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How Employee 'Dialogue Circles' Can Build Trust, Connection—and Retention

More organizations are using these informal meetings to create stronger employee bonds. Here's a case study of how Dick's Sporting Goods has benefited from dialogue circles, and how you can structure your own.

A group of people sitting around a table and talking.

As COVID-19 was spreading across the country in March 2020, retail stores quickly closed their doors and often took many months to open again. Dick's Sporting Goods was one of the fastest to reopen, but those early pandemic days were highlighted by a lot of fear and unanswered questions.

Julie Lodge-Jarrett, Dick's chief people and purpose officer"It was a pretty heavy time for our employees," said Julie Lodge-Jarrett, Dick's chief people and purpose officer, at last month's Visionaries Summit for SHRM Executive Network members.

At the time, Dick's employees had concerns about interacting with other humans, wearing masks and risking bringing the coronavirus back home to family members.

"Our employees needed a safe space to engage and talk," Lodge-Jarrett said. "So we created literal circles for dialogue where we brought employees together to talk about anything and everything that might be on their minds that day. It was incredibly insightful from an HR standpoint."

Dick's created a structure for these gatherings: Dialogue circles would be 30 to 60 minutes and limited to eight to 10 employees, either in an online Zoom meeting or sitting together in a circle of chairs—often before or after store hours (all on paid time). One employee has the responsibility to facilitate, but that doesn't have to be an HR representative or manager—just someone who can keep the discussion on track and respectful. The circles typically start with one topic but often veer into other directions.

Participants are given minimal ground rules, Lodge-Jarrett said. "You can participate or listen. All we ask is that you treat each other with respect and dignity and that you are curious."

Expanding the Circle

A couple months later came George Floyd's murder and the ensuing nationwide protests. The dialogue circles at Dick's soon took on a new focus—racial justice, Black Lives Matter and police relations.

"To have these conversations but take it down to just a human level was something that our team was craving. They needed to cry. They needed to laugh. They needed to not feel alone," Lodge-Jarrett said.

Other organizations have also found value in hosting dialogue circles for employees, including AT&T, the Rockefeller Foundation and Princeton University.

Dialogue circles work best when participants focus on "suspending assumptions, listening deeply and engaging with others in the spirit of exploration," says Angelo John Lewis, an organizational development practitioner. "Some groups add an additional ground rule encouraging each other to speak from personal experience, as opposed to what they've read or heard about from others. This process forms an invisible container and enables the group to engage in a kind of sacred conversation."

In most Dick's stores, dialogue circles are now held monthly. Topics have included mass shootings, mental health, pronouns and female leadership. Dick's HR leaders send topic ideas and sample questions to store managers. Sometimes, the dialogue topics come from Dick's quarterly employee pulse surveys, such as a recent round of circles focused on employee recognition. But often, the circles—still offered online and in person—take on a life of their own.

"The biggest lesson we learned is that we didn't need to fear having these conversations," Lodge-Jarrett said. "We should be more afraid if we don't have a culture in which we can have these conversations."

Dialogue circles are mainly for listening—not to collect data or take action. But Dick's has made some companywide changes based on what they've learned. For example, the company kept hearing in dialogue circles that employees didn't feel like the company had their backs when dealing with rude and abusive customers. In such cases, the employee was typically removed from the incident and the customer was handled by a manager. Now, each store has signage out front that says employees must be treated with respect, and rude customers are now asked to apologize to the employee and/or leave the store.  

'It's Really Hard to Hate Up Close'

Americans' deep political and cultural rifts haven't exactly eased over the past few years. So Dick's leaders did worry that these gatherings could devolve into shouting matches and even violence.

"We did have that fear, but I can count on one hand the times they got ugly enough that they needed to be interrupted," Lodge-Jarrett said. "Because I can dislike your stance on something, but if I'm hearing your story and understand your 'why,' it's hard for me to dislike you as a human. … It's really hard to hate up close."  

Company research shows that dialogue circles have helped with retention during the Great Resignation by allowing workers to create greater relationships and bonds on a personal level—something that's difficult to do in today's remote-and-removed work climate.

In some instances, dialogue circles have also created the opposite of retention.

"It's created some attrition—but in a healthy way," Lodge-Jarrett said. "If a teammate is so fundamentally struggling with our stance on certain things, such as women's reproductive rights, then we're probably not the place for you, and that's OK."

​How to Structure an Employee Dialogue Circle

  1. Create a safe space and opening for the dialogue. This can be accomplished by starting with a moment of silence, an affirmation or something similar.

  2. Set clear ground rules for the dialogue, such as:

    • Speak from experience.
    • Listen as equals.
    • Suspend your assumptions.
    • Respect the speaker.
    • Defer the need for clarification.
    • Focus on the learning.
  3. Offer a question or issue for exploration—i.e., the "theme" of the dialogue session.
  4. Share stories related to the question, issue or theme.
  5. Listen as colleagues and honor the person who is speaking.
  6. Close the dialogue by explicitly stating or marking the close of the dialogue session.
  7. Debrief the learning and discuss takeaways and next steps.



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