Ask these 3 questions to improve employee retention

Written by Bekah Regan, Consultant
Previously published by PSI Talent Management or Cubiks, prior to becoming Talogy.

I recently read an article on Harvard Business Review about best practices for exit interviews. Exit interviews can be an effective tool for understanding certain drivers of turnover at your organization. However, like many interventions, they are necessarily reactive. Identifying trends and patterns in turnover at your organization requires data – which means you must wait for people to turnover prior to considering the “why.”

Certainly, there are proactive approaches to reducing turnover as well. Some turnover can be prevented by investing in leadership training, ensuring competitive pay/benefits, creating a desirable culture, etc. Many of these approaches can be large-scale, costly, and long-term. Unfortunately, even when we know what’s best for the organization, we can’t always implement or act upon that knowledge due to business or resource constraints. 

Smaller grassroots interventions may be a more viable solution, which is what caught my attention in the HBR article. The authors suggest conducting regular retention conversations with employees. Specifically, they propose three questions to drive conversations regarding career satisfaction and improve employee retention:

  1. Are we helping you be effective in your current job?
  2. Are we helping you build a successful career?
  3. Are we helping you have a fulfilling life?

What I love about this recommendation is that it’s high on simplicity and impact. Together, these three questions cover essential ground (succession planning, career satisfaction, and burnout). The answers to these questions can help managers generate ideas on how to better serve employees across the organization. One person’s comments and opinions may be shared by many, so they could be the launching point for org-wide improvement before people leave for greener pastures.

Secondly, these questions are personal. Org-wide surveys on engagement and continuous improvement are valuable for high-level interventions.  However, these surveys don’t provide information on an employee’s personal values, dreams, and limits. Individualized consideration is part of what makes a great leader, but managers must first learn about the individual in order to do this effectively. Asking these questions affords managers the opportunity to get to know their employees. It opens the door for conversations about career goals, the work-life balance meter, and the employee’s current frustrations. Armed with this information, managers are better equipped to build relationships, engage employees, alleviate stress, advocate for employees’ needs, and develop attractive career paths within the organization. At the same time, it provides employees a voice; it says “I see you, I hear you, I care about you…and I’m going to do something about it.” 

Finally, prioritizing these questions during regular check-ins bolsters current research and popular opinion that indicate consistent, ongoing feedback is more fruitful than less frequent touch points. Rather than having these conversations at the end or beginning of the year, conduct the retention conversation at regular intervals. Similar to new “pulse” surveys, which aim to gather real-time data on the current state of the organization, incorporating these questions regularly ensures that managers are not caught off guard by low morale, dissatisfaction, or burnout – or even worse, a feeling of regret (“If only I had known he/she felt this way, I could have X.”).

Further, it’s easy for check-ins with managers to focus on the tactical nature of the job. For example, discussing the status of current projects, where he/she stands on certain metrics, and sharing advice on how to handle a tough situation.  Here’s a suggestion – start a regular check-in with the three retention questions, then discuss the tactical issues if there’s time. Your work will get done. It always does. But, understanding and accounting for the drivers of turnover can, and should, begin now. 

As my favorite running quote states: “Think you’ll run tomorrow? Remember, you said that yesterday.” So, start now, before tomorrow’s fires start burning.

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