by Steven Hacker | April 01, 2017

Change is both exhilarating and terrifying for most people, and the same holds true for associations. In these times, when the pace of change is accelerating, it can frequently cause significant stress and instability. One of the areas where associations tend to see regular change—and some groups experience it more than others—is employment. Chances are, your association is among the vast majority of nonprofits struggling with employee retention, which is not only disruptive but very expensive. The challenge is especially daunting for nonprofit associations because they are competing for qualified personnel against larger businesses that possess greater resources with which to woo a finite pool of desirable talent. Yet, amidst all the turmoil and frustration, there are many common-sense and simple solutions that remain largely untapped.

The Real Cost of Turnover. Employee turnover directly impacts an organization’s performance. Again, this is especially the case for small businesses and nonprofit associations that generally employ fewer people, and often a departing employee’s unique skills, knowledge and history with a group cannot easily be replaced by the remaining staff, even temporarily. In general, when an experienced employee leaves, it takes a long time to replace, orient and train the new hire. Inevitably, customer service and support suffer, as does staff morale, to say nothing of management’s frustrations.

In 2016, the Society for Human Resources Management conducted a comprehensive survey of company employment practices—the Human Capital Benchmarking Report—and determined that, on average, it takes 42 days to fill a vacant position at an acquisition cost of $4,129. As much as I respect the work of the Society for Human Resources Management, I believe the real costs of attrition are significantly higher. An article (“Employee Retention Now a Big Issue: Why the Tide has Turned”) written by Josh Bersin, principal and founder of the research and advisory firm Bersin by Deloitte, confirms that some studies reveal the total cost of losing an employee can range from tens of thousands of dollars to as much as twice that person’s annual salary.

Bersin identified some of the additional and subtler costs required to replace a departed employee; they may include:

● The cost of hiring a new person (advertising, interviewing, screening, hiring)

● The cost of onboarding a new person (training, management time)

● Lost productivity (it may take a new person one to two years to reach the productivity of the former employee)

● Lost engagement by other employees, which can result in lost productivity

● Customer service errors because new employees often take longer to solve problems and tend to be less adept at doing so

● Training cost (over two to three years, an organization likely invests 10 to 20 percent of an employee’s salary—or more—in training)

● Cultural impact (whenever someone leaves, others take time to ask why).

Regardless of the cost, employee attrition demands that management do everything it can to retain valued employees.

Keeping Employees Engaged. The 2015 book “Hello Stay Interviews, Goodbye Talent Loss: A Manager’s Playbook” by Beverly Kaye and Sharon Jordan-Evans is a gem for anyone concerned about employee retention. In a recent interview, Kaye, founder of Career Systems International, noted that “common sense is uncommonly practiced.” This simple thought is emblematic of her approach to many complex workplace issues. Take the common exit interview. Typically a manager conducting such an interview for an about-to-depart employee will ask questions like, “How could your job satisfaction have been improved?” or “What changes would you recommend we consider?”

Kaye correctly observed that, while these questions offer useful insights, asking them to someone during an exit interview is not at all likely to convince the departing employee to reconsider his or her decision to leave. It’s too late by then. Instead, employers should conduct periodic “stay” interviews that are designed to retain a valued team member.

This makes so much sense that it’s puzzling why such interviews haven’t become universal workplace tools. Kaye said she developed the concept in 1997 while working with a client that was worried about losing a key group of talented employees. Kaye suggested asking those employees questions like, “What will keep you here?” and then use the responses to build retention strategies.

While it is far from a common employment practice yet, the stay interview is quickly gaining adherents. Why now? Simple: the economy. During and immediately following the Great Recession, the job market was so severely downsized that those with jobs were reluctant to explore alternatives. Things have changed dramatically and many employers are hungering for new talent. This makes it essential to ramp up employee-retention strategies or face what could be an uptick in attrition.

Apart from helping retain existing talent, the stay interview can become an effective tool with which to engage employees, encourage commitment and increase productivity. It is designed, Kaye wrote, “for the not-so-simple task of letting talented people know that you value them, need them and want them to remain as contributing members of your team.”

Stay Interview Basics. Kaye defines the stay interview as:

● A conversation between a manager and a valued employee

● An opportunity to learn more about an employee and to show you care

● A chance to find out what might keep an employee at the organization and/or on the team

● A chat that causes an employee to feel highly valued

● A process found most effective when repeated often.

Why aren’t more organizations using stay interviews? Kaye believes it’s because employers may be afraid of the answers they receive, such as, “I would like a salary increase or more time off.” No need to shy away from those requests; instead, Kaye recommends that employers address them as follows:

1. Acknowledge: Praise an employee by saying, “You are worth that and more to me.”

2. Tell the truth: “I’d like to say yes, but I will need to investigate the possibility. I’m honestly not sure what I can do immediately, given recent budget cuts.”

3. Care enough: “I hear your request. I’ll chat with human resources and my manager about it and get back to you by next Friday with answers and a possible timeline for a raise.”

4. Ask “What else?”: This demonstrates interest. For example, “Meanwhile, what else matters to you? What else are you hoping for?”

Remember to use your own words and vary your words with each interview so you remain sincere. Also key: You must frequently repeat the question “What else?” Because while you may not be able to secure the salary increase, asking “What Else?” will often reveal other important issues that you can manage, such as accommodating a regular non-work obligation or allowing the employee to assume an expanded role. You never know what might be important unless you ask.

You may be thinking that your annual performance evaluations are enough—perhaps that’s when you talk about an individual’s career-development planning or just have a soft discussion of career goals—but while that’s fine, it doesn’t get to the heart of what will keep an employee working for you. The stay interview will because it contains important manager-employee discussions. The question “What will keep you here?” might prompt a discussion about issues that include work-life balance concerns, how to manage conflict with a teammate or what your employees really want and need from you, said Kaye.

An Idea for Our Times. It has been a long time since I’ve read a book that impressed me as much as “Hello Stay Interviews, Goodbye Talent Loss.” Likewise, if you find some of the nuggets that I’ve mined helpful, consider picking up copies for your management team and begin conducting regular periodic stay interviews. You and your valued employees will be glad you did.