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Stay Interviews

For decades, labs have struggled to find clear solutions to better engage and retain their best employees. At some point, doesn’t it make sense to say, “Why don’t we just ask them?”

by Dick Finnegan
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The Power of Engagement and Retention in Your Lab

For decades, labs have struggled to find clear solutions to better engage and retain their best employees. At some point, doesn’t it make sense to say, “Why don’t we just ask them?”

Well, we do ask them. We ask them through engagement surveys, opinion surveys, climate surveys, and exit surveys. We survey online, over the phone, and with live and recorded voices. These surveys generate reports, and from reports come scores and rank orders, which then become benchmarks. From benchmarks we set goals to improve our scores on the next survey.

The primary outcome of all our surveys is that we build programs. To improve recognition, we add employee appreciation week and employee of the month. To improve communications, we hold town hall meetings and write more informative newsletters. To improve careers, we hold brown bag lunches and career fairs.

Our employees tell us that this ongoing survey process makes them feel like hamsters on a wheel. In the beginning, it made sense to use expanding technologies to measure employees’ opinions as a pathway to improvement. But over time, these surveys have morphed into redundant administrative processes that effect few new outcomes. Instead, they have become periodic rituals like preparing budgets, leading to jaded comments like, “Is it that time again?”

The good news is that we have a better way to strengthen each employee’s engagement and retention, and that better way is simple.

The good and bad news about surveys

Let’s look at the ways organizations use employee surveys and examine what works and what doesn’t work.

Exit surveys can be called “the original retention tool.” We have long believed that knowing why employees leave will direct us to retention solutions for survivors. But, although based on logical thinking, exit surveys rarely lead to retention or engagement solutions. The primary obstacles are the following:

  • Departing employees often do not tell the truth.
  • Employee participation is too low in part because surveys are too long.
  • Surveys are designed to accept “attendance” and “better opportunity” as reasons for leaving, which fail to trigger solutions.
  • Companies are reluctant to make policy or management changes based on “autopsies,” on the words of employees who no longer work there.

In the past year, I have polled hundreds of HR professionals to determine if they had ever improved their companies based on exit survey results. The number who indicated they had improved their companies in any way was zero.

The belief that exit surveys are a musthave tool has been reinforced by vendors that have leveraged technology to make gathering survey data easier for HR executives. Companies now purchase electronically delivered exit surveys that lead to pages of reports telling them how departing employees rated their pay, benefits, communications, and other variables. Missing too often is the answer to why the employee left, although there is no guarantee that executives could improve their companies if they actually knew.

One way to measure the effectiveness of employee surveys is to ask, “Will our resulting action plan lead to improved engagement and retention for our top performers?” The real answer is you just don’t know.

The Stay Interview advantage

A Stay Interview is a structured discussion a leader conducts with each employee to learn the specific actions he or she must take to strengthen that employee’s engagement with and retention in the organization.

Stay Interviews do three things that surveys do not: They bring information that can be used today; they give insights for engaging and retaining individual employees, including top performers; and they put managers in the solution seat for developing individual stay plans. Gone are the following obstacles to and distractions from implementing real engagement and retention solutions:

  • Time delays. Delays occur along the way, from surveying employees to distributing reports to writing action plans to implementing those actions. How soon does data become stale?
  • Watered-down solutions. Since all data is aggregated into groups, only group fixes can be developed, which applies a broad-brush approach to all employees regardless of whether they are your best or worst performers.
  • Short-term, feel-good programs. Programs like casual Fridays or free coffee do nothing to improve supervisory skills and ultimately have no bearing on whether employees stay, leave, or increase their engagement.

How much can your lab improve engagement and retention with programs alone, without effective day-to-day supervision and leadership? When is the last time you heard a good employee say, “My boss treats me like dirt, but I’m holding on for employee appreciation week? I’ll get a balloon and a hot dog, and I’ll be recharged for another 52 weeks”?

Leaders who substitute morale-improvement programs for fine-tuned supervision skills take few steps if any toward actually becoming better leaders.