How to Host Effective Employee Focus Group Meetings
Employee focus groups are one of the most powerful tools in a human resource executive’s toolbelt. When done effectively, they provide an employer with significant insights into employee culture, engagement, recognition programs, and brand image.
Your employees are your best brand ambassadors. Research indicates that 52 percent of people believe what employees say about their company over the company’s official communications. [Source: the Edelman Trust Barometer] This means that one of your top goals as a human resources professional is to ensure that your employees have a positive sentiment toward your company, mission and culture. Focus groups are a great way to learn where your company stands currently, along with what areas can be improved upon.
How to Leverage Employee Focus Group Meetings
I’ve hosted employee focus group meetings throughout my career in human resources. Some were used as ways to engage and understand organizational and cultural challenges and opportunities quickly and somewhat impartially as a new HR executive looking to gauge the company pulse and build credibility. Other times, it’s been to improve organizational communication when a specific company office or location was experiencing high turnover or other business challenges.
Whatever the reason, employee focus groups provide human resources teams and company leadership a great way to quickly and effectively engage a large group of people in an open, yet collaborative, environment. You’re likely already conducting employee surveys in some format, and surveys are a highly effective way to collect quantitative data. Focus groups can be a useful supplement to those surveys, offering an opportunity to collect more qualitative perspectives that relate to survey data. Plus, it doesn’t hurt to open and encourage an ongoing dialogue between your HR teams and employees.
Five best practices for hosting effective employee focus group meetings
#1 Keep your meetings small. No more than 15 attendees is an ideal size group. Your meeting should be restricted to less than 60 minutes and conducted during working hours. You should also ensure confidentiality and anonymity of any comments made from the facilitators and ask for the same from your participants. Smaller groups will allow you to keep the focus group length to 45-60 minutes, and depending on topic, ensure that everyone has an opportunity to contribute.
If you need a larger population size in order to gather more information, consider setting up a series of smaller focus groups that are identical except for the attendees. In order to collect accurate data, your questions and goals for each should be the same, and you should adhere to the same agenda in each session. Use a script that includes an introduction, questions and your closing statement. This ensures that you’re conducting each of your multiple focus groups consistently, which will give you more accurate and aligned qualitative data.
#2 Set boundaries to focus and organize the conversation. While you know that your purpose is to measure the depth of employees’ engagement in the company, that might not mean much to the employees who participate. Put together a statement and/or focus group facilitator talking points that explains in detail what outcome you expect to achieve through the focus group.
Prior to conducting your focus group, develop a session outline and specific questions to be discussed. The outline should be distributed to the participants and include the purpose of the session, rules of participation, expected activity and discussion format. It’s fine to allow some deviation from the topic during a group discussion, but your goal as a facilitator is to acknowledge the concern or idea, but also to return the group to the session goals while still maintaining an informal structure. You want participants know that they are being heard, but also that gathering their ideas and opinions on the focus group topics is of paramount importance.
#3 Keep notes to look for trends, challenges, and follow up items. It’s easy to organize a feedback session with employees and have a discussion. However, you want to ensure that the discussion leads to reliable data that you can use as a basis for decision making. Defining some key parameters ahead of your focus group that you can rate and expand on during the session can help keep you on track for collecting these data points. If you’re the facilitator, it’s a good idea to include another team member from HR to take notes.
#4 Keep it random. I use a number generator to randomly invite employees to attend focus group meetings ensuring that everyone has an opportunity to share their opinions, suggestions and concerns. Even when the employee selection is random, the goal is to get a good representation of the affected population based on the topic you’re trying to better understand. 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.
#5 Follow up with employees and leadership on important points and to provide status updates to employees who participated. Once you’ve completed the focus group, participants should be thanked for their time and contributions to the meeting, and then told what follow-up to expect. You should immediately schedule those follow up communications. Depending on what you’re trying to establish through your focus group, it’s often a good idea to share the results with the participants. It shows that you found their input useful, and offers transparency into the process that you’re working to improve.
Participants should be informed about how the information will be used, and your follow-up reports to the group should include information that ensures employees know actions were taken based on their feedback.
If you’re planning on conducting focus groups on a regular basis (and that’s always a good idea), consider offering some incentives to your employees for attending. Some employers thank participants with a free lunch or a small gift like movie tickets. Consider what motivators work best for your organization.
What to Do with Focus Group Information
Once each focus group session has wrapped up, hold a debriefing session with your team to review employee feedback, the tone of the meeting, comments of concern or items that must be addressed immediately, and other observations worth noting. You’ll also create an executive summary for company leadership that include key findings and recommendations.
Your executive summary should be followed by a report on the results of the actions you took based on the focus group. This is important so that you can demonstrate to company executives that the information you’re collecting via focus groups is pertinent to employee engagement and satisfaction, as well as get buy-in for potential new or changed company programs or processes.
Jessica Miller-Merrell is a workplace change agent and author focused on human resources and talent acquisition. She lives in Austin, TX and is recognized by Forbes as a top 50 social media influencer. She's the founder of Workology.