We’ve read countless internal investigation reports, from turgid witness-by-witness accounts to genuine potboilers that you can’t put down. What makes the difference? Organization. The good news is that there are only two ways to organize an investigation report, regardless of content. Whether it’s about discrimination, harassment, bullying, fraud, misappropriation, or foreign corrupt practices, an internal investigation report can be organized chronologically (the order in which events occurred) or thematically (issue by issue). The bad news? Many investigators make the wrong choice.
As noted by legendary journalist and author John McPhee in his essay on Structure, “Developing a structure is seldom that simple. Almost always there is considerable tension between chronology and theme, and chronology traditionally wins.” McPhee is of course a masterful writer who can pull off intricate thematic structures with limpid prose, but this rarely works in an investigation report. Usually, investigations involve multiple themes, and it’s difficult to organize them into a coherent, crisp, non-repetitive story that engages the reader and helps her understand what actually happened.
In a recent interview, award-winner biographer Walter Isaacson explained why. Early in his career, an editor taught him a simple rule for great journalism: “All things in good time.” “Keep it chronological,” Isaacson continued, “whether it’s a biography or anything else I’m writing, I try to make it a storytelling narrative that is chronological so things build up. People learn things as the narrative goes on. That helps me organize things.”
So, here are 4 tips for making sure that your internal investigation reports are “All in Good Time.”
- Start building a spreadsheet chronology of the facts before you gather documents or interview witnesses, and update and correct the timeline relentlessly. If you are unsure of a date, assume a range and flag the entry for follow-up.
- Great investigation reports should read like a great trial brief: by the time you’re done reading the facts, you know what happened and, probably, what needs to be done about it.
- Integrate all witness perspectives and documents relating to a single event in the same section or paragraph; great investigation reports don’t just recite what the investigator learned and how; a well-written report pulls it all together for the reader step by step.
- Use short, boldfaced subheadings for each key step in the timeline to help the reader see the progress of the narrative and home in on facts quickly.
For additional assistance, Aequitask offers custom investigator training workshops and webinars tailored to your organization’s specific needs or more general topics such as “Building Trustworthy Investigations,” “More Defensible Credibility Assessments,” “Better Investigation Risk Management at Every Step,” “Building and Maintaining Better Investigation Records,” and “Avoiding Investigation Creep.”
Through its network of attorney investigators and project management technology, Aequitask delivers fair, fast, thoughtful, and thorough workplace and campus investigations on time and on budget. Learn how your organization or law firm can get an expert discrimination, harassment, Title VII, Title IX, fraud, conflict of interest, or other compliance investigation and a highly defensible final report within days or weeks and at a predictable fixed fee by visiting www.Aequitask.com or calling 1-800-554-1081.