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Survey says: How employers can stay ahead of employee concerns

October 31, 2023

In a growing trend, unions are using surveys to identify startling workplace issues. Earlier this year the union representing NFL players (NFLPA) released the results of their member survey, which reported rats in the locker room and floors that were uneven or coming apart. Closer to home, the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario (ETFO) released the results of its member survey and reported that 77% of its members indicated that they had personally experienced or witnessed violence against another staff member. Member surveys in Nova Scotia and Saskatchewan also reported similar concerns with violence towards staff in schools.

Reports like these are alarming because it’s easy to conclude that the employer knows about the issues and is unresponsive. But when the NFLPA results were released, some team owners said they were unaware of the reported issues and were working on improving them for the next season. This prompts the question, why don’t these employers know about these issues sooner?

A potential explanation is that the employees did not have the means to share these concerns with their employers in a manner that they were comfortable with. But if unions are able to gather this information from employees through a survey, then surely the employer is as well. Regularly conducted surveys allow employers to be proactive in identifying and addressing potential concerns.

The benefits of owning the survey process

Employer-initiated workplace surveys can also have several advantages which can benefit both employers and employees.

Employers controlling the process allows them to ensure that the survey is designed in a manner that promotes fair and accurate responses. Poorly designed questions may confuse participants, nudge them towards certain responses, or collect data that is not precise enough to provide meaningful information to the employer. Conversely, a well designed question set will allow participants to provide accurate and robust data that reflects their views, and can be quantitatively and qualitatively interpreted.

Employers are better positioned to address identified survey outcomes than a union would be. Employers are aware of their own ability to create actionable outcomes for employees and can create surveys with this in mind.

Employers who control the survey process are also not dependent on a potentially adversely interested union to interpret their employees’ responses for them. This can result in more efficient discussion and solutions to effectively address reported concerns.

Honest participation

One advantage that unions have over employers in conducting surveys is that employees are typically more willing to share candid feedback about their employment with their union. Employers can partially overcome this by assuring employees that their participation and responses will remain anonymous. But many employees are still skeptical that their responses to the employer are truly anonymous.

Another cause of skepticism for some employees is when employers collect demographic data. Some employees fear that their responses can be identified by this information (for example, if they are among the only team members from a particular demographic group) and refuse to participate. This is particularly troubling as it is often employees from historically disadvantaged or intersecting groups that are most concerned that their responses will “give them away” and survey participation is underinclusive as a result.

The best assurance an employer can provide is having a third party administer the survey and collect data. Participants should also be advised that their data will not be shared with the employer in any way that would identify an individual’s responses, especially when demographic data is collected.

A third party survey provider may also assist employers in interpreting the data that is collected to create a better workplace.


Employers should be proactive in scheduling surveys. An employer that waits for a union or other employee group to conduct a member survey risks the employer’s own survey being viewed as reactive as opposed to responsive. Reactive surveys also suffer from lower participation rates because of survey fatigue, which can hinder the data’s ability to accurately reflect the views of employees.

Now more than ever employees are seeking out workplaces where they feel valued and heard. Workplace surveys can be a vital part of an effective communication strategy to enhance employee retention, satisfaction, well-being and success.