Employment Systems Review - A Guide For The Federal Public Service

Presented by: The Public Service Commission of Canada and the Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat  

1. Employment systems review

1.1 What is an employment systems review?

An employment systems review is a comprehensive review of an organization’s policies and practices to identify systemic and attitudinal barriers to employment opportunities for designated group members.

The goal of the employment systems review is to provide an explanation for major gaps in representation, and to serve as the basis for developing an employment equity action plan to address barriers.

Note that although this guide focusses on helping you meet the minimum legal requirements under the Employment Equity Act as it relates to realizing the employment systems review Footnote 1, other legal and policy requirements (such as the Canadian Human Rights Act, the Public Service Employment Act and the Accessible Canada Act) complete a broader diversity and inclusion framework and should also be taken into consideration as you start planning for an employment systems review.

Legal framework

Under the Employment Equity Act and the Employment Equity Regulations, the Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat and the Public Service Commission of Canada are responsible for carrying out the employer obligations in the core public administration. The Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat provides guidance to designated senior officials through the Directive on Employment Equity, Diversity and Inclusion and the Public Service Commission of Canada delegates authorities to deputy heads through the Appointment Delegation and Accountability Instrument.

Section 2 of the Employment Equity Act specifies that its requirements apply to 4 designated groups: women, Indigenous peoples Footnote 2, persons with disabilities and visible minorities.    

Paragraph 9(1)(b) of the Employment Equity Act specifies that the employer shall “conduct a review of [its] employment systems, policies and practices […] in order to identify employment barriers against persons in designated groups that result from those systems, policies and practices.”

Sections 8 to 10 of the Employment Equity Regulations provide details on the requirements in relation to employment systems reviews, and paragraph 11(g) indicates that records must be kept.

The Canadian Human Rights Commission has the mandate to conduct compliance audits to enforce the non-reporting employer obligations under the Employment Equity Act, including conducting an employment systems review. For further details please consult their fact sheet.

Consult Annex A for the employment systems review checklist.

1.2 Understanding employment barriers

Barriers, for the purpose of employment equity, are defined as policies or practices that disproportionately restrict or exclude designated group members based on factors unrelated to the nature of work, merit, or safety. Barriers may present themselves in numerous ways and arise both intentionally and unintentionally from policies and practices (formal and informal), attitudes, personal bias and organizational culture or climate.

An employment systems review can help identify barriers that are subtle and hard to detect, and what is responsible for them.

Here is a non-exhaustive list of examples of barriers to be considered within the context of an employment systems review:

You should also consider the results of any previous employment systems review and if all recommendations stemming from it have been met or not.

1.3 How often must an employment systems review be conducted?

The Canadian Human Rights Commission recommends that an employment systems review be conducted every 3 to 5 years, or if there have been significant organizational changes. It is a good practice to align the employment systems review with renewing an employment equity plan, since the employment systems review must inform the employment equity plan.

The Employment Equity Regulations also require employers to review any newemployment systems, policies and practices as they are introduced, to ensure that they do not constitute a barrier to the employment of designated group members.

1.4 Who should conduct the employment systems review?

The employment systems review should be conducted by those who have good knowledge of the organization’s employment systems or who can build that knowledge. This could include:

Since conducting an employment systems review is a legal requirement, consideration might be given to ensuring or developing internal expertise.

Employees, managers, designated group members and employee representatives must have ample opportunity to be consulted and to collaborate Footnote 3. People who work in different areas within the workforce can advise as to how formal and informal policies, practices and attitudes can have an adverse impact on designated group members.

This should include a systematic assessment of each new policy and practice, before implementation, to determine its impact on designated groups. Gender-based analysis plus (GBA+) and other intersectional or employment equity subgroup Footnote 4 analyses can assist in the review of new policies for barriers to designated group members.

2. Conducting an employment systems review

An employment systems review is a cross-sectional study that includes an analysis of both quantitative and qualitative data. The quantitative data defines the “what” and the qualitative data discerns the “why.” When representation gaps are identified through an initial workforce analysis, a more detailed quantitative analysis through the employment systems review will demonstrate where there are gaps in:

An employment systems review will show where there are gaps at different levels of the organization. The qualitative research conducted through an employment systems review aims to identify reasons for these gaps. It is through the process of this study that employers learn what needs to be changed and how to change it, to ensure an equitable workplace free of employment barriers.

Before starting, we recommend that you consider how the review contributes to a cohesive approach between the minimum requirements under employment equity and your global diversity and inclusion goals under other legal or policy requirements.

2.1 Quantitative analysis review

Workforce analysis

Step 1

Start by reviewing the results of the workforce analysis over the last 3 years to identify where there are persistent and consistent shortfalls. The representation gaps identified by occupational group or subgroup (information for persons with disabilities may only be available at the occupational category) will help determine the focus for the employment systems review.

A review of the Public Service Employee Survey and other internal data such as staffing surveys, harassment and discrimination complaints/grievances can also help identify areas that need investigation.

Step 2

For each occupational group or category where persistent and consistent representation shortfalls have been identified, determine the rates of recruitment and hiring, promotion, retention and termination for designated group members.

2.2 Qualitative analysis review

Formal policies and practices

The workforce analysis should examine the following components:

1. Recruitment, selection and hiring

Where underrepresented designated group members are being hired at rates below workforce availability, a focused review of recruitment, selection and hiring policies and practices is required, including accommodation and accessibility policies and practices as they relate to these areas.

2. Promotion

Where underrepresented designated group members are being promoted at a lower rate than the organizational rate or are underrepresented at middle manager and executive levels, a focused review of training and promotion policies and practices, as well as accommodation related to these areas, is recommended.

3. Training and development

A review of all training and development policies and practices is warranted to ensure that there are no barriers precluding the equitable participation of employment equity designated group members.

4. Retention and termination

Where underrepresented designated group members demonstrate rates of termination at a higher rate than the organizational rate or lower retention, a focused review of retention and termination policies and practices, as well as accommodation as it relates to these areas, is recommended.

5. New employment systems, policies and practices

Subsection 9(2) of the Employment Equity Regulations requires that once existing policies and practices have been reviewed, a process must be put in place to review all new or modified policies and practices in the organization to assess for barriers to designated groups. This will assist in reducing the effort and resources required for future employment systems reviews.

As part of this examination, and in relation to each occupational group identified, review the employment systems, policies and practices with respect to the following assessment factors:

Consult Annex B for details and guiding questions on how to assess formal policies and practices.

Informal policies and practices

Informal policies and practicesare usually undocumented but generally understood throughout the organization as part of its culture. An employment systems review should encompass informal practices that do not follow written policies. Most employers find that some practices differ from their organization’s formal policies. Often, informal practices have a greater impact on employment opportunities for designated group members than formal policies.

Once informal policies and practices and their impacts have been identified, they must be assessed for barriers using the same factors presented above.

To collect information on informal policies and practices and their impact on designated group members, consult various stakeholders and look at how things aredone and how policies and practices are carried out in day-to-day business.

Step 1: Determine which questions to ask

The organization must decide which questions would be most useful in this part of the employment systems review. The goal is to shed light on how policies and practices are implemented and how they affect members of designated groups.

It is important to ensure that questions asked are open-ended and not leading (questions that prompt or encourage a desired answer). For example, in reviewing your questions, determine whether they lead to an implied ‘yes’ or ‘no’ on behalf of the responder.

Consult Annex C for details on how to build questions for focus groups, interviews and discussions.

It is recommended that discussion group questions be limited in number to keep the conversation focused. The same questions should be used for all participants across discussion groups. Also, you should plan in advance how you will ensure to create a safe space for discussion and how this will be communicated to participants.

Step 2: Determine participants

Sample sizes for qualitative studies need to be large enough to allow for a diversity of perspectives. However, discussion sessions with smaller groups may be useful in facilitating deeper analysis or to get a better understanding of specific topics.

It’s important to invite participation in focus groups, interviews or discussions from a cross-section of employees and managers, with particular focus on ensuring sizeable participation of those who are members of employment equity designated groups. In addition to employees, the following groups should also be invited to participate:

Step 3: Conducting focus groups, discussions and interviews

The number of sessions held will be dependent on the number of individuals who agree to participate. You may want to consider involving senior management in your communication strategy to enhance participation.

Focus groups and discussions should include no more than 10 participants at a time to allow for proper discussion and notes to be taken. Interviews may be conducted on a “one-on-one” fashion. These conversations often provide insight to open-ended questions and lead to fuller answers. The role of the interviewer is to listen and take notes; participants must not be led to answer one way or another, to ensure information is collected as objectively as possible. It may be desirable to offer one-on-one interviews or collection of anonymous input given the sensitive nature of some questions and topics.

Step 4: Trends and data validation

Once the data has been collected, recurring themes or trends need to be identified. For example, if most participants across separate focus groups, in one or more of the employment equity designated groups, cite a particular challenge with the selection process, this may demonstrate that a formal or informal practice exists which constitutes a barrier to their equitable participation in the selection process.

Once an analysis of the qualitative data has been conducted, it is recommended that a comparison be made to a similar study, such as the Public Service Employee Survey, to measure the validity of the qualitative findings (for example, if any type of discrimination came out as an issue from the data collected).

3. Implementing change

3.1 Developing actions for change

Once analysis is complete and barriers have been identified, the next step is to develop concrete actions to include in the employment equity plan that, if implemented with reasonable effort, should lead to reasonable progress toward reducing or removing gaps in representation and correcting any condition of disadvantage in employment for the targeted groups. The proposed changes must be the most relevant and achievable for the organization during the period covered by the plan.

The goal is to identify action that will eliminate or reduce the effect of the barrier, which includes changing or removing policies deemed illegal, invalid, not applied consistently, deemed to lead to adverse effects or not accommodative.

The employment equity plan should also include positive policies and practices, special measures, as well as accommodations to correct the underrepresentation of members of designated groups, beyond what can be achieved by the elimination of barriers.

Organizations should continue to measure and monitor their progress on an ongoing basis while implementing their action plan to assess whether reasonable progress is being made.

4. Feedback and support

This guide is intended to be a reference document for organizations to comply with the Employment Equity Act and Employment Equity Regulations. As they undertake their employment systems review and gain experience with the process, this guide will be adapted so that best practices are shared throughout the public service. The Public Service Commission of Canada and the Office of the Chief Human Resources Officer therefore welcome input to be used to improve this guide. Feedback can be sent to cfp.dep-pdd.psc@cfp-psc.gc.ca or EEDI@tbs-sct.gc.ca.


For any questions about the employment systems review process, please contact the staffing support advisor assigned to the organization in question or the Office of the Chief Human Resources Officer’s Employment Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Policy Centre at wpp-ppt@tbs-sct.gc.ca.

Questions related to compliance with the Employment Equity Act and Employment Equity Regulations may be directed to the Canadian Human Rights Commission.

Annex A: Employment systems review checklist

1. In preparing for your employment system review, have you:

2. In conducting your quantitative analysis review, have you:

3. In conducting your qualitative analysis review, have you:

4. In your review of policies and practices, have you:

5. In developing your actions to respond to barriers, have you:

6. In the establishment of a process for reviewing new policies and practices, have you:

7. In communicating results, have you:

8. In order to be ready to report on the employment systems review, have you:

Annex B: Employment systems review – guiding questions

Here are examples of questions that can inspire you when planning to conduct an employment systems review. It may also be beneficial to consider other questions within the context of the organization and the scope of the review being conducted.

With respect to recruitment, selection and hiring:


Establishing qualifications


Assessing and selecting


With respect to promotion:

With respect to retention and termination:

With respect to training and development:

With respect to workplace reasonable accommodation:

Annex C: Employment systems review – sample focus group questions

Focus group sessions are one method that can be used to learn whether or not policies and practices affect members of employment equity designated groups differently than from non-designated group employees. Posing open-ended questions can provide valuable information.

Understanding open-ended questions:

The following are some examples of open-ended questions that do not lead participants. Organizations are encouraged to develop their own questions within the context of their environment.



Training and development

Retention and termination

Accommodation and accessibility


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