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Overwhelmed by Employee Turnover? Have Stay Conversations

Overwhelmed by Employee Turnover? Have Stay Conversations

by Denise McLain and Iseult Morgan

Story Highlights

  • Nearly half of U.S. workers are watching or hunting for job opportunities
  • Robust retention strategies should include stay conversations
  • These proactive conversations do more than reduce employee turnover

Picture your star performer, that champion employee who exceeds expectations and embraces challenges enthusiastically. By all accounts, they are committed to their job and contribute positively to your work culture. From your perspective, they'll be a valued team member for years to come.

Now imagine that this talented employee has been quietly craving new challenges at work -- opportunities to learn new skills and earn more prestige. In fact, they've dropped subtle hints in passing, but they don't feel comfortable voicing their needs in a direct manner. They feel overlooked and have been pondering opportunities outside your organization. "What else is there?"

Too many organizations have employees like this -- with one foot out the door, unbeknownst to leaders. A recent Gallup analysis showed that nearly half of U.S. workers (48%) are actively job searching or watching for job opportunities.

You might assume this loss is inevitable, but it's not: 52% of voluntarily exiting employees say their manager or organization could have done something to prevent them from leaving their job.

The best leaders don't wait for signs of trouble: They take preventive action to keep their talented people.

One of the best ways to outmaneuver turnover is to have frequent, meaningful conversations with employees. Now more than ever, leaders need to enable supportive conversations with employees about their wellbeing, job expectations, development goals and more -- factors that influence employees' willingness to stay.

These "stay" conversations not only reveal risk factors for turnover but also show employees that you truly care. Through stay conversations, leaders and managers learn more about what motivates employees and how to make their work experience better. In turn, leaders can make informed changes that improve their holistic employee experience -- and ultimately, earn employees' loyalty and commitment.

What are stay conversations? Why have them?

Stay conversations are one-on-one conversations designed to learn more about the employee, including their passions and career goals, what they value in life, and what they need to be more successful in their role. Effective stay conversations are two-way exchanges that get to the heart of the individual's needs, motivations and engagement drivers.

Stay conversations are one-on-one conversations designed to learn more about the employee, including their passions and career goals, what they value in life, and what they need to be more successful in their role.

Stay conversations are not one-and-done discussions: They should be one of many coaching conversations managers regularly have with employees. Gallup has identified five coaching conversations that empower managers to show support, cultivate performance and strengthen employee development.

Managers can easily incorporate stay questions into any of the five coaching conversations. Coaching conversations are the ideal setting for stay questions because they're designed to discuss goals, priorities, successes, performance barriers, and ways managers and employees can form stronger partnerships.

The following practices can help leaders and managers facilitate stay conversations that engage employees and reveal actionable insights.

Set the Stage

Before stay conversations, managers should tell employees what to expect, including topics for discussion and the intended outcome -- particularly managers' desire to support employees.

Advance notification allows for a more productive, enjoyable dialogue because it gives employees time to reflect on their perspective, goals and needs. It can also help managers steer the conversation toward topics other than compensation.

Plus, communicating the purpose of the conversation -- to better employees' lives at work -- reiterates that managers genuinely care.

Establish Ownership

Like all coaching conversations, effective stay conversations are future-oriented: They emphasize follow-up and next steps. To this end, managers should end stay conversations by establishing action items and accountability -- including what they expect from employees and what employees can count on them to do.

Further, leaders should hold managers accountable for having ongoing coaching conversations with their direct reports. Crucially, leaders should give managers the space, freedom and authority to remove barriers to exceptional work that they uncover during stay conversations.

And for issues that are outside managers' control, leaders should provide a clear process for escalating concerns, including follow-up from leaders with decision-making authority.

Use a Holistic Approach

A dialogue with employees reveals their current needs, development goals, future aspirations and experiences in the work culture. The best workplaces complement these manager-employee conversations with organization-wide stay surveys and analytics.

Quantitative studies highlight at-risk groups and offer additional perspectives on retention drivers and predictors of turnover. With analytics, leaders can identify frustration points -- like inadequate resources in a particular division -- and success strategies, like a flexible work approach that dramatically improved employee productivity.

That is, when leaders have a holistic stay strategy, they can implement a data-driven, targeted retention plan before regrettable loss happens.

Develop Managers

The manager's role in stay conversations is paramount -- in fact, 70% of the variance in team engagement is determined by the manager.

Great managers serve as coaches who have authentic, frequent, individualized conversations with their people. Coaches give employees the opportunity to vocalize their ideas and feedback, and then they listen to understand.

In many organizations that Gallup works with, people leaders are often responsible for their own portfolio of work -- and they don't consider coaching or employee development part of their "day job." Yet, managers need a coaching mindset to have effective conversations that develop employees' unique strengths, cultivate their performance and propel them in their career.

Like any other skill set, coaching skills must be nourished and developed. Transformative learning experiences -- like the Boss to Coach Journey -- give managers the research-based tools and resources they need for coaching conversations.

The Far-Reaching Benefits of Stay Conversations

Stay conversations have a ripple effect that extends beyond employee turnover rates. Here are three outcomes leaders can expect:

Stay Conversations Boost Positivity and Trust

Effective stay conversations have a positive tone -- they're designed to reflect on the most motivating, engaging and inspiring aspects of employees' daily experiences. Done right, stay conversations help employees feel more appreciated and valued as human beings.

As a result, stay conversations build a culture of trust -- an environment where employees know their managers are committed and caring.

Great managers serve as coaches who have authentic, frequent, individualized conversations with their people.

Stay Conversations Expose Triggers

Through stay conversations, managers and employees can identify unforeseen challenges and barriers to a more satisfying employee experience -- beyond total pay and perks. In turn, leaders can optimize organizational policies and practices to quash turnover.

For example, stay conversations might reveal that working parents lack meaningful flexibility and hybrid schedules that actually improve their lives. Addressing triggers like this not only promotes retention but also fuels performance.

Managers might be surprised by what they learn. Any type of feedback, whether positive or constructive, can help managers and organizations better support employees. Even when managers can't address every concern, simply asking about employees' perspectives -- and being honest about what's possible -- can increase employee engagement.

Stay Conversations Drive Responsibility

During stay conversations, managers can emphasize controllable variables -- such as how employees prefer to be recognized and which learning experiences best match employees' career aspirations. This promotes mutual accountability, with both managers and employees encouraged to own their respective roles in improving the employee experience.

Leaders are well aware that turnover is costly (it tips the scales at more than $1 trillion every year in the U.S.). But the cost of replacing talent is just the beginning: Losing stars also means losing your quickest thinkers, your most prolific sellers and your sharpest future leaders.

Fortunately, most turnover is fixable. And the solution starts with simply asking the right questions about what matters most to your people.

Develop your managers to be more successful and profitable.


Denise McLain is a Senior Strategic Consultant and Practice Expert at Gallup.

Bailey Nelson contributed to this article.

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