How to develop employee personas that are genuinely useful 

Lee Smith

Minutes
22 Feb 2023
EX Practitioner
Empathy Maps
Personas
EX Tools
As a reminder, employee personas are fictional ‘characters’ that summarise the needs, motivations and behaviours of a particular group of employees. At a glance it’s easy to see that personas might seem like just another way to stereotype people and ‘place them in a box’, but they are in fact quite the opposite – a powerful and incredibly useful thinking tool that can help you consider things from different perspectives.
The insights contained within a well-crafted set of employee personas will challenge assumptions and bias. But not all personas are created equal. The starting point for many is to look at demographics such as age, tenure, job role, location etc. It makes sense because this sort of information is usually easily accessible and it also makes it easier to come up with sensible groupings. 

But this type of data doesn’t go far enough. And the problem with relying on demographic data alone, is that you end of up a set of personas which won’t give you what you need to step into the shoes of the people you are designing experiences for – which is the whole point of developing and using personas!For example, taking a demographic-led approach might give you the following:

'Bob'

  • Bob is a senior manager who has been with the company for 15 years.
  • He works in finance and likes playing golf.
  • He is Gen X and happy to stay with the company until retirement.
  • He is reliable and does what is required to get the job done – no more, no less.
On the face of it this is quite compelling – we can all thinks of 'Bobs' in our own organisations – but does this ‘portrait’ help us stand in Bob’s shoes? As you can see, there is a real danger here that bias will creep in; we talk about Bob as a ‘he’ who likes golf. Straight away we have a fixed picture of who Bob is and what he is all about. We need to move on from this one dimensional approach to build richer personas which capture needs, motivations, feelings and behaviours – what we call ‘behavioural personas’. And we need to remove, where possible, characteristics that facilitate implicit bias in us, such as gender.  

Behavioural personas provide far richer insight to help us empathise with the people we are designing experiences for. We have to get comfortable with the fact it’s not perfect – but it’s a huge step in the right direction. One day people teams might have the technology to enable hyper-personalisation, but we aren’t there yet.

Developing employee personas

To develop a robust set of employee personas takes more than a quick workshop or brainstorm. You need to analyse a lot of data; some of which you might have, but most of which you’ll probably need to go out and collect, to avoid making assumptions about what is going on for your people.  

We’ve found that it’s often the case that the demographic data is way less relevant than we might have originally thought – for example, look at the saboteur persona below. This is a fictional example, but a persona that often comes up!  

We find that actually saboteurs are everywhere, it isn’t an age thing, or a job role thing. But in this example tenure is relevant, the saboteurs have been around a long time! You might not find this is the case in your organisation, in fact you might not have any saboteurs at all! The whole point is don’t make assumptions.

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