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Workplace investigation reports: Why plain language is best

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As a reviewer of workplace investigation reports, I try to encourage the use of plain language. By this, I mean that I try to make sure that a report can be easily understood by the people who read it.  I admit that this is not always easy. I am a lawyer, after all, which means that I was trained to make everything sound more complicated than it really is.

Much has been written about plain language — there are even organizations that focus on the advancement of plain language. The purpose of this blog is not to summarize that information. Rather, I make two points about why investigators should make sure their reports can be easily understood, and share some resources that I find helpful.

Before I do this, a definition of plain language is helpful: “A communication is in plain language if its wording, structure, and design are so clear that the intended readers can easily find what they need, understand what they find, and use that information.” Based on this definition, I think that, in a workplace investigation report, plain language goes further than just using less complicated words. It’s about how the whole report is presented.

My first point is this: no one wants to do a lot of work to try to understand an investigation report. It’s frustrating and time consuming. I sometimes get the sense that writers try to make things sound complicated to show that they’re qualified or knowledgeable.  I find that it often does the opposite. I am much more impressed and interested when someone has managed to present complicated information in a way that is easily understandable.

As writers of workplace investigation reports, our audience is often human resources professionals, managers, and lawyers. These people are busy. We can do them all a favour by simplifying what we write and reducing how much time they spend trying to understand our reports.

My second point relates to the report substance. If the report is not written in a way that can be understood, its conclusions may be called into question. An investigator may, for example, have a good grasp of the law that applies to their case. If they cannot explain clearly how they applied that law, the report may not be defensible. My advice to investigators is to make sure that their wording choices and overall report presentation don’t take away from the substance of their reports. I gave some advice on how to do this in a blog that I wrote on understanding the reader.

Finally, I want to share a court decision that does a really good job of conveying what plain language looks like. This is the decision of Justice Nakatsuru in R. v. Armitage which he wrote for the defendant in the case. I encourage all workplace investigators to read this decision. What struck me the most when I read it is how easy it was to understand what Justice Nakatsuru had decided and why. To me, this is the “magic” of plain language. I also think that it makes the intended audience interested in what the writer has to say.

If you want to hear Justice Nakatsuru speak about his decision, I also encourage you to listen to a podcast of the Canadian Institute for the Administration of Justice in which he recently participated. It is part of an excellent podcast series called, “In all Fairness” that has caused me to think more carefully about plain language. I hope these resources and this blog do the same for you.


2015 ONCJ 64 (CanLII)

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