Stay Interviews

Stay Interviews

Have you ever lost a valuable software engineer you would like to keep? Did you try to convince them to stay? Did you attempt to learn from this with an exit interview?

Would you actually like to avoid exit interviews? Here is how: Stay interviews.

~ 6 minutes read
no time? jump straight to the stay interview question set

Before I dive deep into stay interviews, let’s look into why you should care.
The reason is: software engineers’ attrition.

In the race for software engineers it is much cheaper to retain software engineers and motivate them than rehiring. Let’s look into Why do software engineers leave. In case you can’t make them stay, make sure you conduct Exit Interviews to learn about the reasons. Prepare Stay interviews based on the identified reasons.

Why do software engineers leave?

There are multiple reasons why software engineers leave companies. In retrospect, I can’t remember any case of termination in which only one reason was decisive for a termination. The list below is an incomplete list of reasons and is based on my observations and experience.

Remote work was an exception in a lot of companies prior to COVID-19. Engineers who would like to work outside of office locations or in other countries had basically no other chance than to quit and find a remote friendly organization. (How to Keep Your Top Talent from Churning)

Working long term over capacity makes people leave as well. In particular when their extra efforts do not reveal the results they expect from that. Not only that, engineers quit their jobs, working over capacity long term risks burn outs. (Software Burnout Is for Real)

Engineers who feel stuck with their area of expertise, their level of execution or their career in general are also candidates to hand in resignations. Technology is progressing fast and thus software engineers want to progress as well one way or another.

Product(s) and software engineers’ expectations towards the product(s) may not match. This can cause demotivation. These demotivation can be a factor that contributes to engineers leaving.

Managers can make engineers leave as well. Not only direct leads can cause engineers’ resignation, also skip level leads’ decisions can make engineers leave.

That includes the feeling of being fired (soon). That was the strongest emotion I remember regardless of if the actual plan was to fire the software engineer or not. The perception of being fired can be so powerful that engineers quit as soon as they can. (Why People Really Quit Their Jobs)

Exit Interviews

Learn as much as you can once an engineer decided to leave and you can’t make them stay. An exit interview is an important option to learn about the why engineers leave. Based on the why you can gather details about what to improve to make others stay. The purpose is reflection – reflection of the time the engineers spent at the organization they leave.

Exit interview question set

Questions from https://knowyourteam.com/blog/2019/12/18/how-to-conduct-an-exit-interview/ are great when conducting exit interviews. My favourite questions are:

  • What would you say was the biggest reason that contributed to you leaving the company?
  • What did you most appreciate while working at the company?
  • As a lead 
    • How can I become better?
    • What should I keep doing?
    • What should I improve doing?
  • As a team
    • What should we keep doing?
    • What should we improve doing?
  • As a company
    • What should we keep doing?
    • What should we improve doing?
  • Who are you most grateful to have worked with while at the company?
  • While you were deciding between staying or leaving the company, what were some of the biggest factors you weighed in your decision?
  • What were some of your biggest points of frustration while you were at the company?
  • Is there anything else you think we should know, in order to improve the company for current and future employees?

When to do exit interviews?

Shortly after the resignation has been handed in, you can conduct an exit interview. The thought process that led to the resignation is still fresh. As an interviewer you can gather detailed insights due to that. 

In case the interviewee would like to provide constructive feedback they may risk the bad consequences for the remaining notice period. The risk does not have to be real at all and can only be a perception. However if the perception exists of you as an interviewer, you will not be told. You will get less constructive feedback in such a scenario.

Some days before the last effective working day is the point in time I prefer to conduct an exit interview. The engineer leaving is still with the organization and can provide positive and constructive feedback before they start a new job.

An exit interview can be conducted also some months after the last effective working day. With this timing, the engineer had time to reflect what happened before giving feedback. However, finding time to organize an exit interview while the engineer works in a new organization already can be challenging.

I never experienced this timing myself so far. All organisations I worked for requested an exit interview before the last effective working day.

Who should do exit interviews?

Both the engineer leaving and line manager may connect emotions with the working relationship. Obtaining truly objective feedback from the employee leaving is very hard if this information is collected by the line manager because some people tend to avoid hurting others feelings.

On the other hand, the engineer leaving and line manager may have a great working relationship. A skip level manager could have forced certain actions that contributed to the leave. Skip level leads would not gather detailed insights in an exit interview in those situations.

Depending on how the HR organization is set, the engineer leaving can see HR as part of the problem. HR would be involved to offer or not to offer remote working options.
How likely is it to receive objective feedback in those situations?

Exit interviews can be done online and anonymously. Personal relationships between interviewee and interviewer would not influence the results. Nonverbal communication signs such as body language, tone of voice, facial expressions, gestures are essential to and would be missed in an online exit interview.

Overall, it is hard to tell who is the best interviewer for a specific case, ideally the engineer leaving can choose who to talk to in the exit interview.

Stay interviews

Stay interviews are ongoing conversations between a manager and an employee to learn from each other in order to establish and foster a long term working relationship.
This is my definition of a stay interview. You can find more definitions online.

Stay interview questions can be any question that serves the purpose. However the better your questions match the situation you observe and are derived from exit interviews, the better you can verify observations and complement exit interview results. 

Most importantly:

Be appreciative and listen.

Stay interview question set

Feeling safe is important for knowledge workers. You can ask these questions to learn more.

  • Do you feel safe to ask for help?
  • How comfortable do you feel to share issues?
  • Are your mistakes held against you?

Questions about company mission, vision & purpose can be:

  • Does the company mission statement determine your tasks?
  • Do you remember the vision statement? Is it achievable?
  • Why does the company exist?

In case software engineers can’t work remote (even in 2021) you can approach this topic with:

  • How would you design your work setup?
  • What is missing most to match with the perfect work environment?
  • What roadblocks are in your way?

Working long term over capacity risks burn out. This is really tough. These questions can be a start:

  • How do you feel about your job?
  • What’s your level of emotional energy?
  • What’s your level of physical energy?
  • What frustrates you about your job?
  • What would you like to get out of your job?

No one I ever met wants to be stuck in whatever way. These questions can start a valuable conversation regarding this:

  • If you could wave a magic wand, what one thing would you change?
  • What, deep-down, do you truly want?
  • What’s Feeling Stuck?

You feel software engineers might be demotivated and may quit? You can ask these questions:

  • What’s holding you back?
  • What’s your north star?
  • What do you look forward to at work every day?
  • What do you dread about work every day?

If you as a manager want to avoid engineers quit because of you, you may ask:

  • What can I do to best support you?
  • What can I do to add value to you?
  • What can I do more of or less of as your manager?

In case you observe an engineer believes to be fired, you can ask these questions:

  • Which recognition do you expect from me?
  • What does a perfect work environment look like for you?
  • What Do You Need?

There are more questions you may ask in stay interviews:

  • What did you do over the last weeks that you’re most proud of? What would you do differently?
  • What would you like to be better at?
  • What’s been working for you so far?
  • What do we have to change to make you stay with us forever?

My favourite question is: What are you optimizing for?
What’s your favourite stay interview question?


Thanks for your feedback and contribution: Oliver Wahlen

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