for leaving to be:

  1. Poor management and

  2. Lack of challenge/ excitement!

Most do. Also, don't be surprised that you are already aware of who the "bad" managers are and…that top management will be resistant to do anything.

Alternatives or supplements to post-exit interviews include:

  • A "Why employees stay" survey, where you ask current employees the reasons they like (or stay in) their current job.

  • A "Barriers to your productivity" (and frustrating things that could easily be changed) survey where you try to identify things that prevent employees from being the most productive.

What does a post-exit interview questionnaire look like?

Send them a paper survey with a $5 bill attached (For their time. It will probably double your response rate). Pre-test it, so you are sure it can be done in 15 minutes or less.

Ask questions related to:

  • What were the positive things about your job/manager/company that caused you to STAY as long as you did with us?

  • Are there any aspects in your CURRENT job/manager/company that are superior to what we offered?

  • What were the 3 biggest BARRIERS to productivity in the last 6 months with us?

  • Can you help us improve the way we manage/ do business by telling us what were the significant "triggers" or REASONS that made you to decide to leave our firm.

  • Can you let us know the TOP 5 significant reasons for leaving us:
    (1= most important reason, 2= next most important, etc up to 5 reasons, in descending order of importance)
    • Working conditions
    • Co-workers/ team
    • Actions by my manager
    • Lack of action by my manager
    • Actions by top management
    • Lack of action by top management
    • Compensation issues
    • Benefits issues
    • Reasons unrelated to my job
    • Lack of challenge / job growth
    • Lack of promotional opportunities
    • Insufficient training
    • Inadequate equipment/ tools/ support
    • Poor communications (mostly from __________________)
    • Lack of job security
    • Not appreciated/ lack of recognition by my manager
    • Issues related to our product, customers or firm performance
    • An offer I couldn't refuse
    • Other (specify ________________________)
    • Other (specify ________________________)
    • Other (specify ________________________)

Are there any other comments or suggestions that you can offer that might help us IMPROVE the way we manage/ operate?

About Dr John Sullivan

Dr John Sullivan is an internationally known HR thought-leader from the Silicon Valley who specializes in providing bold and high business impact; strategic Talent Management solutions to large corporations.

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