The benefits and pitfalls of employee focus groupsA plan without input from key stakeholders is like flying blind. Employee focus groups can provide invaluable input to the creation of an effective communications plan. But if done badly, they can result in a poor employee experience with the potential to undo the best of plans.
The Top 5 Tips for conducting employee focus groups:
Use a facilitator who can be objective about the topics discussed. This should never be the communicator responsible for the communications because employees might not be very candid. On the other hand, employees could become aggressive in putting the facilitator on the defensive if they believed that person is responsible for their pain.
Facilitators who are too close to an issue also tend not to probe employee perceptions fully enough because they make too many assumptions about what employees are saying. If there is no budget to hire a consultant, exchange facilitation time with someone in HR or a communicator at another company – or even a brand-new hire in your own department with no responsibility for the current state of communication.
Encourage quiet participants by using direct eye contact when asking a question, or asking a question of each person at the table that requires a unique answer, such as “When you first started working here, how did you learn about __?”
Use a random selection process to invite participants so that what you hear has a better chance of reflecting the perceptions of the majority of your employees. Letting employees volunteer or having HR or their own managers select employees will create a large degree of bias in your findings.
Use open-ended discussion to identify and explore issues; avoid asking questions with yes/no or very short answers.
Construct your list of questions to start broadly and narrow down later. For example, start with a question about examples of when participants experienced excellent and terrible comms overall before diving into specific questions about internal social media or supervisory comms.
On most topics about communication, separate various types of employees into different focus groups. Employees are less likely to say anything negative about management communication if they are in the same discussion group with managers.
Manufacturing employees’ experiences of internal comms will be completely different from employees’ experiences in call centers – having them in the same focus group will lead to disengagement from the discussion for each group nearly half the time.
The Top 5 Traps
Don’t let a focus group become a complaint session. After identifying problems, have the group prioritize them and then spend most of the time brainstorming solutions to the top three problems.
Do not record employee focus groups because you will hear less from them and what you do hear will be self-filtered in case someone from management might hear what they said and recognize their voices. Instead, bring a note-taker to the meetings.
Don’t let facts get in the way. Often focus group participants say something that is not factually correct. If another participant doesn’t correct them, the facilitator should not do so because this would have the effect of making the individual feel stupid and will dampen further participation by everyone, for fear that they too might be called out for being wrong.
However, if the misinformation is serious, at the end of the focus group the facilitator can point out what was not factual. This way everyone leaves the room with a correct perception, but no one is likely to remember who originally misunderstood a fact.
Don’t present qualitative research findings in narrative writing alone. No executive has time to read a 20-page, single-spaced report in Word about what you learned.
Create colorful tables in PowerPoint that show how often different issues came up as answers to the same questions in different types of focus groups (e.g.: red for issues that came up in half or more of your executive interviews or employee focus groups, orange for those that came up a little less than half, and yellow for issues that came up only in one or two interviews/focus groups).
This will allow you to prioritize the responses to each question and write a summary headline for that slide. Execs are much more likely to read a 20-page PPT with notes sections that include sample verbatim quotes.
Letting a few vocal people take over the conversation. To minimize this, set expectations at the beginning of the session that you’d like people to give everyone a chance to participate and not always be the first one to answer. Use a lack of eye contact to discourage a long response. My “magic trick” to eliminate the possibility of a particular person from being the first to answer a question is to ask a qualifying question with a show of hands (“How many of you use the intranet at least once a day?”) If the overly eager participant raises his hand, I’ll start this part of the discussion by saying, “For those of you who don’t use it every day, let’s talk about why not.”
This section is based on a section of Poppulo’s white paper The Ultimate Guide to Measuring Internal Communications, by Angela Sinickas, CEO Sinickas Communications Inc.