Can One HR Team Really Listen to 10k Employees?

Instead of trying to check in with every single employee, your HR team would be better off digging into specifics with fewer people.

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An HR leader told me recently that leadership wanted their team to check in one-on-one with every employee. The catch: the company has thousands of employees, plans on growing to 10,000, and has about one HR specialist for every 300-400 people on staff.

Short of hiring an army of HR specialists to do check-ins, there don’t seem to be many options. How can a team that size manage to talk to every single employee? 

They can’t, of course—but even if they could, it probably wouldn’t be the best use of everyone’s time.

At first glance, it makes intuitive sense to check in with everyone. Employees are closest to the issues, and as I’ve written before, speaking up is hard. Sitting down one-on-one with them is the fastest way to find out what they need. Why not aim for 100% participation?

But that’s the logic of quantitative research, where getting an accurate result can take hundreds of responses. Tackling complex HR issues takes a more qualitative research approach. 

Most qualitative studies take 10-30 participants (as usual, the guidance varies) to reach saturation. After talking to enough people, each interview yields fewer new insights. Eventually, you learn everything your audience is capable of telling you about the topic. 

So why did that leader expect their HR team to check in with everyone? The fact is, most executives are a lot more comfortable with quantitative data. It’s easier to measure and visualize, and the precision lends it authority: when “employee happiness” dips from 8.1 to 7.9, there’s no ambiguity.

But quantitative metrics also strip away nuance. A graph can highlight broad trends in what’s going on with your team, but it won’t tell you why. To find out, you need to go deep with fewer people to find out what’s happening behind the scenes.

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To be clear, there’s nothing wrong with wanting to ensure someone checks in regularly with every employee. Our jobs have a huge impact on our lives and relationships, and a great employer makes sure no one falls through the cracks. 

But employees’ managers need to take some of that responsibility. We have systems, like whistleblower hotlines, for things employees don’t feel comfortable sharing with them. It’s unreasonable to expect HR teams, many of them understaffed, to shoulder the burden of listening to every employee.

Looking to get more candidates to accept your offers? Try sitting down with 10 employees who accepted their offer, then find 10 candidates who rejected theirs.

Keeping one-on-ones to a smaller number of people helps on multiple levels. For one, it’s actually possible with a typical HR team: even a single researcher can handle 10 of them in a (busy) week.

But working with smaller sample sizes also frees your team to do more research. Instead of trying to answer every strategic question with every employee they talk to, HR specialists can zero in on specific topics.

Wondering how to improve your employee onboarding? Interview 10 employees who started in the past six months, then interview their managers. Looking to get more candidates to accept your offers? Try sitting down with 10 employees who accepted their offer, then find 10 candidates who rejected theirs. Dig in. Find out what’s really going on. And whenever you can, hire an external moderator to get the most unbiased feedback possible.

Companies often ask employees to focus on quality over quantity, to work smart and think strategically. But when it comes to understanding those employees’ needs, the same logic rarely applies. Trying to talk to everyone about everything isn’t likely to solve anything, but if your company focuses on the right questions, and asks the right people, it won’t need to.

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