Want real employee feedback? Use a focus group

In many companies, feedback is like the kids’ game of “telephone.” Em­­ployees are supposed to give feedback to their managers, then managers interpret that feedback up the chain to HR and the CEO.

But too often, important feedback gets garbled—or simply ignored—on its way up the ladder.

Employee focus groups are a good way you can uncover issues affecting productivity and retention. Use the following steps to organize your focus groups without excessive red tape or cost:

1. Determine discussion topics. Shape issues with help from basic HR information and tools such as exit interviews, disciplinary records, annual review results and employee surveys.

2. Prepare questions. Write out no more than five key questions in ad­­vance. Defining queries beforehand and limiting the number gives participants more time to focus on crucial issues.

3. Select participants. The makeup of a focus group depends on its goal. A companywide group designed to get feedback on specific issues, such as ben­efits, may include a range of employees selected according to factors such as duties, title, employment length and department.

A group addressing issues such as sales and new-product design would include a representative sampling of employees from the relevant departments.  

4. Limit the group’s size and meeting length. Select six to 10 people so everyone can contribute. To avoid participant fatigue, keep the meeting under two hours.

5. Send written invitations to participants. Describe the purpose of the focus group and detail what the organization expects from attendees. Include the agenda, date and time. Note that par­­ticipation is voluntary and employees will receive a report on the results. In­­­­clude a contact name and number for employees to call with questions. Ask a senior executive to sign the letter to signal commitment from management. Call invitees a few days before the meeting to remind them.

6. Designate a facilitator. It can be an HR professional or manager with good communication and listening skills. Choose a person without an obvious conflict of interest.

For ex­­ample, the manager of a department should not facilitate its focus group.

Finally, take notes or conduct audio recordings of the discussions, then write up a report. Within the month, host a follow-up meeting with management to decide how to act on the findings.