Focus groups can shape new HR initiatives

For proper results, prioritize quality of participants, questions and rules
By Michael Nolan
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 12/17/2012

Focus groups are widely accepted as a data-gathering method that produce important results at a reasonable cost. The approach is particularly important when the goal is to gather perceptions, opinions, suggestions, attitudes or feelings about a specific topic. Focus groups are also used to gain insights into why these beliefs or feelings are held.

For HR practitioners, focus groups can help improve the planning and design of new HR initiatives, as well as provide a means of evaluating existing ones.

Focus groups have two benefits. First, they gather information about attitudes and perceptions as they relate to HR products, services or programs Second, as participants interact with each other, HR may also find out how their attitudes and perceptions were developed, which can be extremely helpful if it wants to change them.

Opinions of others help solidify personal viewpoints

A potential flaw to electronic or phone surveys, and even individual face-to-face interviews, is they assume individuals already know how they feel and can form these opinions in isolation. In reality, people may need to listen to the opinions of others before they solidify their own personal viewpoints. Some opinions are developed quickly and held with absolute certainty, while others are more fluid and evolve over time.

People can influence each other with their comments and in the course of a discussion, the opinions of an individual might shift, according to the 1993 book Successful Focus Groups: Advancing the Art by David Morgan. A skilled facilitator can discover how that shift occurred and the nature of the influencing factors.

The questions asked in a focus group are often simple and straightforward. They are the kinds of questions an individual could answer in a few minutes. However, when these questions are asked in a group environment and supported by skillful probing, it can result in candid comments about individual perceptions. A supportive and permissive group environment gives individuals the opportunity to express emotions that often do not emerge in other forms of questioning.

A skilled facilitator will take great effort to develop this permissive environment by implementing an effective process that includes the selection of participants, the nature of the questions and the establishment of focus group ground rules.

Selection of participants

Focus groups are usually conducted with six to 12 participants who are selected because they share specific characteristics related to a topic or issue. Focus groups are best conducted with participants who are similar to each other and this homogeneity is reinforced in the introduction to the group discussion.

For example, the facilitator might say: “We have invited you to participate in this focus group because you have all joined the organization within the last six months. We want to hear your perceptions and thoughts about the current onboarding process.”

Since the rule for selecting focus group participants is commonality, not diversity, all participants must meet the criteria, such as being at the same organizational level or having similar roles and responsibilities. If participants lack this unity, they may be more hesitant to share their beliefs and feelings and defer to someone else in the group whom they feel is more knowledgeable, influential or in a higher position.

The other crucial selection factor an HR practitioner must keep in mind is buy-in or ownership from those who will be most affected by the HR initiative. Since client ownership is critical to the long-term health and success of any HR intervention, all client groups included in the scope of the project or initiative must be represented in the focus groups.

Nature of the questions

The quality of the data collected is directly related to the quality of the questions. Questions, therefore, are the heart of a focus group. A skilled facilitator may appear to use spontaneous questions but, in fact, these have been carefully selected and phrased in advance to elicit the maximum amount of information.

A focus group uses several types of questions that each serve a distinct purpose:

• Opening questions are used to gather quick facts about the participants.

• Introductory questions are used to introduce the general topic of discussion and provide participants with an opportunity to reflect on past experiences and their connection with the overall topic.

• Transition questions move the conversation into key questions that drive the focus group study.

• Key questions are four to six open-ended questions that focus on critical topic areas.

• Summary or final questions bring closure to the discussion and enable participants to reflect back on previous comments. The responses gathered are critical for the facilitator during the analysis phase.

Quality questions require forethought and planning. Successful focus groups begin with well-thought-out questions that are appropriately sequenced. Open-ended questions allow participants to state what is on their minds without introducing any bias as to what the facilitator suspects is on their minds.

Making the rules

Ground rules help a facilitator to establish what behaviours are expected of the focus group participants. They identify the “rules of engagement” that support a permissive and safe environment.

Some examples include: “Participate actively,” “Speak one at a time,” “Treat everyone’s ideas with respect — don’t criticize,” “Minimize side conversations” and “Keep focused on the topic or question.”

Opening statements by the facilitator could also include other ground rules such as:

• “There are no right or wrong answers but rather differing points of view.”

• “Please share your point of view, even if it differs from what others have said.”

• “We are just as interested in negative comments as positive ones.”

• “We’re recording what is said because we don’t want to miss any comments.”

• “We will be on a first-name basis today and in our later reports no names will be attached to comments.”

• “Please be assured of complete confidentiality.”

• “Today’s session will last about one hour.”

Whatever ground rules are established, their sole purpose is to create an environment where the facilitator can openly gather perceptions, opinions, suggestions, attitudes or feelings.

A focus group is created to accomplish a specific purpose — to obtain qualitative information from a predetermined and limited number of people — through a defined process.

Focus groups provide an environment in which opinions and other disclosures are encouraged and nurtured, but it falls to the HR facilitator to bring focus to those disclosures through open-ended questions within a supportive and permissive environment.

After the focus group is conducted, the next steps are to analyze the data, report the findings and translate the results into action, which will ensure the success of the HR initiative.

Michael Nolan is president of Friesen, Kaye and Associates in Ottawa, a learning and performance improvement organization, specializing in facilitation and custom-designed learning interventions. He can be reached at (800) 352-5585 or

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