How to ask if an employee is happy at work

People are leaving jobs all the time — for better pay, a more exciting opportunity to escape a toxic culture, or because they’ve hit a dead end in their current job. Some feel because they don’t feel valued by their manager or organization, or because their managers don’t spend enough time understanding their job satisfaction. And all this has its price. The cost of replacing an employee can range from 1/2 to 2 times the employee’s annual salary. But this is about more than just losing money. It’s about losing your good people, dampening team morale, and possibly even losing customer relationships along with the employee. While you can’t get everyone to stay, you can improve your turnover rates by investing time now in retaining your team members by truly understanding any underlying issues. The author provides recommendations on how to conduct effective “residence talks” with your employees.

A mistake leaders often make is assuming that a team member is happy at work because they don’t complain.

Take my client Rana (not her real name), a member of a senior team at a large international organization. She was highly committed to her work in every respect. She proposed new ideas in meetings, completed projects on time, and answered messages 24 hours a day, as she had for years. But she also applied for other jobs. Like many people, the pandemic caused her to reevaluate her priorities. In two years of remote work, her well-meaning but busy boss didn’t take time to open up about anything other than work, didn’t talk about her career development, and ignored requests for support. As a result, frustration built and she left, losing her institutional knowledge, client relationships, and contribution to team culture.

Could Rana’s departure have been prevented? Perhaps. According to a study conducted by Gallup, 52% of employees who leave voluntarily say there is something their manager or organization could have done to prevent them from leaving their job. While you can’t make everyone stay, you can Improve your retention rates when you take the time to reach out to your employees.

Most people are familiar with the concept of an exit interview, where someone in HR interviews an employee who has quit to understand why they are leaving. A “stay call” is when a leader reaches out to ensure an employee is having an experience at work that compels them to stay. I recommend having these conversations on a quarterly basis and also setting them up around important milestones (like work anniversaries). Research shows the importance of keeping an eye on these “career risk triggers.” The greatest risk is when an employee experiences a change of manager or responsibility, with job searches increasing by 17%.

Here’s how to prepare for these conversations and what to actually say when you meet with your co-worker.

Set the context

Let your co-worker know that this is the case not a performance call or a meeting to talk about projects, but a check-in to understand how they are doing and how you can best support them. You could say:

I wanted to let you know that I really appreciate having you on our team. At the beginning of the new year/quarter/etc. I wanted to take some time to just stop by and make sure you have a good experience at work. There is no specific agenda, but I would like you to consider the following before we meet (cChoose 3-4 questions from the list below):

  • How did you feel about the work in general?
  • What part of your job do you enjoy the most?
  • What aspect of your job do you enjoy the least?
  • How did you feel about balancing work and home?
  • What has been the biggest challenge this year/quarter and is there anything I can do to better support you?
  • What can I do differently to support you and the team?
  • Is there anything you would like feedback from me on?
  • Do you feel like you’re learning and growing here? If not, is there anything I can do to improve your experience?

Mentally move on to the conversation

Our ability to listen and connect is largely influenced by our state of mind when engaging in conversation. When you’re struggling to complete a project or rushing from another meeting, you’re unlikely to be present and empathetic with your team member. As you plan your conversation, make sure you have a buffer before you meet. When I counsel executives, I encourage them to take a few minutes to ponder the following questions to help them become aware of the person they are meeting with and why.

  • Who is the person I am talking to and what does it take them to do their job every day?
  • What impact would it have on me and our team if that person left tomorrow?

Start the meeting right

Whether you meet in person or by phone or video, avoid distractions. Turn off notifications, put away your computer and phone, and shut down your email and chat functions. Intentionally or unintentionally, nothing stops sharing quicker than someone who looks away while sharing or reacts to something else.

Then state the context of your meeting at the beginning. Remind the person that you are here to listen, understand their experience, and see if there is anything you can do to improve it. First, ask one of the questions you listed in your email to them. I recommend starting with a more general question to get the conversation going, and then going deeper.

otherwise Yes, really listen

When leaders are trained to have conversations, they will often raise the concern, “What if my team member raises an issue I can’t raise, or asks for a raise or promotion I can’t give them?” My answer is always, “Isn’t it better to understand what’s going on than to ignore it?” And in most cases, the act of authentically listening to a person’s concerns often addresses them, or at least helps you to, together to find a way forward.

In my experience, nervous leaders will assume the worst when things are actually going well.

When your team member shares their experience, (really) listen. Then check by celebrating and reflecting on what’s working.

“I’ve really enjoyed working from home, I feel like we’re much more efficient as a team.”

  • Celebration: “That’s nice to hear, I feel the same way.”
  • Reflect, “What do you see made the difference?”

“I really enjoyed working on the launch of the new app!”

  • Celebration: “I’m glad. I love the passion you put into it.”
  • Reflect, “What did you enjoy most about working on this?”

Look for hidden commitments

When the person starts sharing frustrations or complaining about their job, teleworking, lack of childcare, etc., remember that behind every complaint is a commitment. Avoid the temptation to propose solutions, instead listen to their engagement, rephrase it and ask what you could do to tackle it together.

“I feel like I’m in non-stop meetings every day, and I’m up until midnight every night doing my actual work.”

  • Reframe: “I understand you’re committed to doing a great job and it’s frustrating when you feel like you don’t have the time during the day to get it done.”
  • Reflect, “What do you think we could do that would make a difference for you?”

“I feel like I’m doing the same thing every day and I’m not progressing in my career.”

  • Reframe: “I understand that you’re really committed to growth, and right now you feel like that’s not happening at all.”
  • Reflect, “What do you think we could do that would make a difference for you?”

Agree on the next steps

In the last 10 minutes of your conversation, shift your discussion to the next steps. If there are several things you didn’t have time to discuss, set up a meeting to continue the discussion. If there are follow-up actions that you will both take, put them in writing so your team member knows you really listened.

“Thank you for your frankness at our meeting today. I really appreciate you sharing everything you’ve done. As promised, I will (list follow-up actions) and now send you an invitation to another interview in two months time. And if anything comes up before then please know we will always take our time to check in.”

While this may feel like “extra work” that you may not have time for, in reality you do not have time not to have a conversation. Remember, it’s the simplest actions that often have the greatest impact.

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