Why do your employees stay?

Understanding the reasons can help leaders boost recruitment and retention
Carol Patton is a Las Vegas-based writer who specializes in human resources issues.

Among the most effective and low-cost retention and recruitment strategies for K-12 districts are “stay interviews.” These face-to-face conversations between district leaders and top performers reveal why employees remain on the job and the concerns that may provoke them to leave.

“You totally miss the boat if you don’t actively engage top-performing employees in trying to keep them,” says Skye Duckett, chief human resources officer for Atlanta Public Schools, which supports some 8,300 employees and faculty. 

Duckett says about 70% of the district’s leaders conduct these optional interviews. But don’t confuse them with engagement surveys, she says, explaining that surveys gather opinions from the entire workforce, including low performers whose ideas may not align with the district’s values.

Build relationships

Atlanta’s HR staffers train principals and other leaders to start the sessions telling top performers how much they’re valued. Then, leaders ask employees what they like best about the job, school or district, and to disclose potential concerns. 

“Stay interviews” must be personal, authentic and focused to build relationships.

Several years ago, stay interviews revealed that top teachers believed the district lacked leadership or career growth opportunities, Duckett says. So she worked with the teacher advisory council to establish career pathways and an aspiring leadership program, and then trained administrators on leadership development. 

She says stay interviews must be personal, authentic and focused. Employees can tell if leaders are not listening or are distracted by other matters. “Stay interviews are a fancy way of getting to know your [employees] and taking good care of them as individuals,” Duckett says. “It’s all about the relationship.”

Determine district ‘perks’

Stay interviews can also help identify a district’s competitive advantages, says Ben Brooks, founder and CEO of PILOT, a software-based employee coaching platform.

Why employees stay at an organization is different than administrators think, Brooks says, adding that highly valued talent may enjoy perks that are completely unrelated to their role. “Retention is highly personal,” he says.

Read: Building a culture of lifelong learning

Brooks says trusted school leaders should conduct such interviews one-on-one since there’s a great benefit to reading body language. Questions include: Why do you stay? What are the best parts of working here? Describe your ideal and worst workdays. If you were offered another job, what factors would likely keep you here? 

Share responses with HR, Brooks says, and discuss what was learned and how the information can enhance recruitment and retention efforts.

“It could be that one teacher got to paint her classroom in different colors that inspire her and her students, which is why she stays,” Brooks says. “This has to be a schoolwide or districtwide effort. Some things that pop up are factors that, more often than not, HR does not control.”

To solicit buy-in for stay interviews, Brooks says HR staffers can ask leaders to consider what would happen if their top five teachers quit this month. Oftentimes, leaders assume there are only a handful of levers they can pull. But Brooks says some aspects are within their control and can help avoid that “horrific scene of highly valued employees with community and family legacy connections from walking out that door.”

Apply what you learn

HR can couple information from stay interviews with results from climate or engagement surveys, says Chett Daniel, founder of K12 HR Solutions, a national K-12 consultancy in Missouri. 

Conducting focus groups can provide more feedback. Daniel says some employees feel safer in a group setting because it gives them permission to speak up. He suggests framing questions in the third person, which makes the process less threatening. For example: Can you think of a reason why your co-workers might have responded this way on the survey? And apply what you learn because “retention is a bucket where right now, there’s more water going out than coming in,” Daniel says.

Carol Patton is a Las Vegas-based writer who specializes in human resources issues.

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