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Serious insight for serious situations.

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Understanding the reader: A lesson in report writing

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Workplace Restorations
6 Jun at
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I began my legal career as a young litigation associate in private practice and like many lawyers, found the first few years tough. The hours were often long, the timelines tight and the pressure to produce perfect work was constant. At the time, it was difficult to see why I was putting myself through this and eventually, I left private practice to become in-house counsel. I reflected upon those years many times after I left and begrudgingly, came to realize that the training I received had served me well over the course of my career. This was especially true of the writing skills I had developed, mostly by preparing court submissions under the supervision (read: scrutiny) of senior lawyers. These lawyers taught me the importance of putting myself in the shoes of the reader, a lesson that has had the most impact on the way I write investigation reports and review the reports of other investigators.

In the context of a workplace investigation report, how exactly do you put yourself in the shoes of the reader? First, assume that the reader is someone who has no knowledge of any of the matters that are described in the report. It is difficult to anticipate who exactly will be reading an investigation report and for that reason, it is best to assume that it will be read by someone who has no familiarity with any of the matters that relate to the investigation. Second, aim to make the reader’s job as easy as possible; they should not have to struggle to understand the report.

I have outlined in this article how to put this into practice. This advice applies especially to those conducting investigations in the workplace and those who review the work of investigators within their organization.

Provide context

First things first. The reader must understand why they are reading a report. It sounds simple but this often gets overlooked. A good report should state at the outset why the investigator conducted the investigation and what exactly was under investigation. For those conducting workplace investigations, remember that the person to whom the report is submitted is not necessarily the only person who will read it. Others will often be involved in deciding whether any actions should flow from the findings in the report, such as disciplinary measures.

It is also important to provide any relevant background information to situate the reader. For example, describing who the parties are, their positions within the organization, and to whom they report.  At times, it may also be necessary to provide explanations for people, places or things with which the reader is unlikely to be familiar. A common error, for example, is failing to describe who exactly a person is the first time that their name is referenced in a report (adding their position or title within an organization is often enough to remedy this issue).

Pay attention to the chronology of the story

The report must flow in a way that makes sense to the reader; they will struggle to follow along if the chronology of the events is out of order. This is especially true for investigations dealing with workplace harassment which often involve multiple interactions between a complainant and respondent. Careful planning before beginning to write a report is often necessary to achieve the proper sequencing of evidence.

In workplace investigation reports, the evidence is often organized by allegation (rather than as one long chronology of events that deals with all of the allegations at issue). I offer the following advice for these reports:

  • The evidence under each allegation should be organized chronologically.
  • Attention should be paid to the order in which the allegations are presented in the report as the evidence for one allegation may provide necessary context for another.
  • If there is overlap between the evidence of two or more allegations, consideration should be given to amalgamating the allegations to avoid confusion and duplication.

Avoid distractions

There are many issues in a report that can distract a reader from its substance. For example, poor grammar, complicated words, long sentences, excessive use of acronyms, Latin phrases (lawyers – I am looking at you here), and wrong heading numbers. A full list of these is best saved for another blog but for now, I leave you with two practical tips to avoid many of these issues.

The first is to write simply; use short sentences and plain wording. The second, as my colleague Janice Rubin so nicely put it in her blog on effective writing, is to proof read, proof read and proof read again – and then ask a colleague to proof read. A report that contains several small “typos,” for example, could prevent the reader from focusing on the information in the report. Worse yet, an error-ridden report could leave the reader to doubt the competency of the investigator or call into question the resources that the employer dedicated to the investigation.

Anticipate the reader’s questions

A particularly skilled report writer can anticipate what information the reader needs. A good report should leave the reader with very few questions about the investigation process, the evidence and the investigator’s conclusions. The following are examples to illustrate some common pitfalls:

  • There is a particularly long delay from the beginning of an investigation to the end. Although there is a legitimate reason for this, the investigator does not provide an explanation in the report. The reader questions why the investigator took so long to conclude the investigation.
  • An individual was identified as being present during the incident that gave rise to the complaint. The witness refused to participate in the investigation, but the investigator does not state this in the report. The reader thinks that the investigator may have forgotten to interview this witness.
  • A witness cannot remember relevant details that relate to an allegation. In describing the evidence of the witness, the investigator is silent on these details; the reader wonders whether the investigator omitted relevant evidence.
  • The applicable section of a policy contains ambiguous wording. In conducting the analysis, the investigator makes a finding about whether there was a breach of the policy but does not describe how they interpreted the wording of the section. The reader cannot understand how the investigator arrived at their conclusion.

Admittedly, it may be difficult for an investigator to spot these issues given their familiarity with the subject matter of the investigation. A thorough review by a colleague who was not involved in the investigation could help to identify these important issues for the investigator.