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How to Write an Investigation Report that Holds Up in Court

Make sure it’s complete, factual and detailed enough for someone unfamiliar with the case to understand.

Posted by Dawn Lomer on June 7th, 2012

You’ve conducted a flawless investigation, interviewed the suspects and every possible witness, gathered every scrap of evidence, followed up on every lead and tracked down every piece of related information. You are covered in the event that anyone, including the courts, questions the quality of your investigation, right?

Possibly not. If you haven’t documented it thoroughly in a comprehensive investigation report, all the work you’ve done could go down the drain.

Verbal Doesn’t Measure Up

“What we find in our training is that some organizations don’t actually create a report. It’s often verbal,” says Janice Rubin, partner at partner at the law firm Rubin Thomlinson, and co-author (with Christine Thomlinson) of The Human Resources Guide to Workplace Investigations. And aside from the obvious shortfalls of a report that isn’t officially recorded anywhere, verbal reports are often abbreviated and missing details, she adds.

“It’s really important to have a record of the report for posterity because… issues pop up sometimes two or three years later and you have to show that you dealt with it by way of investigation and you have to have good documentation.”

Purposes of the Report

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“First of all, we need to understand how the report is going to be used in court,” says Rubin. “It’s generally not going to be used to establish facts… The report is there first and foremost to show that the employer engaged in a process that was fair, that responded to whatever the particular allegation was. You want to make sure that the report really does speak to the process, and communicates really clearly why the investigator reached the conclusion that he or she reached.”

There are two purposes to an investigation report, explains Rubin:

  • communicate the process that was undertaken to conduct the investigation
  • present the evidence, the facts established and the conclusions that the investigator has made in the report

The Writing Process

When writing a report, the style is less important than the substance, says Rubin, but that’s not an excuse for bad grammar or spelling. “What you want is a document that shows that the employer took the allegations seriously and that the investigator did a thorough job,” she says.

The process of writing a report allows the investigator to ensure that he or she has collected all the necessary information, has addressed all of the allegations and has conducted all the necessary witness interviews.

What to Include

An investigation report should include:

  • An outline of the process that the investigator followed
  • a review of all the evidence gathered
  • a list of the facts that were determined
  • an analysis of why the investigator has reached any conclusions
  • full names of the people involved

“In our view, anybody who is writing investigation reports should consider the fact that they may be read by people beyond the immediate people the report is being written for. So you need to include information that makes the information clear and accessible,” says Rubin.

What Not to Include

The following should not be included in the report:

  • irrelevant information
  • recommendations, if the investigator has not been asked to include them
  • factual conclusions that are not supported by an explanation/analysis
  • unclear information
  • technical terms that might be unfamiliar to the reader
  • acronyms that are not explained

The investigator should keep in mind that somebody unconnected to the investigation, such as the judge, an arbitrator or an adjudicator, will be reading the report. “It has to be clear to someone unfamiliar with the basic facts,” she says.

“When I read the report I want to understand why the investigator reached the conclusion that he or she has. The ducks have to be lined up.”

Dawn Lomer
Dawn Lomer

Manager of Communications

Dawn Lomer is the Manager of Communications at i-Sight Software and a Certified Fraud Examiner (CFE). She writes about topics related to workplace investigations, ethics and compliance, data security and e-discovery, and hosts i-Sight webinars.

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