How to keep your best performing employees after a disruptive organizational change

Rachel Callan
Behavioral scientist

Disruptive organizational change fills our headlines. Between layoffs, merger and acquisitions, reorganizations, and leadership changes, it’s likely your organization has experienced at least one disruptive change recently. 

As a leader, you may be wondering how your employees, especially high performers, will respond to the change. You may ask yourself, “will this push them to look for a new opportunity?” 

Leading through uncertainty is never easy, but there is a tried and true tactic that can help you keep your best performing employees before they decide to look elsewhere: the stay interview.

Why managers should conduct stay interviews

Research shows that disruptive changes often precede an employee’s decision to leave, but it also shows that understanding an employee’s experience is key to reducing turnover. 

While employee surveys can help broadly understand sentiment and dissatisfaction, they’re unlikely to give you access to a specific employees’ concerns at exactly the right time. 

Enter the stay interview.

Unlike an exit interview, this is a forward-looking conversation, usually with high performers and critical roles, to uncover areas of dissatisfaction that may cause an employee to leave. 

You might be thinking “prompting a conversation about turnover is the last thing I want to do right now.” 

Consider this before writing off the idea. 

Firstly, there is no one-size-fits all approach to stay interviews. Perhaps instead of directly telling an employee you are concerned they are at risk of leaving, you can more indirectly ask the employees about their satisfaction with the organization and their needs. 

Secondly, while these can be challenging conversations, they are also valuable to both you as a manager and to the high performer. They will appreciate knowing you care, and you can gather input to create satisfying conditions and keep them happy on your team longer.  

How to conduct a stay interview that works

Tips to get started

Before diving into the conversation, here are a few tips for setting up and conducting the interview. Ideally a stay interview is conducted between managers and employees because of pre-existing context and strong relationships. 

  • Intervene as early as possible—your goal is to reach employees before they decide to leave.
  • Be upfront about the purpose of the interview. 
  • Assure the employee that the conversation is confidential—you will only share identifiable information with their permission in order to make improvements for them. Anything else will be shared in aggregate.
  • Include a mix of positive and negative topics.
  • Focus on developing trust and demonstrating empathy. If navigating emotions at work feels daunting, there are great resources on how to strike a balance between vulnerability and professionalism. 
  • Remember that awkward pauses are ok. Allowing for silence can give employees the space they need to thoughtfully respond. 
  • Listen more than you talk. Don’t spend the interview convincing them to stay. Give them the space to share while you actively listen. 
  • Take notes. This may be obvious, but it will help you capture what you hear live without having to rely on your memory for helpful nuance and details. 

Sample interview invitation 

Here is a sample email you can reference when inviting your employee for a stay interview.  

With all of the changes happening in the organization and on the team, I wanted to check in to see how you’re doing and if there’s anything that we could improve. I know you have a lot of opportunities available to you—I value your work here and want to do anything I can to ensure you continue to be a member of our team. Let’s set up time to discuss any areas for concern or opportunities within your current role.  

A conversation guide

Once you’ve set up the interview, here is a conversation guide mapped to the key topics you will want to cover in your interview. 

Start by assuring them that there are no “wrong” or “bad” answers, and that you value their openness and honesty. The better you understand where they are coming from, the more you can do to improve tier experience 

1. What’s going well 

Tell me about what you enjoy about your current role. 

  • What about your work energizes you?
  • Are there people you value working with most?
  • What kinds of projects or tasks do you enjoy most?

2. Growth and development 

Tell me about how you’d like to grow and develop in your current role and in your career. 

  • Do you feel like you’re learning and growing in your role?
  • Are there areas you’re looking to grow in the future?
  • What kind of a role would you like to have next? 
  • What skills and experience do you need to get there?

3. Why stay

Tell me about why you would stay.  

  • What do you feel you’re getting here that you can’t get elsewhere?
  • What do you value most about your current role? 

4. Why leave

Tell me what would make you think about leaving. 

  • Is it a specific event or recent change? Tell me more about your experience and how it impacted you. 
  • Are you concerned about development? Maybe you’ve had recruiters reach out to you or heard about a friend’s role and were intrigued. Tell me what you’re looking for in the future.
  • Something else? Please be candid so we can make improvements.

5. Taking action

Tell me more about what I can do to help. 

  • What can I do to make this better for you?
  • Anything else I can do to make your job and your workday better? 
  • Any concerns that we didn’t cover already?

Taking action to improve employee satisfaction

It is just as important to act on the feedback from a stay interview as it is to gather it. 

Following your conversation, identify benefits, programs, etc., that could fit your employees’ interests. For example, if most of the top talent is concerned about growth, a job sharing program could be created to provide opportunities to cross-train.

The sooner you start the better. Your star employees know they have other options and may even be receiving messages from recruiters at this very moment. Make it a point to connect with them as soon as possible to show how much you value their contributions. 

For more helpful guidance on leading through uncertainty, check out our executive’s guide to building culture in the midst of uncertainty.