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A Q&A on writing workplace investigation reports

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I recently did a three-part webinar series on writing workplace investigation reports with my colleague, Janice Rubin. These were short half-hour sessions during which participants could submit questions to us in writing. We had clearly underestimated how much we had to say about writing reports and didn’t have time to get to the questions. In this blog, I answer some of the really good questions that we received. I hope the information will be useful to those who attended the seminar and anyone charged with writing workplace investigation reports.

Do you prefer to write in the first person or third?

I cannot write in the third person; it just doesn’t feel natural to me (kind of like that Seinfeld episode where the guy named Jimmy refers to himself in the third person). I also think that the writer’s voice comes out much more clearly when writing in the first person which usually results in a better read. For me, therefore, when I write my findings, I use first person language such as, “Based on all the evidence, I find that the respondent violated the Code of Conduct” or words to that effect.

That being said, I know that in a lot of settings (for example, in the regulatory world), the third person is the norm.

Do you use the names of witnesses in your reports? What about using their initials?

Most of the time, I do use the names of witnesses. It’s very difficult to read a report when the witnesses are referred to as “Witness 1, 2, 3,” etc. There are exceptions, however. A client may ask that the names be anonymized or they may have a policy that requires this. There may also be circumstances specific to a witness that require that the name be withheld.

As for initials, I try not to use them. I don’t think a reader’s brain can keep up with initials, especially when there are a lot of witnesses referenced in the report.

How do you refer to the parties and what about gendered pronouns?

As for the form of the names I use, because a report is a formal document, I use “Ms. Smith” or “Mr. Lee.” I do not use first names (other than when mentioned as part of a full name). This is true for parties and witnesses.

As for gendered pronouns, I use whatever the party uses. For example, if a party identifies themselves as “they” to reflect their gender identity, I use that throughout.

Reports may be used as evidence in a grievance meeting or other matter. Do you think the tone or language used in the report should change based on this?

I write every report as if it could end up before an adjudicator or other legal decision maker. In a previous blog, I wrote about not knowing who the ultimate reader of the report will be. For that reason, I always write as if anyone could be reading it and try to keep the tone and language consistent from one report to the next.  This is another reason why I refer to the parties formally, as indicated above.

Why do you need background information about the parties when the client already knows this information?

In one of our webinars, Janice and I talked about providing helpful context for the reader at the outset of the report, including a few lines of background information about each of the parties (for example, their titles and to whom they report). I get that the client contact already knows who the parties are. However, as noted immediately above, what we are concerned about is who else may read the report. We just don’t know from one case to the next.

Do you number the paragraphs in the report?

This is a matter of personal preference. The benefit of having paragraph numbers is that if there is a need to refer back to something that was written earlier in the report, it can be done with preciseness. One thing to consider, however, is that paragraph numbers can add an air of judicial formality to the report and it can start to look more like a court judgment than a workplace investigation report. For the most part, Rubin Thomlinson reports do not contain numbered paragraphs.

Would you consider using a report template?

I think that anyone who writes a lot of reports develops their own template (one that is written or that they keep stored in their head). I follow roughly the same format from one report to the next. I say “roughly” because there are, at times, reasons to deviate. However, the work in which I am involved generally doesn’t lend itself well to a “fill-in-the-box” type template. The cases vary too much from one to the next and are often too complex for such a template. That being said, the contents of the report are usually standard. This includes identifying the parties, the allegations, the evidence, the findings of fact, the applicable policies, and the analysis. Each case presents itself uniquely and so how these contents are communicated may differ from one report to the next.

What do you consider to be a long report?

Janice and I talked about being mindful about the length of the report in one of our webinars. There’s no hard and fast rule about what number of pages is too many. When an investigation addresses a lot of allegations (which is often the case in workplace harassment matters), the report may just need to be long. To us, a report is too long when it contains unnecessary or repetitive information, and/or it is too verbose.

Any report that the writer anticipates being hard for the reader to read without flipping back to previous sections of the report, is likely long enough that it needs to provide the reader with a bit of an “assist.” This might be an executive summary at the beginning, a detailed table of contents, “mini” summaries located at strategic sections of the report to remind the reader where they are, and strong transition sentences.

What is your one best tip for writing a workplace investigation report?

Ok, I made up this question myself. I thought I’d throw it in as a bonus as it summarizes a lot of what we talked about in the webinars. At the risk of sounding like a broken record, my best tip is to put yourself in the shoes of the reader. Doing this can solve most writing issues.

Practically speaking, that means that I ask myself whether my writing is simple and clear enough for the reader to understand easily. I check to make sure that there are no ambiguities in what I’ve written. I question whether the organization of the report will make sense to the reader. I include enough context so that the reader understands the “story” of what happened. I think about what questions the reader may have and I answer these in the report. And of course, I proofread and make sure that the report looks polished to avoid any unnecessary distractions for the reader.

Janice being Janice also wanted to add to the answer to my made-up question. Her best tip is to try and leave time for the report you have written to percolate in your brain before you send it out. A few days of reflection between the first draft and the final one always adds to the overall strength of the report in her opinion, and will give you the benefit of reviewing your own work with fresh eyes.


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