Using stay interviews to increase staff retention

With veterinary professionals in high demand and short supply, some veterinary hospitals are struggling to retain staff members while also attracting new hires.

Employee satisfaction depends on several factors—salary, benefits, and scheduling being chief among them. Workplace culture is another, and its effect on employee retention cannot be overstated.

One way businesses attempt to promote a healthy workplace culture is the exit interview, which helps the management identify and remedy job-related problems. Another tactic is the stay interview, a relatively newer practice taking hold in many businesses that was discussed by Dr. Karen Felsted during a Veterinary Hospital Managers Association (VHMA) webinar on March 9.

Close up of interviewer and candidate applying for job in office meeting room
Periodically checking in with staff members is a proactive way of improving employee satisfaction and staff retention.

The concept behind the stay interview is similar to that of the exit interview but is an ongoing evaluation of workplace culture, explained Dr. Felsted, who is a financial and operational consultant to veterinary practices and the animal health industry.

Whereas an exit interview identifies problems only after the employee has had enough, the stay interview roots out the issue while there’s still time to fix it.

“Say an employee is in a quiet-quitting phase of her job because she’s unhappy with some of the things going on. If we can identify what those issues are now and make the necessary changes, then it’s obviously going to be a whole lot easier to keep them than trying to find somebody new,” Dr. Felsted said.

Considering how competitive the veterinary market is and the likelihood it will remain that way for several more years, Dr. Felsted believes practice owners and managers cannot afford to ignore workplace culture.

“Right now, veterinarians can pick and choose where they go to work, and they’re going to pick and choose the practice not only with better compensation and benefits but the practice that also has a better work environment, and we absolutely have to spend time focusing on that,” she said.

Dr. Felsted’s comments about exit and stay interviews are based partly on monthly management surveys of VHMA members during 2022.

Fifty-seven percent of veterinary practices reported conducting exit interviews before employees leave, and the vast majority (86%) are done in person. Most practices (73%) said they interview all staff members leaving the practice.

Responding practices said they use the interview data to evaluate the clinic culture (89%), assess training programs (81%), identify what employees like best and least (74%), look for novel ways to improve retention (64%), evaluate staff compensation rates (56%), and assess employee benefit programs.

“I would encourage practices that are picking and choosing who to talk to, to talk to everybody,” Dr. Felsted said. “Every departing employee, regardless of why they say they’re leaving, can provide insights into what the practice must do to keep new hires around longer.

“Whether we like the suggestions or not, we’re going to have to look at making those changes or just accept the fact that our practice won’t grow because we can’t find the people to support that.”

Only 41% of responding practices indicated that they conduct stay interviews with their employees, while the majority said either they didn’t do stay interviews (30%) or didn’t but were considering doing so (28%).

Veterinary practices surveyed said they use data from stay interviews to evaluate organizational culture (43%), to identify novel ways to better the practice (29%), to evaluate staff compensation rates (5%), and for other purposes (22%).

Most practices said stay interviews help with employee retention. Dr. Felsted said both stay and exit interviews work best if the practice has a culture that promotes open and honest communication, and employees don’t feel their comments will be used against them.

“Management must be ready to hear things they don’t want to hear and take responsibility for problems that need to be fixed,” she said.

Schedule the interview in advance and conduct it at a time when there will be no interruptions. Explain the purpose of the interview in advance to allow employees time to think about what they want to say, she advised.

Ask open-ended questions such as, “What do you like most about working here? What do you like least?” Questions about work-life balance are important, so be sure to ask how the employee feels the practice is doing in this area and what the practice could do to improve.

Be respectful and nonjudgmental. Spend more time listening than talking. “This isn’t a time for explanations or defensive justifications of why the practice does what it does,” Dr. Felsted said.