Using a survey instrument to collect information on unemployment can not only help answer the immediate research question, but inform policy and offer insight into future trends. However, creating a questionnaire that measures people’s unemployment situation can be tricky and requires some work. Creating a good questionnaire is both an art and a science and it is important to not only establish a good design for your survey but to word questions carefully to elicit appropriate responses. Use these tips to create effective questions about unemployment.

Define your research question. Write out a plan noting what you want to know about unemployment and whom you want to survey. This will guide the types of questions you will need to ask. Decide on the definition of “unemployment” that you will use throughout your survey. For example, the Bureau of Labor Statistics counts as unemployed only those who are not currently working but who are looking for a job. Those who are not looking for a job are considered to be out of the labor force and not unemployed. You need not use BLS’s definition but you must be clear on what “unemployment” means in your survey.

Determine what mode or modes you will use to ask your questions. Mode refers to whether you will ask survey questions by telephone, in person, on paper or on the web. The mode you choose will affect how you will word questions in the first place. For example, you can ask a more detailed question on paper or on the web but not by telephone because a person listening to a question is not able to keep as many concepts in mind as a person reading. You will need to limit yourself to creating short, easy-to-understand questions for the telephone.

Ask questions about current employment status, making sure to create response categories that are exhaustive. Skip those currently employed out of the questionnaire or move them to a different section -- such as demographics -- if you want to gather some basic information about those who are employed.

Ask those who are unemployed the reasons for being unemployed, the duration of their unemployment, whether they are looking for work and whether they are receiving unemployment benefits.

Ask demographic questions at the end of the questionnaire. People are sometimes sensitive about demographic questions and asking them at the end ensures that you have built up enough rapport for people to feel comfortable answering these questions. It is important to ask questions about the demographic characteristics of your participants so that you can analyze data by population segments. Basic questions include sex, race and age. In addition, you can ask about educational level attained, marital status, and number and ages of children in the home, if these are relevant to your research question.


Before creating a questionnaire, learn how to word questions correctly to ensure you receive meaningful answers. Look at established questionnaires on employment and unemployment for examples of effective, neutral question phrasing.

Pretest your questionnaire with some practice respondents to make sure the questions work; then, refine your questionnaire accordingly.