Documenting an investigation is one of the most critical, but often overlooked, elements of an investigation. Proper investigation documentation can be used as a key tool for legal defense and often can mean the difference between winning or losing an employment-related lawsuit. Maureen Cleary, Director of HR -General Board of Global Ministries for the United Methodist Church, shared with me her “Top Tips for Creating and Reviewing Documentation.” Her points were right on target so I asked her if I could adapt them for use in this blog. She agreed and here it is (Thanks Mo!)
- BE CONSISTENT. Remember that consistency creates clarity. Be consistent in how you refer to the involved parties in your documentation. When taking notes during an interview, I sometimes use initials to quickly refer to an involved party but always go back later to make sure these initials are clearly identified within the document. In the investigation report, I always introduce each involved person with his/her full name, relevant title such as Dr. or Esq., and job title. I then use LAST NAME when referring to that individual throughout the report. Also, consider how you refer to yourself. Do you write in the first person? Typically I introduce myself in the third person (e.g., The investigation was conducted by Deborah Muller, President HR Acuity) but then write in the first person if I need to explain a question I asked or a step that I took. Pick a style and maintain consistency.
- QUOTE EXACTLY AS MUCH AS POSSIBLE. Whenever possible, particularly around key points, try to quote exactly what the complainant, subject or witnesses is saying during the interviews (even if you have to ask them to slow down a bit or repeat key points). It is easier to recall a specific interview answer when you can read it in the interviewee’s own voice. These words may also be very powerful when used to demonstrate corroboration of facts or credibility of parties.
- DON”T USE BUZZ WORKS, ACRONYMS or SHORTHAND. Ask yourself if someone totally unfamiliar with your organization or the situation would clearly understand the events, circumstances and locations as described. It’s OK to use acronyms as long as they are defined the first time they are used. (e.g., Baker works in the Automated Finance Systems division (AFS).
- BE CLEAR ABOUT THE SEQUENCE OF EVENTS. It is helpful to report events in chronological order. If multiple interviews generate different versions of events, make sure this is indicated in your documentation.
- DOCUMENT SIGNIFICANT BODY LANGUAGE. In your interview notes, document any significant physical displays of emotion and/or significant body language. Do not speculate in your notes as to why they are occurring. This information may however be relevant later on when making credibility assessments about the involved parties.
- STAY FACTUAL. Do not include any inflammatory or judgmental language in your documentation.
- BE CLEAR ABOUT CONCLUSIONS AND RECOMMENDATIONS. Make sure your final report includes conclusions as well as what recommendations you are making. If you are unable to reach a conclusive determination, make sure to include recommendations regarding continuing the investigation or next steps.
- DOCUMENT FINAL MEETING. When you meet with the involved parties after the investigation is concluded, be sure to document the purpose, content and outcome of those sessions. Maintain these documents in the case file.
- RE-READ BEFORE YOU SUBMIT. Put the investigation report aside for a least an hour (ideally a day) and review it one more time. Re-read it and ask yourself if it is clear, balanced and representative of the facts uncovered during the investigation. If feasible, have a confidential advisor or investigation team member review the final report before it is submitted.
Deb Muller is the CEO of HR Acuity, a technology solution that combines documentation, process, and human expertise so organizations can meet the challenge of managing employee relations in the modern world. Be proactive. Manage risk. Create a safer workplace.