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Written by: Gareth Jones
Human Resources professionals often have to do fact-finding in the workplace. They may conduct formal or informal investigations – perhaps into allegations of harassment, bullying, mobbing, discrimination, improper use of resources, health and safety issues, conflict of interest or other kinds of wrongdoing. At the end of the fact-finding comes, inevitably, the report. And report writing can be a bit tricky.
Here’s a 7-step framework for writing workplace investigation reports that can be adapted for virtually any kind of fact-finding.
By way of set-up, let’s imagine you are writing a report on your investigation of an allegation of sexual harassment in the workplace. Here’s a very brief summary of the allegation.
While at a hotel bar after a work conference, a senior manager is alleged to have told an intern that she might get a permanent job if she slept with him that night. He also, again while in the bar and again allegedly, massaged her shoulder while making lewd comments about her in front of colleagues and later that evening texted her inappropriate messages.
Let’s assume there was no criminal investigation. You have completed your evidence gathering. Now you have to set out:
- what you have found, and
- your reasons for any conclusions you have made.
The 7-step report-writing template
Tell the reader, in a paragraph or two, what the investigation is about.
- Investigative process
This is the only segment where it is best not to be as brief as circumstances permit. The goal is to show the reader that you have left no reasonable investigative stone unturned. He or she can then have confidence that what follows in the rest of the report is based on an exhaustive and impartial investigation.
Set out what you have done to gather the evidence. What did you do to track down potential witnesses? Who did you interview - and when? What documents and digital evidence did you gather, review and have forensically analyzed? Did you go to where the incident allegedly happened? Did you take photographs and/or video, or prepare a diagram?
List any obstacles - and what you did to try and overcome them. Perhaps a witness refused to be interviewed. Maybe someone denied you access to their personal cell phone records. Or the hotel declined your request for their CCTV footage. You may not have succeeded, but at least you can show you tried.
Briefly set the stage. Introduce the key people who you will be referring to later in the report – who they are and their relationship to the issue(s) you are investigating.
Include information about the company’s sexual harassment policy – or absence thereof – particularly if you are going to be referring to it later.
Include anything else that occurred prior to the conference that might be relevant to the incident itself.
- Events Before The Event / Incident
Set out why the people involved were at the hotel and anything relevant that happened that day. That might, for example, include emails or texts arranging to meet in the bar. Stick to what is relevant to the incident itself.
- The Event / Incident
Tell the reader the story of what happened, preferably in chronological order. Go through events as they unfolded, as methodically as you can. The complainant said this. The respondent said that. Witness One said this. Witness Two said that. The relevant texts are ….. Cell phone records show…… CCTV located behind the bar shows ………. The bill was paid at 11.07 p.m., using a corporate credit card issued to the respondent, and so on. You want to recreate events as they happened, where they happened, as best as the evidence permits. Liberally lard the report with diagrams, photographs and – in any electronic version - embedded video.
The story should be based exclusively on actual evidence, not conjecture. Avoid comment - ‘Witness Three, who I thought was a bit dodgy, stated that he saw the whole incident but it is clear that there was a pillar in the hotel bar that must have obstructed his view, which probably means he is being economical with the truth.’ Stick to what the witness actually said, at least at this stage. By all means include a diagram and/or photographs showing where everyone says they were sitting, but generally postpone discussing the weight you will attach to any given piece of evidence until the analysis/conclusion section of the report.
The goal is to present all the relevant evidence in such a way that no-one - including anyone directly involved - can reasonably argue that you have ignored, glossed over or given undue emphasis to any particular piece of evidence.
In this case, you might choose to deal with each allegation - the invitation, the massage, the lewd comments and the texting - separately, within this segment. Or perhaps combine the lewd comments and the massage as they both allegedly happened at the same time. A lot will depend on what evidence you have gathered, in relation to each allegation.
- Events After the Incident
Set out anything relevant that happened after the incident – who went where when, for example, or who spoke to whom - if it is relevant. This may include when a complaint was made and to whom – again without colouring or comment. As all HR professionals know, just because a complaint wasn’t made immediately, doesn’t mean the allegation isn’t true. Or that it is.
- Analysis / Conclusion
Now you have to tell the reader what you have concluded, and explain why you have reached that conclusion.
There’s a very effective method for framing your analysis and conclusion(s), using IRAC. It stands for:
This is how it works, using this particular allegation.
What is the issue that is the subject of your report? In this case, it is whether or not an employee was sexually harassed by another employee.
What is the rule that applies to the issue? The rule may be a law, a policy, a protocol and/or a standard, but in some instances the rule could simply be common sense. In this case, the most relevant rule may be the sexual harassment policy of the company, though others may also apply.
This is the interesting – and fun – bit. Set out the relevant facts, then apply the rule to them. As you do that, you develop an answer to the issue, based on the rule.
Trust me, it really is not as complicated as it may sound.
So, for example, let’s discuss the evidence in respect of one aspect of the complaint - the alleged lewd remarks. You have already set out the facts in previous segments of your report. Let’s assume they are as follows:
- There is a zero tolerance policy for sexual harassment in the workplace.
- This was a work related event.
- The intern said the senior manager said xyz to her, when they were both standing at the bar at such and such a time. She found the remarks – all of a sexual nature - grossly offensive.
- The senior manager vehemently denied he made any such remarks and alleges that the intern ‘ is out to get him’ because she was not offered a permanent job.
- 2 independent witnesses stated they overheard the manager make lewd comments to the intern.
- Each of the independent witnesses gave slightly different versions of what the senior manager said. Their versions of the exact wording differed somewhat, though not substantively, from what the intern alleged the manager said to her.
- Another witness, a mid-level manager who reports directly to the senior manager, stated that she was certain that she did not hear the manager make any inappropriate comments to the intern, at any point.
- CCTV from the hotel bar confirmed that both independent witnesses were within possible earshot of the conversation when it took place and appeared to be focused on it. The mid-level manager, though present, was clearly talking to someone else at that particular point - and yes, you interviewed that person, who doesn’t recall anything at all about that evening.
- It is not possible to ascertain exactly what was said, based on the CCTV footage alone.
- One bartender did not recall anything and the other refused to speak to you.
As you set out your analysis, discuss how much weight you allot to various pieces of evidence – and why. Explain why you believe that certain bits of evidence are credible and others may not be. Or why you are not sure. If you think a witness was dodgy, now is your chance to say so – but you better be damn sure to set out the actual evidence upon which you base that conclusion, and that evidence better be more than just a hunch.
In this instance, you may want to point to the fact that both independent witnesses appear to have no vested interest in the outcome of the investigation. Both were in a position to hear what was said. The minor inconsistencies in their accounts possibly indicate an absence of collusion. For those reasons, you are giving significant weight to their accounts.
You will want to give your assessment of what is shown on the CCTV footage, including - potentially - body language and facial expressions. You may want to discuss awareness of - and training in - the sexual harassment policy, insofar as it is relevant to the issue.
You must always deal with evidence that may not support your ultimate conclusion. You can’t just ignore it and hope it will go away. For example, you will have to explain why you choose not to give the evidence of the junior manager the same weight as that obtained from other sources, if that is in fact your position. You will have to deal with the senior manager’s allegation that the intern fabricated the complaint, in retaliation for not getting the permanent job.
Remember, you are seeking to persuade your reader that your ultimate conclusion will be based on a fair, thorough and impartial review of all the available evidence.
What is the conclusion that deals with the issue? Did the senior manager make lewd comments to the intern, and did those lewd comments amount to sexual harassment contrary to company policy? Based on the evidence above, it may not be unreasonable to find that he did, based on a balance of probabilities.
Of course not everyone may agree with you. Reasonable people can reasonably differ. They can reach dissimilar conclusions, based on the same set of facts. However, as long as you have shown that your conclusions are based on sufficient, reliable, relevant evidence - and you have dealt reasonably with evidence that may not support those conclusions – then you are in an excellent position to defend whatever it is you have concluded.
Voila – a report that should withstand scrutiny!
The template can easily be adapted for any kind of fact-finding . Of course, no two investigations are the same and the template is certainly not cast in stone. Please feel free to amend it as you see fit.
Some things to remember as you write virtually anything:
- Don’t write anything that is not supported by the facts. This is, by far, the most important writing tip. If in doubt, take it out. One tiny factual error may discredit the entire report.
- Write as you go. Add flesh to the framework, as your investigation progresses.
- Leave the analysis until last.
A few writing tips
- Decide who are you writing for
Before you begin to write, ask yourself who is your likely audience. Your boss? An adjudicator? The public? The media? All of the above? Once you have determined who you are writing for, write in a way that will resonate with them.
- Keep it as short as you can
Two words good, four words bad. Boil down those mountains of evidence into key essentials. If it is not relevant, don’t include it.
- Simplify where you can
Keep your writing as simple as possible. Just because you have a degree in Latin or got a Thesaurus for your birthday doesn’t mean you have to use long words.
- Avoid jargon and acronyms
Jargon can be incredibly off-putting, for those not in the know. If your audience isn’t in the know, don’t use it.
- Short sentences.
People often enjoy an opportunity to breathe as they read. Do you really need that ‘and’? Or will a point/full stop work better? Avoid conjunctions, if you can.
- Use the active - not passive – tense whenever you can
I believe the investigation was thorough tends to sound better than It is believed that the investigation was thorough. Plus it doesn’t sound quite so pompous.
Use lots and lots of white space. Nobody enjoys plowing through dense text. Use lots of headings, sub-heading and maybe text boxes.
- Use photographs, maps and/or diagrams
Photographs, maps and diagrams give context. They can simplify complex situations. They can orient the reader quickly and effectively. Use them liberally. Just make sure to document any changes to the layout between the time of the incident and when the photograph was taken.
- Read what you have written out loud.
Does it flow? Is it stilted? Does it make sense? Is there too much or too little? What has been missed? Is it relevant? Is it clear? Is it boring? Are you losing the will to live? If it sounds rubbish, it probably is.
10. Have someone else read it.
Two reasons for this:
a) They may identify gaps, areas that need clarification, typos, errors and other imperfections, and
- when you ask a friend or colleague to do this, you will quickly find out whether or not they actually like you. Generally best not to ask your spouse, at least in my experience.
11. Edit ruthlessly.
This can be hard, especially when you have put so much effort into it already. Painful though it is, ask yourself if that sentence, paragraph or page is absolutely necessary. Does it add to the reader’s understanding for the core issue(s), or is it cosmetic? Is it repetitive? If you can cut it out, do.
Report writing is a major segment in Day One of CPHR Alberta accredited investigations courses, which we are delivering in April 11-14 in Edmonton. The first day covers the Fundamentals of Investigation, the second Investigative Interviewing and the last two on How to Use the Internet as an Investigative and Research Tool.
Participants can pick and choose one or more days, as they please
Details at this link: