Karen E. Felsted
CPA, MS, DVM, CVPM, CVA
Take Charge columnist Dr. Karen E. Felsted is the founder of PantheraT Veterinary Management Consulting. She spent three years as CEO of the National Commission on Veterinary Economic Issues.Read Articles Written by Karen E. Felsted
Everyone in the veterinary field knows the difficulty in finding and keeping employees these days. One prominent economist thinks the profession will struggle with hiring and retention for much of the next 10 years. Therefore, smart practice owners know they can’t wait for the tide to turn. Instead, they must make changes so that their clinics operate more productively and efficiently with fewer employees and so that people want to work there.
Practices that attract team members have a great culture generally, which can mean many things because cultures vary across different businesses. However, everyone agrees that good communication is a component of an outstanding culture. Employee exit and stay interviews are one way to drive good communication.
Hit or Miss
Stay interviews have grown in popularity as staff shortages multiply. According to Veterinary Hospital Managers Association surveys conducted in the fourth quarter of 2022, 57% of practices do exit interviews, and 41% hold stay interviews.
An exit interview is between a departing employee and one or more members of the management team. Stay interviews are similar but are conducted regularly during an individual’s employment.
Both interviews provide practice leaders with valuable information. However, stay interviews can identify retention issues early on and allow the practice to make changes before valued employees consider leaving.
The primary goal of stay interviews is to find out what makes the clinic an excellent place to work, what needs improvement, what the employee likes about the job, why the person isn’t moving on and how the job could be better. On the other hand, exit interviews often focus more on why someone is leaving and what the practice could do better in terms of:
- Compensation and benefits
- Practice culture
- Daily operations, workflow and management
- Other accommodations to support employee retention
Time to Talk
About 34% of survey respondents said stay interviews were “extremely” or “very” helpful at improving staff retention, while 53% said they were “somewhat helpful.”
Some of the same effective tactics apply to exit and stay interviews. They include:
- Schedule one in advance, conduct it without interruption, and do it in a quiet and comfortable location.
- Explain the purpose of the interview beforehand so employees can think about what they want to say.
- Ask open-ended questions and leave time for employees to bring up unrelated issues.
- Spend more time listening than talking. Now isn’t the time for explanations or justifications of why your practice does certain things.
- Thank employees for participating and for what they bring (or brought) to the practice.
- Be respectful and nonjudgmental about comments, even if you disagree.
Both interviews work best if the culture promotes open, honest communication and employees are confident that management won’t use the comments against them.
Managers must be ready to hear what they don’t want to hear and take responsibility for problems that need fixing. Exit interviews can sometimes be more volatile because an employee might think continuing to work at the practice has become impossible.
Pose Follow-up Questions
While exit interviews often focus on problems, use the stay interview, in particular, to explore positive and negative aspects of the employee’s experience. For example, don’t just ask, “What do you like least about working here?” Also ask, “How could that aspect of your job be improved?” and “What do you like most about working here?”
During exit interviews, spend time probing the “real” reason for leaving. For example, when someone reports the need to leave the profession, why? Would the issues occur at any practice, or was working at your clinic the last straw? If the team member no longer likes veterinary medicine, that’s one thing, but if the person is pursuing another career for better pay or an improved schedule, could your practice make similar changes that would appeal to employees? People often say they’re going to another practice because the compensation is better. While that might be true, the response can hide a more complex issue.
During either type of conversation, don’t focus only on why retention is good for the practice. Managers lacking genuine respect for employees’ needs and professional goals will be uncovered quickly. In those cases, stay interviews can backfire, sending employees on a job search. During exit interviews, you’ll want to make the separation as positive an experience as possible and potentially leave the door open for a return.
Time Is of the Essence
Conduct stay interviews regularly. For example, schedule them after several months of initial employment, every six to 12 months afterward and whenever you sense employee disengagement. Don’t wait too long to have a conversation; the goal is to catch problems before an employee decides to leave.
In addition, act on the feedback and make positive changes. If you do nothing, employees quickly learn that what they say doesn’t matter. Follow up with the employee after any desired change is made and ensure it’s had the intended effect.
Finally, try to schedule exit interviews with all departing employees. If someone refuses or the separation is on such bad terms that a conversation won’t benefit either side, that’s OK. However, don’t assume that a discussion with a terminated employee will be pointless. Former team members might have valuable insights into why they weren’t a good fit and what could have been handled differently.