Dig Deep with Employee Focus Groups: Part 1
Experiences, Feelings, and Preferences Unearthed
After an organization has conducted an employee engagement survey further dialogue may be required to validate and clarify results, unearth the root causes of issues, and provide deeper insights that feed into and assist with action planning. Employee focus groups probe identified problems and causes, and surface suggested solutions. The process allows participants to contribute without much preparation or effort, and promotes a healthy sense among employees that they’re genuinely being “heard.”
Here is an easy to follow, step-by-step guide on how to dig deep and get the most out of your focus group efforts:
1. Question your reasons before deciding whether to use employee focus group interviews as a source of information.
- What goals do you hope to meet using a focus group?
- Why did employees score XYZ dimension low? What examples have been observed? How important is each dimension to employees? What could/should be done to improve this area?
- What purpose will the data serve?
- To provide input to the action planning process and help Executives make decisions about where and how to prioritize their efforts.
- From whom do you want to collect information? (Be specific)
- Managers and non-managers from across all functional groups at the organization.
2. Write a brief, easily understood statement of purpose. Use the answers to the guiding questions noted above. No more than three sentences are needed. For example:
- The purpose of the focus group process is to gather employee and manager input on Professional Growth, Innovation and Teamwork and how these areas can be improved.
- Employees and managers will be asked to comment on their experiences, observations and the level of importance they place on each issue as well as how they would suggest improvement.
- Employee and manager participation at this stage in our planning is intended to provide executives with concrete ideas and priorities of how to turn survey results into action.
3. Identify a good facilitator
Finding an experienced facilitator is the most important thing you can do to ensure good results from your focus groups. The facilitator guides conversation by asking questions, probing to clarify answers, keeping the group on topic, and making sure everyone is heard. These skills take practice. Make sure your facilitator has run focus groups in the past. The following skills and characteristics are beneficial:
Energetic - keeps the discussion lively, interesting, and productive.
Personable - puts participants at ease early in the session so they can comfortably and actively participate in discussions.
Agile thinker - handles quick changes in the session.
Organized - develops an effective written agenda and produces results within the preferred time frame.
Active listener - attends to each participant, clarifying meanings by using probing techniques such as paraphrasing.
Remembers - connects a participant’s current statement to a previous statement, developing a better understanding of the participant’s feelings and stimulating more discussion.
Knowledgeable - possesses background knowledge on the topic and organization. Experienced.
4. Identify a good note taker
The reporter or note taker plays a vital role in a focus group discussion. This scribe must capture as much accurate detail from the discussion as possible and note participant comments, group dynamics, and interesting shifts in conversation. While it’s best to make an audio recording of your focus groups to ensure there’s a complete record of what was discussed, it’s still important to have a note taker present as both an observer and reporter.
5. Develop carefully worded questions
Yes-or-no questions are one dimensional and don’t stimulate discussion. “Why” questions can put people on the defensive and may lead to "politically correct" responses on controversial issues. Open-ended questions are the most useful because they allow participants to tell their story in their own words and add details that can result in unanticipated insights.
- What do you think about…?
- How do you feel about…?
- What do you like best (or least) about…?
6. Plan your session(s)
Scheduling - plan meetings to be one to two hours long. Over lunch seems to be a good time for participants to find time to attend. Provide refreshments especially if the session is held over lunch.
Location/setting - hold sessions in a conference room or other setting with adequate air flow and lighting. Some other factors to consider when choosing a location:
- What message does the setting send? (Is it corporate, upscale, informal, sterile, or inviting?)
- Does the setting encourage conversation?
- How will the setting affect the information gathered? Will the setting bias the information offered?
- Can it comfortably accommodate the number of participants, where all can view each other?
- Is it easily accessible? (consider access for people with disabilities, safety, transportation, parking, proximity, and convenience).
7. Develop an agenda or focus group discussion guide
Outline the flow of questions and topics to be covered. Build time into the discussion guide to pursue topics of interest that are raised by participants during the discussion and reveal ideas or sentiments that weren’t predicted. A typical employee focus group agenda includes:
- Review of agenda
- Review of meeting objectives
- Confidentiality commitment to participants and from participants to each other
- Review of ground rules
- Discussions of three to four focus group topics - for example: impact, root causes, expectations for improvement, possible solutions
- Summary and wrap up
8. Select and invite participants
Develop a list of attributes to guide the selection of participants. Typically you’ll want participants who cover a cross section of these attributes, such as:
- Functional group/business unit
- Geographic location
- Length of service at organization
- Employee Status (employee, management, etc.)
As a general guideline you can also follow the outline below:
- Organization <250 employees = 3 focus groups
- Organization <1,000 employees = 3 to 5 focus groups
- Organization 1,000+ employees = 6+ focus groups
Each focus group should comprise 6 to 10 people to allow for smooth conversation flow. The common practice is to invite one and one-half as many people as you want to come (for a 66% response rate). For a focus group of 6 to 10 this means inviting between 9 and 15 participants for each session.
To ensure open and honest input, keep manager sessions separate from non-manager focus groups. One-on-one interviews are recommended for executives if they’re going to be part of the process.
About Patricia Bell Newson
A graduate of Canada’s leading Journalism Degree program, Patricia Bell Newson is an accomplished writer and communications specialist. As a key member of the TalentMap team, Pat leads the company’s thought leadership with full force producing weekly content on employee engagement and best practices in employee surveys. Pat’s experience in advising leaders on strategic approaches to sensitive issues, priorities, and policies together with her ability to research and easily grasp various concepts regarding the workplace has been a great asset in creating valuable insights for HR leaders.
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