When it Comes to Employee Retention are You Cold, Warm, or Hot?


You can’t manage what you don’t know or what you find out too late. Are you cold, warm, or hot when it comes to uncovering the real reasons your people choose to leave or stay? Think exit interviews are the answer to getting at the ‘why’ behind your employees’ reasons to leave? If so, you are ‘cold’ in terms of targeting the information you’re hoping to collect. How about stay interviews? Do you ask your people what it is they enjoy about their work in hopes of keeping them happy? Well, at least now you’re getting a little warmer to unlocking the data you need. But if you really want to get on the fast, inside track to learning why someone is leaving or staying BEFORE they make that decision, start having 3R conversations. Now, you are hot!


Exit Interviews – COLD

The problem with exit interviews is that they provide too little information way too late. Companies earnestly wanted to know what they needed to have done differently to have changed the employee’s decision. Note the number of past tenses used in the previous sentence, which reveals one of the inherent problems with exit interviews: they happen after the fact. Imagine a top performer who has already resigned, being asked these meaningless questions:

  • When did you start looking for another job?

  • Why were you looking for a new job?

  • Did you feel that you were equipped to do your job here?

  • How did the culture impact your decision to leave?

  • Were you satisfied with the way you were managed?

  • What could we have done to change your decision to leave?

Because top performers aren’t notorious for burning professional bridges, they will also refrain from making any disparaging remarks about a previous boss or employer and prefer to stay focused on the positive opportunity that came their way as opposed to any negative circumstances triggering the desire to leave. Sometimes you may get worthwhile feedback that can actually be implemented, but many exiting employees will just professionally thank you for the experience and stand on the fact that they couldn’t turn down a fantastic opportunity that serendipitously came along as the perfect job fit for what they needed in life at that exact moment. (Truth be told, they were proactively searching for that fortuitous opportunity for months.)


Stay Interviews - WARMER

When compared with exit interviews, using stay interviews as a way to find out why an employee likes their job, hopefully as an indicator that they will stay, is a step closer to getting warmer. Stay interviews are more casual conversations a leader has with their employees and tend to be around twenty to thirty minutes Some leaders like to rotate the ‘stay’ questions into a 1:1 meeting or use as a monthly stand-alone check-in.


Stay interviews may include questions like:

  • What are your thoughts as you start a new workweek?

  • What do you look forward to each day on the job?

  • What do you like most about working here?

  • How do you currently rate your work-life balance? Why?

  • What does your dream job look like? How does your current job compare?

  • What would you change about your current job if you could?

Stay interview questions tend to be more strategically positioned to drive information that may help to get a read on retention. However, the questions still tend to be too general to get to real issues that drive a decision to stay or uncover any issues that may be pushing an employee to think about leaving.


Asking a top-performing programmer to describe their dream job and getting a reply of race car driver or drummer in a rock band may provide interesting background knowledge, but what exactly does one do with that information from a retention standpoint? There is still a need to get to a deeper level of what an employee is feeling and experiencing while doing the job in order to determine whether they want to keep doing it or not.


3R Conversations - HOT!

The reasons why someone elects to leave, or stay is an individual issue, and it can’t be solved with more bagels, Ping Pong tables, and craft brews. It’s much deeper and bigger than that! Psychologically, each unique person is mentally balancing each of these three Rs:

  • REQUIREMENTS: What is it costing me physically and emotionally to succeed at this job?

  • REWARDS: What am I tangibly getting in return for doing this job?

  • RESPECT: How appreciated, trusted, and valued do I feel while doing this job?

If the Requirements balance with the Rewards and Respect, your employees will likely decide to stay. If not, they may start thinking it’s not worth it and begin heading toward the door unless the scale is calibrated back into balance. It’s never too early to have your employee weigh in about the Requirements needed to successfully do the job. A simple place to start would be to have a casual conversation around the roles and responsibilities of their job, the direct Requirements. For example, you’re talking with your new sales representative about a few of the direct Requirements of their job such as cold calling, product demonstrations, overnight travel, completing reports, and training new representatives. Ask them to think about assigning a 1 to 5 weight factor to each Requirement with a 1 representing the lightest weight and a 5 representing the heaviest weight that aspect of the role has on their job satisfaction. The employee is not going to equally love doing every one of those activities and will likely rank them differently, somewhere between 1 and 5.


Next, determine if they think the Rewards, they are getting in return for meeting all the Requirements feels balanced. Example Rewards type of questions to ask include:

  • Make a list of all the tangible rewards you currently receive at work. How would you rank them in priority from most value to least valuable for you?

  • What is missing from the current Rewards you receive?

  • If you had an extra $25, how would you spend it on yourself

  • How do you like to receive praise and recognition?

  • What Rewards do you wish you had?

  • Do you prefer public or private recognition?

  • What are your favorite hobbies/leisure time activities?

  • Do you feel that the Rewards you are getting in return for the energy and effort you are putting out, are balanced? Why/Why not?

Once you’ve explored your employee’s take on balancing the Requirements with the Rewards, it’s critical to move into the Respect questions. Lack of Respect is a leading reason employees’ site for leaving the boss and the firm.


A leader can demonstrate Respect in several categories. For example, with communication, ask, “What communication vehicle is the most effective for you? Do you prefer email, text, phone call, or Slack board post? I want to make sure whatever communication channel we use works best for you so that we have acknowledgment/replies with each other as needed, within one business day.”


Another example to demonstrate Respect is clarifying their preferred working environment. Say something like, “tell me about the environments where you do your best work. How would you structure an ideal workweek as a result? What days would you elect to be on-site, remote, work from home, work from another site? What does a combination of those options look like for you?”



A 3-R conversation between a people leader and their individual team member focuses on one primary theme: the ongoing balance an employee is feeling between fulfilling the Requirements of the job with the Rewards and Respect they’re getting in return. There’s an added bonus to having regular 3-R conversations with your employees. Not only will you start to get to the level of questions necessary to help assess engagement and retention, but you will also be providing what employees say is the most important thing they want from an employer right now, and that’s to simply be treated as a human being.


Want to learn more about 3R conversations? The Big Quit Survival Guide provides a comprehensive list of additional Requirement, Rewards, and Respect questions, as well as scripts and guidelines to help you through each 3R conversation. Don’t be left out in the COLD when it comes to what it takes in this new workplace to keep your best employees!


Merrylue Martin is the author of The Big Quit Survival Guide. The book describes how to retain your best people, how to wow the best new hires and deal with the challenges of remote and hybrid workers, and gives you access over 30 printable Survival Tactics to immediately act upon!

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The Big Quit Survival Guide

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