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Use Focus Groups to Explore Needs and Preferences

As you can tell, we're big fans of demographics, agreeing with David Foot that they explain "two-thirds of everything." But to really get inside the minds of employees, you need to go further and talk to them. The best way to do so is to conduct focus groups.

Why focus groups? This proven research method—widely practiced by marketers, scientists, and other professionals since the 1920s—can help you do the following:

  • Explore an issue.
  • Test a concept.
  • Follow up on the launch of a program to see how well it was understood or received.
  • Find out why employees answered a survey in a certain way.

Focus groups are a form of qualitative research that explores an issue in depth, allowing people to express their opinions and engage in dialog. Unlike quantitative research (such as surveys), qualitative research does not provide statistical data. Yet qualitative research is considered a scientifically valid tool that yields valuable insights into what people perceive and believe.

In addition to focus groups, types of qualitative research include one-on-one interviews (often used when the topic is personal or sensitive, or when it's logistically difficult to bring people together) and user testing (observing a person while he or she completes a task, such as visiting a website or completing a form).

Focus groups are ideal when you need to explore a topic in an open-ended way, since you can dive deeper and ask follow-up questions. If you need to ask, "Why is this true?" or "What does this mean?", focus groups are the right research method.

Although focus groups can seem deceptively simple to manage—"All you need to do is gather employees in a conference room and start talking, right?"—experts know that this research method is more complicated than meets the eye. That's why HR professionals often turn to research firms or external moderators to assist with focus group studies.

Guidelines for Conducting Focus Groups

If you decide to manage your own focus groups, several good books provide how-to information:

  • The Focus Group Kit by David L. Morgan and Richard A. Krueger (Sage Publications, 1997)
  • How to Conduct Employee Focus Groups by Joe DeLuccia, Kimberly Gavagan, and David Pitre (Davis & Company, 2009)
  • Moderating Focus Groups: A Practical Guide for Group Facilitation by Dr. Thomas L. Greenbaum (Sage Publications, 1999)

We can't give you a complete recipe for conducting focus groups. But we believe three factors will help you plan a focus group study: set objectives, develop a discussion guide, and choose participants.

Set Objectives

Your first step is to set objectives, which articulate—in a disciplined, focused way—what you're trying to learn as a result of your focus group research. Objectives provide a framework to answer the question: What am I willing and able to change as a result of this research?

Setting objectives begins with creating a thesis, a statement that summarizes what you're trying to accomplish.

The thesis can be expressed as statement ("Employees seem to be just going through the motions in the performance management system, instead of participating fully.") or as a question ("How will employees react to the new retirement program?"). In either case, the thesis articulates the core reason you're engaging in focus groups.

After you've nailed down the thesis, use it to create no more than three objectives.

Develop a Discussion Guide

As soon as your objectives are set, you're ready to develop a discussion guide, which is the term used by researchers to describe the document—part script, part outline—that the focus group moderator uses to facilitate the session.

To create a discussion guide, think about the two or three main things you want to learn. For example, if your thesis involves finding out what employees think about a change to disability plans, you could explore these categories:

  • Employees' understanding of the current plans
  • Their reaction to planned changes
  • How they would like to learn about changes

Once you have your main categories, think about the key questions for each category that will help your moderator discuss the issue with participants. Avoid the temptation to create a long list of questions. The idea is to give the moderator a sense of structure, not to script every word he or she will say.

Sample Discussion Guide

The following is an example of a simple discussion guide used in a one-hour focus group designed to explore how employees were perceiving the current HR program.

Study Objectives:

Inquire about HR communication needs and preferences, find out how employees are using the HR website, and get employee reaction to recent communication regarding the new benefits plan.

Discussion Outline:

  1. Introduction/manage expectations
    • Explain why the focus group is being held, along with ground rules for participation and what to expect.
  2. HR information needs and preferences
    • How do you currently get information about benefits and other HR programs and policies?
    • Do you feel well-informed about your benefits?
    • What would you like more information about?
  3. Use of HR website
    • Do you currently use the company's HR website?
    • What do you use it for?
    • Do you find the information useful?
    • What, if anything, would you change about the site?
  4. Reaction to recent HR communication
    • Did you receive the recent message from HR about the new medical plan?
    • What was your reaction to the message?
    • How did it make you feel?
    • What, if anything, would you change about similar messages in the future?
  5. Close
    • Thank you/next steps.

Choose Participants

Most focus studies involve a limited number of participants. For example, even a large study might engage fewer than 100 people from an overall workforce of 10,000 employees. Because the sample is so small, it's critical to be smart about how participants are selected and to work hard to encourage selected employees to participate.

The best way to select participants is to use a method called "purposively selected" sampling. This consists of deciding on your criteria and then finding people who meet these criteria. This is different from the random sampling used for surveys, and it's a far cry from the casual way in which focus groups are often put together—inviting only people you know.

For example, if your thesis is "How do employees regard the current benefits program?", your sample would be benefits-eligible employees. You then can decide if you'd like to segment subgroups. When Alison's firm conducted focus groups to gather feedback on an executive pay program, the sample was all executives, but participants were grouped by level: junior and intermediate executives into one set of focus groups, and senior executives into another.

Guidance on Selecting Participants

Using your demographic data as a foundation, answer these questions to jump-start your thinking about who should participate:

  • How is your employee population structured? What are the main demographic groups? Do you need to segregate various sets of employees (manager/nonmanager, bands/levels, or new employees versus long-timers)?
  • Where are your major locations? Should your sample reflect important differences between locations? For instance, do you have large facilities and small ones, locations in the United States and in other countries, warehouses versus retail establishments?
  • What groups will your company management expect to see represented in order for them to feel comfortable about what you learn in the focus groups? Asking this question can potentially direct you to include a small but important employee group in your research.

First decide on criteria, and then find people who meet those criteria.

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