Three Key Tools for Collecting Qualitative Data

By Jennifer Currence, SHRM-SCP May 23, 2019
Three Key Tools for Collecting Qualitative Data

​Jennifer Currence, SHRM-SCP

The following article is adapted from Applying Critical Evaluation (SHRM, 2017), part of the SHRM Competency Series: Making an Impact in Small Business and one of three books in the SHRM Competencies Business Cluster Kit available from the SHRMStore.

If quantitative data use numbers to tell a story, qualitative data use words to tell a story. And though quantitative data are typically viewed as more dependable, objective and generalizable, qualitative data offer more in-depth, illuminating and descriptive information, often adding context and clarity behind those numbers.

For example, your data-driven analysis of employee retention reveals a spike in turnover over the last year, but only after conducting a round of stay interviews will you understand reasons why and be able to respond accordingly. Brainstorming, surveys and interviews form a potent triad for gathering the reliable qualitative information you need to be an effective HR professional.

TOOL 1: Brainstorming

The best thing about brainstorming is that there are no stupid ideas—make sure everyone knows this and buys in to it. Not even eye-rolling is allowed! When you gather your team together, lay down the rules for brainstorming. Your rules might look something like this:

  • There are no stupid ideas.
  • Say the crazy things that come to mind—they might spark a solid idea in someone else's thought process.
  • Don't hold back—the more ideas we generate, the better we will be.
  • No cellphones or laptops allowed—we want your full attention.
  • There are no stupid ideas.

You can brainstorm on your own (try mind-mapping if this is your only choice), but it's so much better when you have other people around, because you feed off one another's ideas, knowledge and experience. Brainstorming can be fun and simultaneously can create incredible synergy.

Choose individuals from each function within the company. Greater thought diversity within the group will yield an even greater outcome. If you're brainstorming, the more brains you have working together, the more ideas you'll get out of it—to a point. Once you have more than a dozen people in a room, it's easier to just sit and listen and harder to share. Instead of feeling honored to be part of the group, participants may end up sitting in a corner and feeling left out. Aim to include six to eight individuals for this kind of activity.

TOOL 2: Surveys

There are several types of surveys you can use to gather information. Internally, you might look at the history of employee engagement surveys to determine trends. Or you might create your own one-time survey that focuses on a particular current issue. For example, before developing an onboarding program, I create a survey to help determine the effectiveness of the current onboarding program. You can quickly and inexpensively design a survey on SurveyMonkey. Externally, you could purchase a salary survey that provides benchmarks for your location, size and industry. (SHRM, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and O*Net OnLine are great places to start.)

TOOL 3: Interviews

Interviewing employees often reveals enlightening information, but interviews are subjective and HR managers sometimes don't give them the weight they deserve. They can also take a long time to conduct. Those caveats aside, an interview is the best way to gather otherwise hard-to-find information that will really pinpoint an issue.

Exit interviews. The most common type of employee interview is the exit interview. This interview is sometimes preceded by an exit survey, which can help gather quantifiable data. The problem with the exit interview, of course, is that it happens after the employee has already decided to leave. Although it's very much a reactive interview, it can still be useful if conducted well. Tips to solicit good feedback include:

  • Conduct the exit interview on the last day or two before the employee leaves. Employees are often more willing to be open when they know they're on the job for only one more day.
  • Go offsite. Splurge on coffee or lunch or breakfast—maybe even a glass of wine! The employee will feel respected and valued for her opinion and likely to open up more.
  • Give it plenty of time. A well-run exit interview isn't completed in 15 minutes. Schedule an hour and use the entire time.
  • Really pay attention. Better awareness and insight come only from active listening.

Stay interviews. The No. 1 objective of stay interviews is to build trust, says Dick Finnegan, author of The Power of Stay Interviews (SHRM, 2018), so first-line managers must conduct them. Finnegan recommends that stay interviews be conducted every six to 12 months and that managers ask these five questions:

  1. When you come to work each day, what things do you look forward to?
  2. What are you learning here?
  3. Why do you stay here?
  4. When was the last time you thought about leaving our team? What prompted it?
  5. What can I do to make your experience at work better?

Jennifer Currence, SHRM-SCP, is president of The Currence Group in Tampa, Fla., and author of several books in the SHRM Competency Series: Making an Impact in Small Business. 

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