Even as layoffs are featured in headlines, chances are someone at your company is giving notice right now.

An estimated 50 million Americans quit their jobs last year — a problem for companies when there's such a tight workforce.

So how do companies boost their retention rates? For one, some people who study the subject say employers should conduct "stay" interviews instead of relying on exit interviews before workers head out the door.

The idea is to find out why current employees keep coming to work, what could make them happier and what might make them leave.

Only about 25% of companies are doing stay interviews, from the latest research she has read, said Mary Zellmer-Bruhn, chair of the Work and Organizations Department at the University of Minnesota's Carlson School of Management.

"Apart from the worry that they might leave or that you might have a hard time filling that position, people will feel more connected, more committed, more motivated, more appreciated if you're talking to them from time to time," Zellmer-Bruhn said.

Usually, employees or teams only get attention when performance problems occur. That is not the best time to talk, Zellmer-Bruhn said.

"It should be more consistent. Maybe it's because of our culture of over work ... that people don't take the time to do the recognition and point out when you really appreciate people," she said. "There are simple things but they take some time and effort, to find people, to sit down and let them know how you're feeling."

Connections, advancement opportunities, feeling appreciated, the company's mission. Those are reasons why people stay, Zellmer-Bruhn said.

The work itself is also a reason, she said. When employees feel a sense of mastery or growth, that they're developing and continuing to learn, can motivate them to stay.

Richard Finnegan, chief executive of C-Suite Analytics, a Florida-based engagement and retention consultancy, recommends asking these five questions in a stay interview:

• When you travel to work each day, which things do you look forward to?

• What are you learning here?

• Why do you stay here? Leaders can use this surprise question to help plan how employees can do more of what they like in current or future jobs.

• When is the last time you thought about leaving and what prompted it?

• What can I do as your manager to make work here better for you?

Finnegan, a therapist turned human resources executive, was working for a big banking company when the CEO ordered him to fix its turnover problem. Turnover ranged from 75% at some branches to 25% at others. The only variable in each was the manager.

"The overwhelming finding was the number one reason employees stay or leave or engage or disengage is how much they trust their boss," Finnegan said.

Through a stay interview, leaders can learn what is important to employees and identify one or two things within their control that they can fix to make employees happier. His stay interview process, Finnegan said, has cut turnover from 20% to 50% at companies across the globe.

"Your first-line leaders are the only thing your employees can't replace by leaving and going somewhere else," said Finnegan, whose firm also trains people to do stay interviews. "They can't get the same level of leader and leadership trust. They can leave and replace the pay. They can replace the benefits. They can't replace the relationship."

Finnegan developed a model to calculate the cost of turnover for every job, which persuades management to buy in. For one client, Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City, losing a nurse cost more than $93,000. For another, an aerospace company, losing an engineer cost nearly $121,500.

Even when employees feel like they have a good salary, if the work conditions or the work itself isn't satisfying, they still may leave, Zellmer-Bruhn said. Employers, however, can't overlook pay in such a competitive job market.

"As long as [pay] is something that's nagging at people, it will cause them to look for other things that they're unhappy about," she said. "Making sure that people feel that they're fairly compensated and competitively compensated is important in terms of staying. But it won't be the key thing that makes people stay."

Zellmer-Bruhn believes stay interviews have a place in an overall talent retention and development strategy. But employers who ask for feedback with no intention or ability to act on it may make an employee feel cynical and unheard. A culture of trust and good leader-employee relationships should be in place before launching a stay interview program.

"Many of the things that bug them can be fixed by their boss," Finnegan said. "It's local stuff. It's why doesn't this equipment work better? Why do we do this report that nobody read? Why don't you get John to do his job or fire his [rear]? That's what makes people stay or leave."

Todd Nelson is a freelance writer in Lake Elmo. His e-mail is todd_nelson@mac.com.

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