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Read with me: What I look for when I review readability in workplace investigation reports

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A new draft report hits my inbox, waiting for my review. As I click to open the document, I’m immediately curious about the particular situation our investigator faced. Every report is, in a sense, a new story.

As review counsel, I make sure the report is legally defensible. At the same time, I’m also assessing readability. Our aim is to make our reports easy reads, and, ideally, good reads for our clients — even when the subject matter is difficult.

So, what do I look for? In terms of style, I look for simple, punchy sentences. In terms of construction, sentences have to vary. Good writing has cadence and rhythm. If my attention wanders, it’s probably because the writing needs tightening. At Rubin Thomlinson LLP, we have an in-house style guide. This helps our investigators write cleanly and consistently. Our style advice is what you might expect. Don’t stack the main text on top of a lot of footnotes. Declutter in terms of headings, spacing, and general organization. Make your report as accessible as possible and embrace plain language. Investigation reports shouldn’t read (even though we are all lawyers who write them) as if they were facta, academic articles, or Court of Appeal decisions. Argument and persuasion aren’t necessary here.

The reports aren’t manuals or pieces of technical writing, either. The best reports have a distinctive voice. One way to keep the reader’s attention is to take ownership of the project and to be present in it. I want to have a sense of the investigator’s own agency. I should be able to understand where and why the investigator made key decisions during the investigation. So, I encourage investigators to use the active voice when writing. I watch for the use of “I” and a demonstration that the investigator approached the issues definitively and didn’t try to make themselves too invisible, as if the report wrote itself.

As we all know, the application of law and policy to real-life circumstances is messy. Expertise and professionalism are conveyed – in large part – by conciseness and clarity. In truth, some of our reports are very long. While a typical workplace investigation report might run about 50 pages, our firm also produces reports that are hundreds of pages in length. Investigators assess dozens of allegations and counter-allegations and evidence from many parties. As review counsel, I need to know pretty much off the top what the report is about. This is where two more elements in a report are key: an executive summary and an overview section. Any reader should be able to hit on the core of the report and find the bottom line with ease.

How to save space and avoid tl;dr (“too long; didn’t read”)? Only those who really need to know will review the material in the appendices. While of course important for supporting an investigator’s reasoning and findings, clients don’t typically need a faithfully-reproduced email chain in the body of the report itself. Similarly, for findings involving long text message exchanges, these can be grouped together in an appendix. In the body of the report, I probably need to see only a representative few (maybe organized by theme – such as, a sampling of the supervisor’s inappropriate compliments or requests for private meetings).

On a similar note. There is a real art in resisting the urge to overwrite. Often, investigators frontload the report with a summary of all the evidence they’ve collected. Extraneous evidence or digressive detail could be interesting to the investigator. Or the investigator may feel it was important to capture exactly what the witness told them. However, as a reviewer, I’m interested in understanding only the material evidence. Our other review counsel, Liliane Gingras , discusses evidentiary considerations in her recent blog, here.

Faithfully summarizing the evidence is half the battle; the other half is laying out the analysis. I want to understand which workplace policy is at issue and why, and then I look for an informed application of the factual findings – the facts – to the policy. Was there a breach? Why or why not? The reasoning leading to the answer should be easy to follow. Where we need a boost from the law, any inclusion of caselaw must be targeted. Consider the example of a workplace policy that prohibits “reprisal” for coming forward with a complaint. Many workplace policies do not define what, exactly, “reprisal” is. So, I expect that an investigator might turn to principles in human rights law or occupational health and safety legislation to fill this in. Using leading cases as illustrations is better than picking out little-known arbitration or Human Rights Tribunal cases to support conclusions.

If you or anyone on your team is finding report writing or reviewing challenging (especially during these work-from-home times), Rubin Thomlinson offers courses to help. Check out our course on Advanced Challenges in Report Writing, coming up in May and offered again in November, 2022.

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