By Beverly Kaye & Sharon Jordan-Evans

This blog post is based on concepts from Love ‘Em or Lose ‘Em: Getting Good People to Stay by Beverly Kaye and Sharon Jordan-Evans. This bestselling book provides twenty-six strategies to keep talented employees happy and productive. In addition to updating and revising all information for the fifth edition, the authors have included more international stories and statistics.


Admit it.  You love them (even if you don’t use that word)! You know – they’re your talented, committed employees. They’re critical to your success and they make your team the best one to play on. They are the heart and soul of your organization – and your competitors want them!  So how can you keep them engaged and on your team.

Start with a Stay Conversation

When do you think most leaders ask questions like, “What can I do to keep you?” You’re right; it’s in the exit interview. At that point it’s typically too late. The talented employee already has one foot out the door.

Have you ever wondered why we ask great questions in exit interviews but neglect to ask early enough to make a difference? The most successful leaders do ask. They ask early and often, they listen carefully to the answers and they link arms with their talent to help them get more of what they want, right where they are.

When we suggest asking employees why they stay or what would keep them, we hear, “You’ve got to be kidding,” “Isn’t that illegal?” or “What if they give me an answer I don’t want to hear?” Managers dance around this core subject usually for one of three reasons:

  1. Fear of putting people on the spot or putting ideas into their heads (as if they never thought about leaving on their own).
  2. Fear they will be unable to do anything anyway, so why ask?
  3. Belief they don’t have the time to have these critical one-on-one discussions with their talented people. (Hmm—where then will they find the time to interview, select, orient, and train their replacements?)

How might you Ask?

There is no single way or time to ask. However, a likely time is during developmental or career discussions. (You do hold these, don’t you?). Start by saying, “You are so critical to me and to this team. I can’t imagine losing you. I might not tell you that often enough. But I’d like to know what will keep you here?  And what might entice you away? What kinds of things are you looking for from the job or from me?”  Then listen actively to the response.  Does he want a chance to learn something new? Does she want exposure to the senior team?

Beyond listening, how you respond (verbally & non-verbally, and what you say (or don’t say) is critical. Responses like “that’s unrealistic” will halt the dialogue and cause your employees to clam up — maybe permanently. Instead, tell the truth about what you can and cannot do for them but above all, demonstrate that you care enough to get creative and to go the extra mile for them.

Beyond, “What will you keep you?” here are some favorite stay interview questions managers have asked:

  • What about your job makes you jump out of bed in the morning?
  • What makes you hit the snooze button?
  • If you were to win the lottery and resign, what would you miss the most about your job?
  • If you had a magic wand, what would be the one thing you would change about this department, team, organization?
  • As your manager, what could I do a little more of or a little less of?
  • What can we do to support your career goals?
  • What do you want to learn this year?

Stop guessing what will keep your stars happy and on your team. Gather your courage and conduct “stay interviews” with the employees you want to keep. Set aside time to start the dialogue. Don’t guess and don’t assume they all want the same thing (like pay or promotion). Schedule another meeting if they need to think about it for a while.

To simply ASK may be the most important engagement and retention strategy of all. Not only will asking make your talented people feel valued, but their answers will provide the information you need to customize strategies to keep each of them.

It doesn’t matter so much where, when, or how you ask—just ASK!