Inovautus Spotlight: Stay Interviews for Accounting Firms

Talent retention requires companies to stay ahead of the curve. We all know that sometimes employees leave the people that manage them.  What if we could find out what keeps the ones who stay, and then use that information to create unique retention strategies? One way firms focus on retention is by conducting stay interviews. Over 20 years ago, Dr. John Sullivan, HR guru out of Silicon Valley, defined stay interviews in this way:

A “stay interview” is a periodic one-on-one structured retention interview between a manager and a highly valued “at-risk-of-leaving employee” that identifies and then reinforces the factors that drive an employee to stay. It also identifies and minimizes any “triggers” that might cause them to consider quitting[1].

While stay interviews have been around for a while, they are making a resurgence in accounting firms. With client service being the cornerstone of the industry, accounting firms cannot hesitate when it comes to retaining key talent. Heather Sunderlin, PAFM, MSHRD, SHRM-CP, Chief Operating Officer of DesRoches & Company, CPAs in Virginia Beach, VA knows this fact well. As a veteran HR Director, Heather has witnessed the talent turnstile rotate more than a few key players out the door throughout her career.  When she joined DesRoches & Company in January of this year, she came with an agenda: meet each one of her employees, learn the firm’s culture, uncover the level of engagement within the firm, take the temperature on morale, and identify what the firm was doing right and what needed to change. This to-do list was Heather’s impetus for conducting stay interviews inside her new firm and the results were nothing short of extraordinary. We asked Heather how she did it, what she learned and what she plans to do next in our recent interview for this month’s Spotlight on Stay Interviews for Accounting Firms.

What was the technical approach to conducting these interviews?

First, I gave everyone a three-week heads up that I would be conducting 30-minute stay interviews, which I hoped would be candid and evoke input about their level of satisfaction at the firm, as well as ideas for how the firm could be better. Next, I created a list of questions. I didn’t pass these questions out ahead of time because I was after the “gut response.” When crafting my questions, I kept a positive tone. I was not looking for a gripe session – instead, I was looking for feedback on what makes our employees come to work every day. For example, I asked each of our employees to rate their happiness on a scale of 1 to 10 and then continued the conversation by asking them what we could do as a firm to get them to a 10.

How did you use the results of the interviews?

Once I finished interviewing our team, I provided a copy of raw material to our shareholders with the instruction to come up with their own interpretations, based on the data. We then collaborated on a list of common themes. One topic that came out of our interviews was quality hiring. People want to work with high performers. It is hard to measure this day-to-day, but having it in writing from so many of our employees affirmed its importance. Going forward, we plan to share high level results with our team and develop retention plans for at-risk employees.

How does this process differ from employee surveys?

The questions are very similar but the key difference is that I conducted these interviews one-on-one. Dynamic conversation gave me the opportunity to dig deep. With negative answers, I could get personalized clarification, which is an element missing from electronic surveys. I didn’t ask as many questions as I could have with an electronic survey, but what I gave up in quantity I made up for in spades with quality. With surveys, I could get the statistical result that “92% of our employees are engaged,” but what does that really mean? Through stay interviews I can say we have 100% engagement and I can qualify that statement.

What made your stay interviews so successful?

The spirit of stay interviews is transparency. If you explain the process and purpose, you can build trust. If you’re not clear about your intentions, employees can get a little nervous about retribution and might be afraid to share. Building a culture of trust starts with consistent communication. Sometimes we are so busy getting things done, we assume no news is good news. I am now a firm believer that annual stay interviews will help me identify potential issues before they get too big to resolve.

What advice would you give to firms looking to conduct stay interviews?

If the size of your firm allows it, conduct stay interviews one-on-one. If you have a large firm, leverage the relationships in your firm by asking your managers to interview by department or niche. Getting effective feedback can only be done if you have a foundation of trust. As far as timing, don’t interview right after tax season or before/during evaluations. Aim for the end of the year. This strategy will help you set goals and initiatives for the following year.

What makes stay interviews unique to accounting profession?

In the past, everyone was so date driven and worried about getting the work out the door.  Having a conversation and building relationships with everyone inside the firm went to the wayside. One of the obvious results of conducting stay interviews on an annual basis is reducing turnover, but a benefit that is inherently birthed from this process is an identity shift. When a client knows that their accountant loves going to work each day and is loyal to their firm, it builds confidence in your brand.

If you would like guidance on planning and executing stay interviews in your firm, reach out to one of our team members today. We’d love to hear from you!


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