A business report is a document in which the author analyses a business issue and gives recommendations based on that analysis. It may also be referred to as writing a business case or a manager’s briefing.
HR practitioners are likely to write business reports to summarise their investigations into a particular situation (for example to explain a difficulty in attracting particular talents during the recruitment process) or to support a proposal to introduce a new initiative (for example when introducing a new learning and development programme).
Students are likely to be asked to write a business report as part of their studies, usually as a piece of assessed work. Such reports differ from an essay because they have a much more structured approach. See our guide on writing an academic essay.
Reports written by students and HR practitioners will have a similar format, apart from a literature review. It’s unlikely that a report written for a business audience would need a literature review, although there could be some circumstances in which this would be appropriate.
Strategic awareness, a business orientation and a concern to add value through HR practice are key elements of professional competence. Qualified HR professionals should be able to research relevant topics and write reports that can persuade key decision-makers in the organisation to change and/or adopt a particular policy and practice. To achieve this, the report must present a clear and logical case that demonstrates the subject knowledge and authority of the author and will lead the reader to understand and appreciate the value of the recommended actions.
This guide offers advice on the report writing process and the key steps to improve the quality of business reports.
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Planning the report
The key to a successful report is effective planning, so before you start writing the report consider the following points.
Identify your target audience
Identifying who you are writing for will help to shape the content of the report.
If the report will be submitted as part of a qualification, check that you know what your tutor expects and the assessment criteria for the report. Also think about stakeholders in the organisation; the report is an ideal opportunity to demonstrate how you, as an HR professional, can add value and help you influence change.
If you’re writing the report solely for a business audience, think about what they need to know, and make the report succinct so that busy people will take time to read it. Think about:
- Who will read the report and what are they looking for?
- What will you want them to do as a result of reading the report?
Scope, size and deadline
Clear aims and objectives specify the purpose of the report and show your reader what you are aiming to do. Identifying the boundaries of the report in advance can help you avoid wasting time on researching irrelevant topics, whilst knowing the size of report can also help to ensure that you don’t collect too much or too little information.
Once you know the size and scope of your report you can then start to estimate the work required and the time available to do it. It’s also helpful at the planning stage to anticipate potential problems and blockages and how you might address these if they occur.
Collecting relevant information
The range of topics on which an HR practitioner might write a report is very wide. It’s likely that many topics have already been the subject of previous work within your organisation or at your institution or centre and most will have been addressed in earlier research published in journals and books. This means that there is plenty of material that you can consult before starting to write.
Our website provides access to recent publications from the CIPD’s research and policy teams. CIPD members can use our HR and L&D archive database of books, reports and journal articles which also gives full-text access to our older reports. Members can use online journals covering HR, L&D and management topics via EBSCO's Discovery Service database.
Understanding the report structure
A report is a structured form of writing, designed to be read quickly and accurately. The sections of a report might not be read consecutively so it is important to understand the structure and convention of report-writing. CIPD recommend the following structure:
The title should indicate clearly the focus of the report. It should be brief and, if possible, generate interest in the importance of the report’s content.
This is a brief summary of the report, no longer than one page, which is designed to help the reader decide whether they wish to read the full report. Although it is the first thing to be read, it should be written last and should include:
- the purpose of the report
- how the topic was investigated
- an overview of the findings
- the key recommendations.
Table of contents
This shows how the report is structured and indicates the page numbers of the main elements. You should also include a list of charts and diagrams (where appropriate) and any appendices.
The purpose of the introduction is to set the scene and show how the chosen topic seeks to address an issue of strategic relevance to the organisation. A brief explanation of the organisational context can highlight the key drivers that are influencing the business and demonstrate a rationale for the report. The introduction should also outline the aims and objectives of the study. The aim clarifies what the report is trying to achieve while the objectives are more specific and show how the issue will be addressed. The introduction can also outline the scope of the report including any boundaries or constraints that may apply or affect the progress of the study.
It’s important that professionals working within HR are up-to-date with recent developments and ideas that inform HR practice. The purpose of the literature review is to put the issue under investigation into perspective and demonstrate your knowledge of the key works and latest findings on the topic.
HR practitioners who are writing a report solely for a business audience might find it inappropriate to include a literature review. However, consider including recent surveys or other material to support any proposals contained with the report.
A student who is writing a report for academic purposes must always carry out a literature review to identify the sources used for the theoretical concepts that underpin the report.
The literature review should be a discussion and critical evaluation of published material including books, journal articles, research reports and discussion papers. Different sources may contradict each other so it’s important to consider the strengths and weaknesses of each and explore why any differences might occur.
The literature review should also aim to explain the issue in the context of contemporary ideas and thinking, including a discussion of relevant models, concepts, ideas and current good practice. It should identify key trends and/or gaps in knowledge and so inform and influence the subsequent stages of your investigation. It can help to summarise the key issues derived from the literature at the end of this section and show how this relates to your own research of the topic.
This section must explain what you did to gather the information that you are presenting. You should explain the approach used (such as questionnaires, interviews, and so on), why you took this approach and how you decided what sample of people to include in any surveys that you undertook. You should also demonstrate an awareness of alternative methods, the suitability of primary and secondary data sources to your investigation, ethical considerations and any logistical problems you may have encountered.
We recommend that you consult and make reference to texts on research methods to justify why your chosen approach was suitable and, therefore, why the resulting findings are robust enough to base business decisions on them.
Findings, analysis and discussion
Your results should be presented as clearly as possible so that they are easily understood and accessible to the reader. Graphs, charts and diagrams can be used to identify the key findings. In this section you should also analyse and interpret the results by drawing on the research you have collected and explaining its significance. You should also suggest explanations for your findings and any outline any issues that may have influenced the results.
You should ensure that any responses from individuals are anonymised, unless you have the express written permission of the individual to refer to their response by name.
Conclusions and recommendations
This section draws together the main issues identified in the report and should refer back to the aims and objectives – has the report achieved what it set out to do? This section should not include any new material.
The recommendations should be actionable and feasible in the organisational context. You should show what needs to be done and why. It is advisable that you prioritise the recommendations that are likely to achieve the greatest effect. The implementation plan should give some indication of timescales and cost implications.
It’s acceptable to give a choice of approaches in the recommendations. If you do this ensure that the costs and benefits of each approach are explained, so that the reader can make an informed decision about which approach to choose. You might also make a recommendation that further research is carried out. If you do this, explain what the benefits of the additional research would be.
At the end of your report you should list of all the publications and other material that you have quoted or made reference to in the report. This enables the reader to follow up on issues of particular interest but is also essential to avoid plagiarism. We recommend the Harvard style of citation and referencing though others are available and may be specifically requested by examiners. The guidance in Cite them Right!1 also follows the Harvard style and is used by many colleges and universities.
This is required for the CIPD Advanced qualification rather than for business reports generally, and provides the opportunity to apply crucial reflective skills to your own performance. However, it is a good discipline to reflect on any report, whatever the reason for writing it, and to consider what you have learnt from it even if you do not write a formal reflective statement.
The statement should outline:
- the significant personal learning achieved through conducting the study
- any learning needs that have emerged and how they will be addressed
- how you have dealt with difficulties or obstacles and whether these could have been avoided
- what you might have done differently and why
- how it has helped you understand the process of business research.
These should include additional material that is related to the study but not essential to read. If used, they should be signposted in the main report and should be clearly numbered.
Don’t use the appendices as a ‘dumping ground’ for lots of documents that have vague relevance to the topic. Only include material in appendices if it really adds value to the report.
Presenting the report
The standard of presentation needs to be professional if it is to persuade key decision-makers to accept the recommendations.
- Use wide margins and clear line spacing.
- Clearly number all pages.
- Ensure headings are clear and follow a logical structure.
- Paragraphs should be short and concise.
- Keep language simple and avoid unnecessary jargon.
- Label graphs, charts and diagrams.
- Check the draft of your report thoroughly, or ask a colleague to do so. Spelling mistakes and typographical errors are likely to detract from the quality of the case being made.
Students may need to conform to a particular presentation style required by examiners.
References and books
- PEARS, R. and SHIELDS, G. (2010) Cite them right! The essential referencing guide. 8th ed. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan. http://www.citethemrightonline.com/
ANDERSON, V. (2009) Research methods in human resource management. 3rd ed. London: CIPD.
CAMERON, S. and PRICE, D. (2009) Business research methods: a practical approach. London: CIPD.
HORN. R. (2009) The business skills handbook. London: Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development.
HORN, R. (2012) Researching and writing dissertations: a complete guide for business and management students. London: CIPD.
ROBINSON, S. and DOWSON, P. (2012) Business ethics in practice. London: CIPD.