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How to Conduct an Employee Focus Group

Focus groups serve a variety of purposes for the human resource professional. They can be used to gather feedback on pilot programs or to check the pulse of the workforce following a major change or reorganization. Focus groups can also be used as a vital and useful supplement to employee surveys. Whereas surveys are most effective at providing quantifiable data, focus groups can be used to “enrich” these results by revealing the more qualitative perspectives underlying the numbers. Although focus groups have multiple uses, there are some common guidelines for making them optimally effective. It is easy to gather a group of employees in a room, ask a few questions and have a “discussion.” It takes care, however, to ensure that the discussion yields reliable data that can serve as a basis for decision-making. A productive focus group is much more than a chat session. Too often, the assumption is made that if a group of people is gathered in a room, a collective and representative opinion will naturally emerge. However, principles of group dynamics suggest otherwise. In fact, left to chance, a focus group will almost certainly fail to live up to its potential.

This guide is meant to show the basic steps in conducting an employee focus group. Each step below requires development beyond what this guide is meant to cover.

Step 1: Select the Purpose Statement and Obtain Executive Support and Commitment

The first task in preparing for a focus group is creating a purpose statement. The purpose statement provides a concise and clear rationale for conducting the session. It describes the “focus” of the focus group. Some examples of purpose statements include:

  • To discover, clarify and record themes regarding employee perception of and reaction to the new benefits plan.

  • To evaluate employee satisfaction with the individual employee development plan.

  • To uncover ways to increase employee survey participation rates.

As with employee surveys, obtaining executive support and the commitment to take actions based on the results are keys to success. Employees need to know that their participation will actually make things better; if not, the entire process of any focus group will be undermined and a waste of resources. When possible, HR professional should present executives with objectives that affect the bottom line, such as increased participation in consumer-driven health care to reduce costs, increased engagement or manager-employee communications to reduce turnover, or a decrease in employee accidents leading to a decrease in workers’ compensation costs.

Step 2: Develop a Process Guide, Including Group Questions

A process guide includes a session outline and the group questions to be discussed. An outline that will be distributed to the participants should include the purpose statement, the rules of participation, any opening activity and the discussion format. An example follows:

Session outline

I. Purpose

  • To discover, clarify and record themes regarding employee perception of and reaction to the new benefits plan.

II. Opening activity

  • Pair discussion: “If you could make one point today about the new benefits plan, what would that point be?”

III. Rules

  • The facilitator is neutral.

  • Everyone participates.

  • Listening is as important as talking.

  • Disagreement and differences of opinion are good.

  • Common courtesy is exhibited at all times.

IV. Discussion

  • Presentation of question.

  • Individual review (two minutes).

  • Discussion.

An opening activity is useful as an icebreaker and to get the dialogue going. In addition to the example above, the opener could be a game, such as having the employees draw a picture of themselves reading about the new benefits plan, or filling in the blank in a sentence such as “I wish the new benefits plan had/didn’t have _____.”

The process guide may also address the HR professional’s research methodology and any reporting procedures. Some examples include:

  • How employees and the facilitator were selected.

  • How the data are collected, and processes for drawing conclusions, including any debriefing sessions with the facilitator team.

  • How key findings and recommendations will be presented, such as an executive summary, to whom they will be reported and in what time frame.

Question design is a critical step in preparing for a focus group. The key here is specificity. Questions should be designed to solicit the views of participants regarding specific issues. General questions generate general thoughts. Specific questions generate specific thoughts and bring to light the detail necessary to define issues in such a way that effective action can be taken. Consider the differences:

  • “What do you think about the new benefits plan?”

  • “What are the two most important changes in the new benefits plan?”

  • “What is the most positive aspect of the new benefits plan, and why?”

The first question, if asked of a group of employees, will most likely generate little more than shrugs. The other two questions, however, ask participants to categorize their thoughts around specific aspects of the topic. Using more specific questions incites the type of discussion that yields meaningful, rather than vague and general, information. A grouping of two to five questions would be appropriate for a focus group to discuss.

Step 3: Select the Team Facilitator

The facilitator plays the leading role in a focus group. He or she does much more than merely asking questions. The facilitator is ultimately responsible for the outcome of the session. If the facilitator plays his or her role effectively, a meaningful result is much more likely.

Managers or department heads generally should not facilitate a focus group of their own direct reports. Candid responses will be extremely rare, employees may feel uncomfortable given the topic, and employees often look to please and agree with what they feel their superior wants. HR representatives can make good facilitators, as can a skilled, outside facilitator. Whoever is selected, he or she must remain neutral and have the skills to keep the discussion on track, to steer the conversation away from a general gripe session, and to avoid an uninspired, silent meeting.

Scribes should also be selected when possible, as the facilitator, ideally, should not be taking notes. A facilitator may write on a white board for discussion purposes, but another team member should note additional points, comments or issues to consider. Some employers may also record these sessions, to be transcribed later, but should ensure that employees are comfortable with this option and that it will not limit candid responses.

Step 4: Select and Invite Employee Participants

Though opinions vary, the general size of each employee focus group should be composed of between six and 12 employees, with between two and 10 groups used overall. Certainly the nature of the topic and size of the employer will help govern the focus group size. Whether the employee selection is random or based on other factors, a good representation of the affected population is the goal. Selection criteria may include employee tenure (to select both newly hired and long-term employees), performance ratings, function/department, personality type or other demographics meaningful to the topic. Some topics may allow for managers and direct reports to be in the same group, but in general, they should be kept separate. A balance that will be both representative and meaningful for the topic being discussed is sought.

Whereas some employers make participation mandatory, most will invite employees to participate on a voluntary basis. The meeting should be scheduled during work hours in a private room where employees will not be overheard. Meetings are usually scheduled for 60 to 90 minutes. Employers should ensure confidentiality and anonymity of any comments made from the facilitators and ask for the same among participants.

Step 5: Conduct the Meeting

The HR professional should arrive early to set up the room and any recording devices or technology being used. Circle seating is best to encourage conversation. Scribes should have the necessary equipment to record the responses accurately, and all facilitator materials must be in place. Name tags or tent cards with first names of the participants should be set up to help identify speakers.

As participants arrive, they should be welcomed and provided informal introductions to encourage conversation. The HR professional should review the process guide and outline to explain the purpose of the meeting, agenda, ground rules and expectations. Participants should be allowed a few minutes to review the discussion questions quietly, and then the facilitator may proceed with the discussion.

To keep the discussion moving and on track, the facilitator should:

  • Speak in a conversational tone and make eye contact with participants to both engage them and show them he or she is listening. The facilitator, remaining neutral, should watch participants’ body language for signs of agreeing or disagreeing with what is being said.
  • Allow some tangents in the conversation, but bring the discussion back to the stated question. The facilitator must be able to gently interrupt participants who go on too long and ensure equal time is given to varying opinions.
  • Be sensitive to participants whose comments may have been misunderstood or who did not have time to fully explain their point of view. The facilitator should ask probing questions (e.g., what, why) and paraphrase or repeat back certain phrases so that ideas can be clarified and validated.

Participants should be thanked for their time and contributions to the meeting, and be told what follow-up to expect. Some employers choose to thank participants with a free lunch or a small gift such as movie tickets. HR professionals should consider what schedule and motivators work best for their organizations.

Step 6: Analyze Data and Report Findings

The HR manager should hold a debriefing session with the scribes and the facilitator to cull employee feedback, universal themes, overall tone of the meeting, surprising comments and any personal observations worth noting. The information may best be arranged by responses to the discussion questions or by dominant themes or concerns. The HR professional should draw overall conclusions that answer the discussion questions, and if appropriate, develop recommended action steps.

HR should then create an executive summary of objectives, key findings and recommendations and communicate the results as appropriate to managers and above, and to employee participants. Participants should be informed about how the information will be used, and HR should offer follow-up reports or summaries to ensure employees know actions were taken.


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