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Retention Interviews

I met Daniel, one of my ex-colleagues, just outside the office. “So, how was your exit interview with the senior manager?” I asked him. “Well, he asked me some questions. I tried to be as diplomatic and discreet as possible.” “But why, an exit interview is supposed to find out the real reasons that made the employee quit, isn’t it?” “Well, tell me one reason why I have to be honest. Who knows, I may require my ex-head again, for example my new company may ask him for a reference.” “Anyways, this interview isn’t going to help me, will it?” he added.

The last line the expresses the basic flaw of the concept of an exit interview. The rationale of an exit interview is to find out the reasons why the employee quit, so that data can be collected and measures can be taken to improve working conditions and to retain employees. Definitely, the maxim 'If you don’t take care of your employees, someone else will' holds good even today. However, getting the proper data is the issue. The fact that an ex-employee may be highly unwilling to divulge the real reasons coupled with the fact that he may not expect any change in the company as a result of this exercise contributes to the employee giving a socially acceptable reason for leaving. This makes gathering of the genuine facts difficult.

Trying to find the reasons why an employee quit after he has taken the decision is like a post-match analysis on how the match could have been played differently. By that time, the match is already over. Prevention is better than cure. And this is where the retention interview comes into picture.

Retention interviews are interviews conducted in order to know the factors that are responsible for the incumbent still working in the company, rather than the factors that led to his resignation. It is more of a proactive analysis of why things are going well, instead of what is wrong. At times when companies actively try to welcome the views and opinions of their employees and seek an open dialogue, these kinds of interviews do give employees the opportunity to enlighten their superiors about their concerns. And since work-environment, employee perception, etc cannot be quantified, it acts as a feedback to the HR department as well as to which of it initiatives have gone well and which have to be discontinued.

Benefits of a retention Interview

The first and foremost benefit of a retention interview is to help understand what the employees expect from their job and their superiors. What are the factors that have contributed to him still staying with the company? In times when newer strategies to involve the staff and create a better work environment are being churned out frequently, it pays to know where the glass is not broken and where a huge crisis lays waiting.

Another gain is that it helps a manager to understand the motivation of each of his employees. Different stokes for different folks. Different people stay in the company for different reasons. Finding these reasons can help the manger reduce the attrition rate.

Also they help to gauge how the employee perceives different initiatives directed at employee welfare. Due to the fact that employee acceptance of different initiatives cannot be easily quantified, it serves as a good response mechanism to comprehend the effects and appreciate the opinions of the staff on various schemes.

The fourth benefit of the retention interview is that if a substantial number of employees appreciate a specific initiative in a department, attempts can be made to implement the same initiative in other departments as well. Similarly if sizable part of the staff has a similar issue, the HR department can attempt to customize new initiatives to suit specific sets of employees. For example, a company where I worked previously, many married women appreciated the flexible timing option which allowed them to finish their daily chores and then come to the workplace.

Alfie Kohn, in his book ‘Punished by Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A’s, Praise, and Other Bribes’, stresses the three C’s of motivation – collaboration, content, and choice. People feel more motivated to work hard when they are inspired to cooperate, when they understand how their work adds value to the organization, and when they feel empowered to make decisions about their work. Here is how a retention interview helps to address all the three C’s.

Collaboration: Kohn says “People are able to do a better job in well-functioning groups than they can on their own. They are also likely to be more excited about their work.” Retention interviews send the message to the staff that we are concerned of you. We would like to know from you, since we respect your position as an important stakeholder of the company; about the steps we could take to improve your work conditions, and in turn drive the company to the next level, thus encouraging the exchange of ideas and fostering cooperation.

Content: In a survey of industrial workers from 1946-1986, people were asked what they looked for in a job. ‘Good wages’ was fifth out of ten possible factors. In a more recent survey, interesting work was number one. Therefore a very good way to enthuse employees is by providing them with exciting, stimulating tasks. But this can be done only if the manger knows what excites or demotivates an employee, and a retention interview helps in understanding this.

Choice: In Kohn’s own words, “We are most likely to become enthusiastic about what we are doing...when we are free to make decisions about the way we carry out a task.” Empowering the employee to decide how they want to do the work, as long as it does not affect the company, is a very good way to increase employee motivation. Avoiding remote controlling employees and giving them the opportunity to have a say in decisions regarding the organization is a sure way of increasing the employee’s motivation and commitment to the organization.

Factors affecting a retention interview

The first concern is trust. The employees need to believe that any opinion against an existing policy will be viewed in an introspective way, not in a vindictive manner. In other words, the company culture can turn these interviews into a successful exercise or a farce. The general image of the managers plays a very crucial role. If the company culture is secretive, the employees would be hesitant for the fear of upsetting the apple cart. A retention interview is far more likely to glean useful and genuine information if the work environment is more supportive, and superiors are trusted by the staff.

Another issue that affects the performance and the interest of the staff towards a retention interview is the outcome of previous such interviews. Any sensible person would agree that not every suggestion can be put in practice; however it is important that at least some suggestions are used. What does lack of action suggests to the employees? Either your suggestions are actually not solicited or they are so absurd that they are not worth a second thought. None of these help to better the relationship. Therefore not acting on any of the suggestions and lack of results at ground level definitely erodes the credibility of these feedback sessions and goes a long way in reducing interest and participation in such events in the future. Will Latham, a consultant in Charlotte, NC, puts this fact in a very candid way in the article 'Practice Pointers: How to give and receive employee feedback', on the Medical Economics website - "No matter how you elicit feedback, if you're going to ask your employees what needs to be improved in your practice, be prepared to act in some way," says Latham. "Otherwise, employees feel that their thoughts go into a black hole. I'm not saying do exactly what they want, but indicate that you've heard the feedback and are acting on at least some of it."


The words of Paul Niven in the book ‘Balanced Scorecard: Step-by-Step for Government and Nonprofit Agencies’ says it all, ‘Creativity tends to flourish in workplaces where employees are informed, inspired and involved’. With job-hopping becoming the rule rather than the exception and employee retention strategies becoming a top priority, it is very essential to know what is going right, and not just what is going wrong. A retention interview is definitely one of the important tools to achieve this end. It can play a substantial role in reducing attrition and in encouraging an active dialogue between the superiors and the staff.

To end it, I would like to remind everyone about this highly acclaimed individual. This man wanted to quit his company as he was disillusioned with the bureaucratic system of his company which did not allow his ideas to be heard by the upper echelons of the management. However, a young executive convinced him to stay. This man went on to be the CEO of that company and was named "Manager of the Century" by Fortune magazine in 1999.

And his name is Jack Welch.

Could you afford the loss of a Jack Welch?

Author - K. R. Ramakrishnan

Comments Listing
Posted: 15/06/2013 01:40:50

Definitely food for thought. When a company starts losing employees it pays to ask why the others are staying, so you can do more of it and to a wider audience.

Posted: 17/01/2013 00:40:18

Great Article 2 read and follow .....Thanks a lot for sharing

Posted: 31/05/2012 10:57:30

Excellent article I must say !!!

Posted: 18/04/2011 03:50:44

Amazing...loved your article..very helpful to me atleast.. Thanx a lot...

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