Getting in focus

September 15, 2011
There are a lot of things I love about the work I do – communicating with employees can be enormously rewarding, creative and fun. Hands down, my favorite part about my job is the opportunity to get out and talk with employees through focus groups.I’ll never forget my first trip to conduct focus groups for a manufacturing company that had factories all across the United States. What an eye-opening experience (especially for a recent college graduate) to travel across the country to hear firsthand what a manufacturing employee’s day-to-day work experience is like. Sure, our clients can tell us about their workforce and culture, or we can review the results of the latest employee satisfaction survey, but there’s nothing quite like hearing it straight from the source.Since then, I’ve traveled from Alaska to Florida conducting focus groups for a myriad of clients over the years. Next week, our team is facilitating a series of employee focus groups on the topic of diversity – what better way to build a diversity communications strategy than to hear firsthand what employees want and need? Based on what we hear, we can work with our client to build a plan that responds to current concerns, capitalizes on employees’ interests, and creates a better work environment for everyone.Sometimes I feel like a broken record when I’m talking to clients – there’s rarely a time when it makes sense to build any sort of communications plan without talking to employees first. Plans and strategies that are built without taking employee perspectives into account are doomed to fail. Focus groups can be quick and easy to pull off, and the resulting data is invaluable.A few focus group tips:

  • Try to get a representative sample of employees – it’s always best to choose employees at random, but try to work with HR to generate a list of employees that represent a broad range of levels, departments and tenures.
  • Similarly, make sure you’re getting a representative geographic sample. Issues and concerns can vary widely between different office locations. This may require a bit of travel, but it's well worth the effort.
  • It’s always best to do separate manager and employee focus groups. Employees will be less likely to open up and share if their manager or other senior staff members are present.
  • Do everything you can to help employees feel safe and comfortable. We always recommend a third-party facilitator to ensure confidentiality, and HR should never be in the room. Facilitators should only ask for employees’ first names, and while taking notes of employees’ responses, no comments should be associated with individual employees.
  • When facilitating, make sure you’re keeping the discussion on track. Depending on the topic, focus groups have a tendency to turn into therapy sessions. Once one employee starts complaining about something that’s bugging him/her, everyone starts to open up. Sharing concerns is important, but always try to redirect the conversation to productive topics, and stick to a pre-determined set of questions to ensure you cover all the areas you want to discuss.

And, perhaps most important of all, make sure you act on what you hear. Nothing is more frustrating for employees than when they share their concerns but see no action as a result. Report back to focus group participants on what you heard, and share your action plans in as much detail as possible.Thinking about doing focus groups in your organization? Give us a ring if you’d like to discuss!Â

Alison Harrison

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