To find out what your staff really think of your company, start an employee discussion group.

What are employee discussion groups?

Discussion groups enable staff to get any grievances, problems or ideas off their chest in an environment where their views will not be used against them. The discussions are chaired by a senior manager or director and are strictly confidential so that employees can chat about their feelings on company-wide issues.

The aim is to make employees feel comfortable about discussing their working life.

It is an outlet for them to talk about issues such as long hours with no overtime, the need for childcare facilities or possible training courses – everything that staff might not feel they can discuss with their line manager, especially if the line manager is the problem. The emphasis is on making sure employees feel relaxed about what they can or can’t say. It is imperative that they can speak freely without fear of repercussions.

The employers conducting the meetings must also be impartial, frank and open when replying to any points raised. It is important, though, that the meeting does not become a platform for “sounding off”, and is seen as solution-orientated rather than reactive and negative.

Why does my firm need a employee discussion group?

Discussion groups are an excellent way of communicating directly with staff, and can help employers find out what staff honestly feel about the company. What is good and bad? What can be improved?

Staff turnover is a problem for some firms and these discussion groups can be useful in finding out why people are leaving, and what can be done to prevent this. The groups also provide a platform to reiterate the benefits of working for the company by emphasising benefits and making sure staff are aware of future company plans. Productivity can be improved by creating a happier workforce who feel able to address issues openly and honestly.

It’s important that the meeting doesn’t become a platform for “sounding off” and is solution-orientated

Robert Smith, Hays Montrose

How should the groups be structured?

Ideally, employee discussion groups should be relatively small with about five or six people, as this makes for a much more relaxed atmosphere than bigger and more intimidating groups. The meetings should encourage staff to talk about their feelings in an unthreatening environment.

A senior member of staff should chair the meeting, along with an impartial member of staff, perhaps from human resources, who can help lead and drive the discussion.

What is discussed?

First, you could give an overall strategic review of your company or focus on an individual department, division or region. This could be followed by discussion of a wide variety of topics, such as career path and promotions, communication structures, management style, incentives and company benefits. You could talk about staff development and retention, followed by a plan of action. You could perhaps talk about what is good or bad about the company and what could be changed for the better.

How do employers get feedback?

It is a good idea to hand out pre-prepared feedback forms beforehand, so that employees attending the meeting know in advance the kind of topics that will be discussed. They are asked to fill these in before the meeting, which allows for a more structured discussion and prevents it turning into a moaning session.

The discussion groups must be as constructive as possible. Staff should not be left feeling that they have opened up about sensitive issues, and then nothing comes of it.