Focus on Conversation, Not Data, for Best Employee Feedback

By Lin Grensing-Pophal Aug 4, 2008
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Companies seek employee feedback on everything from compensation preferences to manager effectiveness to learning and development needs. Many companies conduct this employee research electronically—after all, e-research often is quick, cost-effective and cool. But there’s an old-fashioned way to hear from employees that can be more effective than conducting a survey: having conversations.

Conversations allow companies to explore key issues in more depth than surveys. And they make employees feel valued. The hidden power of these conversations lies in the fact that they are not about data, they are about dialogue.

Companies need to get at the “voice of the employee,” says Martha Finney, president and CEO of Engagement Journeys, LLC, a consulting firm in Santa Fe, N.M., and the author of The Truth About Getting the Best From People (FT Press, 2008). But that voice can get lost as it “gets aggregated into one huge clump of quantifiable options that emerge from surveys,” she says.

Gathering Honest Feedback

Effective conversations start with employees who are willing to share their honest impressions about the workplace. But while many companies tout their open cultures, the reality is that few companies have environments so safe that employees are willing to fully share their opinions.

Sandy Gluckman, Ph.D., president of The Gluckman Group, Inc., in Plano, Texas, says employees working in “don’t make waves” cultures are likely to “say what is politically safe.” The result, she says, is an incorrect picture of reality.

“The only time you are likely to get this successful outcome is in an organization that has a culture based on open, honest, courageous communication,” says Gluckman. “There are not many of these around!”

To yield the most insightful responses, Finney suggests asking questions such as:

  • What does it take to be successful here?
  • If there is one roadblock between the company’s ideal culture and the way it really is, what is it?
  • Which of the corporate values speaks to you the most?
  • Tell me of a time when you were especially proud to be associated with this company.

The answer to that last question, says Finney, almost always provokes tears. “You don’t get tears in surveys or focus groups,” she says.

The ability to ensure that questions asked are non-biased and non-leading is critical, but this can be difficult for insiders to achieve.

“It’s been my experience that there’s a lot that can be gained from having someone from outside come and have interviews with employees,” says Jennifer Schade, president of JRS Consulting, Inc., in Wilmette, Ill. She has interviewed thousands of employees in focus groups and individual interviews for companies such as Kraft Foods and McDonald’s. Even companies that believe they have a great culture might be surprised by some of the things that come out, Schade says.

Multiple Inputs Yield Rich Results

Gathering feedback from employees through multiple channels on a regular basis can be preferable to using the results of a focus group, or even a series of focus groups.

“There is a direct correlation between feedback and success,” says Joe Phelps, CEO and founder of The Phelps Group, a marketing and communications agency in Santa Monica that endorses creating multiple feedback mechanisms to provide employees with ample ways to engage in conversation at many levels.

The tools they use include the traditional and the creative:

  • 360-degree surveys to allow employees to provide feedback on their peers/teammates.
  • A group survey to allow employees to provide feedback about the employer.
  • “The Wall”—written feedback on work posted on a wall in the center of the workplace.
  • “The WallBanger”—a weekly gathering for snacks at The Wall to share verbal feedback about work.
  • “The Brainbanger's Ball”—a weekly company-wide focus group/brainstorming meeting.

Considering Demographic Differences

The channels and methods used to gather feedback from employees will vary based on type, size and demographic make-up of the organization.

ReThinkRewards is a web-based company that builds points-driven employee rewards and recognition programs. The company uses sessions called “Brutal Facts” to solicit feedback from employees. Cathy Chin, employee experience manager, says these sessions “create dialogue in an open environment with agreed-upon action items.”

But while these sessions work well for her company—where the average employee age is 30—they might not work in another environment, Chin notes.

Making sure that all employee segments feel they have the opportunity to be heard is very important, says Lynne Lancaster, co-author of When Generations Collide (HarperCollins, 2002). Doing this effectively means having an awareness of not only their differences, but also your biases and perspectives, she says.

For instance, Lancaster says a question like: “How important was our company’s reputation when you looked at coming to work here?” might seem innocuous but might be based on the HR leader’s belief that corporate reputation matters. A more open-ended question such as “Which factors about our company drew you to apply here?” is a better way to frame this question, says Lancaster. “You might be surprised to find that a millennial might say something like social engagement with the community—that may not have even been on your radar screen,” she says.

Lancaster says there can be value in combining and segmenting employee demographic groups to explore perspectives. “Sometimes it can be really valuable to have just a single band in a focus group because it may allow people to speak more freely,” she notes.

On the other hand, combining different segments can help employees gain new perspectives and can help break down barriers and enhance understanding across employee segments, she says.

“The more diverse your workforce is the more innovative you can become, and that’s really the name of the game,” says Schade. “You don’t want everybody thinking alike – you want to have a culture that encourages people to speak up.”

An absolute must when gathering feedback in any manner is acting on the information gathered, says Schade. “If you’re going to do these interviews and you’re not going to give any kind of information to employees about what you heard and you’re not going to do anything with the information, then don’t do it because you will only make people very frustrated,” she says.

There must be some form of follow-up, Schade says. The report doesn’t have to cover every finding but should be a summary of what was heard and what the plans are to address the feedback.

Lin Grensing-Pophal, SPHR, is a Wisconsin-based business journalist with HR consulting experience in employee communication, training and management issues. She is the author of Human Resource Essentials: Your Guide to Starting and Running the HR Function (SHRM, 2002).
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