Exit interviews reveal why people leave their jobs; stay interviews identify why they stay—which may be even more important for retaining your professionals during the Great Resignation.
As part of the hiring process, most employers focus on assessing how well a candidate fits with the firm’s culture and mission. Once hired, performance reviews focus on how well they’re doing and how they can improve, but not on how the organization is meeting the individual’s needs.
A stay interview fills that gap. It’s a one-on-one meeting with your team members separate and apart from performance reviews to talk about what works and what doesn’t work in their current positions.
Money isn’t everything
Biglaw is throwing money around in the hopes of attracting and retaining top partners and associates, but increased pay and bonuses are easy for competitors to match and, therefore, convey no lasting competitive advantage. Asking employees what they value most in their relationship with the organization and seeking to provide it creates sustainable advantages. This is especially important for mid-sized and smaller firms which cannot compete on the basis of salaries and benefits. They must find other ways to differentiate themselves and keep their lawyers and staff members happy.
According to Thomson Reuters Corp.’s “2022 Report on the State of the Legal Market,” law firms lost nearly one-quarter of their associates in 2021. Interestingly, the firms best held onto their associates didn’t give the largest associate pay raises yet maintained billable hours in the same range as those offering top compensation. These findings indicate that money alone isn’t enough to retain valued associates.
Culture and connection
Firm culture is the biggest driver in why people stay. The most enthusiastic long-timers have strong feelings of connection to the social fabric of their organizations. Thus, retention requires improving firm culture by fostering relationships between coworkers and offering intangible benefits that can’t be found elsewhere. Smart law firms focus on providing positive workplace experiences such as promoting empathy, appreciation, and well-being along with a sense of autonomy and control; providing meaningful work with alignment between personal and organizational values and goals; and mentoring with opportunities for growth and development.
The current remote work environment compounds the challenge of doing so, however, because it limits human interaction. That’s why the stay interview is especially important now. Even if conducted virtually, it’s one way to increase communication and connectedness.
Have the conversation
Stay interviews are informal two-way conversations with open-ended questions to foster trust and open communication. Ideally, they occur periodically throughout the year and aren’t tied to the firm’s performance/compensation evaluation cycles. They should be conducted with all team members to avoid the perception that the firm cares only about certain key performers.
What to ask
What you really want to know is: Why do you stay and what will keep you here? It should be a dialogue, rather than a deposition. Below are some questions to get the conversation started and keep it rolling:
- What do you look forward to most/least each work day?
- Do you feel you’re doing meaningful work with clear goals and objectives?
- What are you learning, and what do you want to learn?
- Which of your talents are you not using?
- Do you have the tools and resources to do your job properly and communicate with your colleagues when working remotely? If not, what’s missing?
- Do you feel valued and recognized? If not, how would you like to be recognized?
- What do you like most/least about our culture?
- What are we not doing as a firm that you think we should do?
- What can we do to make your job better for you?
- Would you recommend our firm to job-seeking friends? Why/why not?
- What would make a long-term career with us enticing for you? What would tempt you to leave?
Remember, the goal of the stay interview is to build rapport and connection and, therefore, increase retention. The most important job of the interviewer is to LISTEN with an open mind. Those being interviewed will share openly and honestly only if they trust that they can speak freely without fear of judgement or retaliation.
For the interviewee to feel heard, valued, and supported, you must appear grateful for the feedback. Don’t immediately respond directly to their comments nor react defensively. Simply thank them for their time, summarize the feedback you heard, and let them know when they can expect to hear back from you with a plan.
You must actually follow through on the feedback the interviews solicited and provide a clear sense of what will be different following the discussions. Develop individualized engagement and retention programs responsive to the concerns raised. The effort will backfire if, after everyone devoted their precious time to participate, their concerns were not heard and acted upon.
You don’t need to do everything mentioned in the interviews, but prioritize the requests, especially from those people you can least afford to lose. See how you can provide the tools, resources or opportunities they aren’t currently getting, such as a clear sense of purpose, stretch assignments, greater flexibility, more support and mentoring, greater recognition and, in general, a personalized package that would be hard to find anywhere else.
The best way to hang onto your top lawyers and other professionals is to find out what makes them happy and do your best to deliver it. The stay interview is an excellent investment of your time and effort in that regard. Each should take about 30-60 minutes—which is much less time than it takes to interview a replacement.