Written by Doug Baker, Senior Vice President

Employee engagement has become an important initiative for many companies over the past several years. One might say that there is a crisis in employee engagement. As our 2013 Employee Rising research shows, employers around the world are not effectively communicating with their employees, and as a result only 30 percent of employees are deeply engaged with their employers. Company leadership and effective internal communications have a significant impact on employee engagement. So, it is important for companies to listen to their employees through multiple channels and occasionally “take the pulse” of employee attitudes through periodic internal surveys and focus groups.

Over the past few years I have been engaged to manage and conduct numerous employee focus groups, in-depth interviews, and survey projects. Usually the research is in the context of a major change in the company, such as rolling out a new Mission, Vision, and Values statement, a merger, or a new initiative by the company affecting employees. To keep employees engaged, they must have their voices heard. They must not only understand the company’s Mission, Vision, and Values–they must believe in them too.

The first step in any major employee engagement initiative, regardless of the impetus, is to hear from employees. Providing employees the opportunity to express, in their own words, what they feel the company’s direction should be, and giving them an opportunity to react to employee engagement initiatives, is critical for success. After all, how can you have a successful employee engagement initiative if you don’t know what employees think? Employee focus groups are a great way to accomplish this because it gives them an opportunity to express their opinions and engage with others as well as gives them the chance to feel like their employer cares about what they have to say and is taking the time to listen to their opinions.

I have often been asked for “best practices” for employee focus groups. While some of these may be self-evident, that doesn’t make them less important. The main goal is to hear from a broad range of employees and let them express their honest opinions in a comfortable, open fashion.

1. Randomly choose employees to participate in the focus groups. Don’t cherry-pick employees to participate in focus groups who you know will either agree with your point of view or are already “engaged.” Every employee should have an opportunity to have their voices heard. In fact, to foster more effective employee engagement, a company needs to hear from those who are less engaged to understand what might motivate them.

2. Hire a third party research firm. A third party research firm will have a neutral position and can assure a degree of impartiality in the process. While this may seem self-serving, conducing focus groups internally could potentially keep participants from being fully open and honest about their opinions or express criticisms if they feel there may be repercussions.

3. No one from the company itself should observe the groups. Often those responsible for a new employee engagement initiative want to observe the focus groups. Generally we advise against this for the same reason as above. If the group is observed by another employee, some participants may be disinclined to give their opinion or express criticism.

4. Make sure groups are composed of people at the same general level of the organization. It is very important that focus groups are among peers and to avoid situations where an employee and the person they report to are in the same group. This will ensure openness and frank discussions.

5. Ensure anonymity throughout the process. The reason to conduct employee focus groups is to hear a candid assessment of the topic being addressed. The more comfortable employees feel that their individual comments are not being reported to senior leaders, the more likely they are to provide the kind of feedback needed. They need to believe that neither the independent moderator nor the other participants in the groups will be sharing feedback with someone else at the company.

6. Consider sharing topline results of the research. Companies should consider sharing topline results of what was heard in the focus groups with employees. One of the key drivers of employee engagement is a feeling that senior leadership listens to what they have to say. This is an opportunity for a company to say, “We listened to you, we heard what you had to say, and here is how we are using your feedback.”

While there’s much more to the nuts and bolts of executing employee focus groups, these general recommendations will help ensure employees feel comfortable providing honest feedback. And this feedback is critical to ensure that what the company communicates aligns with what employee care about and value.