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Getting unstuck: A how to guide on writing workplace investigation reports

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I suspect that for many of you, conducting investigations and report writing is a once in a while occurrence rather than a full-time job like it is for us here at Rubin Thomlinson. Many of you are busy human resources professionals and counsel with endless competing day-to-day priorities. Likely, you are pulled in many different directions, putting out small fires and trying to keep up with all of those urgent emails and phone calls. For you, investigations may feel particularly disruptive and the process of producing a good-quality investigation report daunting.

Writing investigation reports is hard. I get it. The work has to be exact and in the case of workplace investigations, someone’s job may be on the line. Given the difficulty of the work and what’s at stake, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed when it’s time to start writing. Procrastination can sometimes set in and that filing cabinet you’ve been meaning to sort through for the last year suddenly becomes a top priority.

Unfortunately, that report won’t write itself (admittedly, some of us here actually dream of waking up to a report that wrote itself). So, what do you do to get over that mind block? I have some ideas to help.

Just start

I’m not the first to give this piece of advice: just start writing. The greater the wait, the greater the pain. There are a few reasons for this. First, as the days go by, your mind will start to think that the report is more complicated than it is.  Nothing has changed about the complexity of the report; you’ve just allowed your brain too much time to think about it.

Second, I know that some of you probably work really well against a deadline. I love a good deadline myself. However, for some, a looming deadline can have the opposite effect and cause a fair amount of angst. The more angst, the harder it is to settle down to write.

Third, the evidence you’ve collected is a lot like that head of lettuce that sits in the fridge: it doesn’t become fresher as the days go by. It’s much easier to write when the interviews are still fresh in your mind. The task becomes much more difficult when you lose your full recollection of the evidence.

Work on the easy stuff

Any progress is good progress. I find that it helps to set up your document and complete small tasks like creating the cover page, inserting headings and working on the formatting of the report. It sounds basic but it works.

You might also want to try working on some of the introductory sections of the report. There are always some non-contentious sections that need to be completed (for example, the section that describes the parties or the investigation process).  Start with those and see where that takes you.  I know I always feel pretty pleased with myself when the page count goes past page one.

Decide what you’re going to write

I realize that not everyone follows the same process. For example, some like to start by creating headings and inserting some rough notes under each. That does not work for me at all.

I always start by deciding what the structure of the report is going to be. I do this by creating a list of headings and ordering and re-ordering them until I feel satisfied that the report will flow properly. I usually find this process to be the most difficult part of writing investigation reports, but also the most rewarding. Once those headings are in place, I’m usually ready to start typing. The benefit to this approach is also that it usually avoids major structural issues later on in the writing process.

Finish what you started

As much as possible, I try to work on one discrete section of the report at a time, rather than to jump around from section to section. Again, I know that not everyone follows the same process but I’d like to make the case for this approach.

There’s a sense of accomplishment that comes with completing a section of the report from beginning to end; think about it like checking off items on your to-do list. I find that it can become discouraging or overwhelming to have many semi-complete sections of a report. Another reason why I advocate for this approach is that you lose time when you leave a section and come back to it later. You will have to reacquaint yourself with the content of the section each time you return to it which is not productive.  Finally, I find that a fragmented approach can lead to errors and inconsistencies in the report (for example, mistakenly defining the same term or concept repeatedly) which will require additional editing after you’ve completed it.

Set aside dedicated writing time

One of my colleagues, Janice Rubin, says that what works for her is to set aside blocks of time to write. I understand that she works on a reward-based system, planning breaks after each “session” to do something other than writing (e.g. a walk, listening to a podcast). I can see the benefits of that approach as it can be easier to break down a larger task into smaller increments. You may also find that your thoughts swirl a little too much after spending hours working on the same report; it happens to all of us and a break may just be what you need.

Talk to someone

If these tips don’t work, it may help to speak to a colleague about the issues in the case and the structure of the report. I find that a short consultation with someone who is familiar with the case or report writing can go a long way.

Disclosure statement: Alas, I failed to follow my own advice when preparing this blog. I wrote it very close to the submission deadline and on the “Notes” function of my cellphone while travelling on the subway during my morning and evening commutes.

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