A workplace investigation is a complex tool, comprising of many moving and important parts, and much needs to occur to ensure it runs smoothly. One of the most important requirements of an investigation is the acquisition of relevant evidence and the best, and usually most available source, comes from people.
Getting the most from an investigative interview takes time, planning and concentration. So much can be learned during a face to face interview. Apart from their recollections, the interviewee offers so much in the way they answer the questions and behave during the interview. That information becomes very useful for assessing the credibility of their evidence and them as a witness during the later stages of the process.
With that said, I have found that the interview is the least planned for event during an investigation and in some cases, has been done away with altogether, having been replaced by a standard question list emailed to the interviewee for response. Neither is ideal and only sets the investigator and the investigation up for failure or criticism.
Conducting an effective investigation does not have to be difficult, and to assist, here are my tips for success:
1. Plan the interview
Planning the interview is key. This goes beyond simply booking a room and a time with the interviewee. I recommend drafting a written plan which should consider:
- The purpose of the interview. Consider the interviewee’s role in the investigation (complainant, respondent or witness). The questions you ask and the evidence discussed with the interviewee will be role dependent.
- If interviewing the Respondent, what information is required from the interviewee. Are you seeking corroboration from them, or is it the initial interview?
- What policy documents are relevant and what concepts they raise need to be explored with the interviewee (understanding of appropriate behaviours, for example).
- What might you need to challenge the interviewee with (existing contradictory evidence). What information have you been provided about this participant’s involvement in the alleged conduct.
- If interviewing the respondent, consider the potential defences for the alleged conduct they may use, and determine how you will challenge/clarify their defence and test their evidence.
- Draft a question list (broad questions only, not a script) listing the ‘must have’ information you are seeking from the interviewee, and use it as a prompt during the interview.
- Consider how the interview will be recorded and the resources required.
2. Communicate with the interviewee
Part of a procedurally fair investigation is ensuring that communication is open and transparent. The interview process is not meant to be a secret. That does not mean you send your interview plan to the interviewee but it does mean you should inform the interviewee:
- Where and when the interview will be.
- How it is going to be recorded and what happens with their statement/transcript.
- The confidentiality requirements of their participation.
- That they are able to bring a support person to the interview and their role.
- That they are able to ask questions prior, during and after the interview, and take breaks throughout if required.
I recommend you write a guide, which can be emailed to the participant before the interview.
3. Keep Calm and Control the Interview
An investigation interview can be confronting for all involved but as the investigator your role is to control it. Use your plan to guide you through the investigation and maintain control of the information flow. Do not allow the interviewee, or their support person, to cross examine you about your role as the investigator, the evidence or the process and likely outcomes.
If the interviewee avoids answering the question you posed by providing superfluous information, politely interrupt them and ask them how it is relevant to the question you asked. Get them back on track and if you feel that you are losing control of the interview, take a break, reset and pick up where you left off.
4. Use good questioning techniques and be an active listener
There are many ways to ask a question but only a few are the most appropriate for the purposes of an investigation. I recommend you avoid writing a script of questions, mainly because scripts tend to be static, and generally do not allow for unexpected developments in the interview. Rather, think broadly about what you want to explore with the interviewee, and form some prompting questions to ensure you cover everything you need to.
When asking questions, use open questions to encourage as much information as possible. Think about using “explain for me” or “describe for me” as a good lead in. Try to encourage them to do most of the talking. Prompts like “then what happened” and “what did you do next” are helpful, and don’t be afraid to use strategic silence as a way of encouraging them to keep going. To clarify information given use closed questions using who, what, where, when, why and how to drill down for the detail.
Never use leading questions (“you wore a red shirt that day, didn’t you?”) and avoid asking multiple questions at once (“what was John saying when you arrived and what was everyone else saying?”). It is poor technique and is a risk to the quality of the evidence.
Finally, be present in the interview and demonstrate that you are listening to the interviewee’s responses. It is very important that the interviewee feels you are hearing what they have to say, and they are more likely to be forthcoming where that interests exists.
5. Review your plan before closing the interview
This tip is particularly important! Before completing the interview, review your plan and make sure you obtained the information you were seeking or wanting to clarify, and have challenged where appropriate. If you feel that you missed something, go back, check and ask the question. You may not get a second chance.
6. Review your performance
Don’t be afraid to think about how you performed during the interview. Ask yourself: Did the interview plan work, what did I do well, what could I have done better and what would I do differently next time? There is no shame in self-reflection. I have conducted numerous interviews in my career as an investigator – over 210 just since starting with Worklogic a year ago – and I still take that moment to reflect.
About Jason Clark
Jason Clark is Worklogic’s Associate Director, based in Sydney. Jason has extensive experience as a workplace investigator, investigating a range of issues including fraud, bullying, harassment and sexual misconduct. He has also assisted numerous organisations develop strategies to minimise poor behaviour and encourage a positive workplace culture.
Prior to joining Worklogic, Jason was the Joint Investigation Office Commander for the Australian Defence Force Investigative Service. For more advice, please email Jason or give him a call (02) 9152 8706.
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Editor’s Note: Want to work with us?
In response to the demand for our professional workplace investigation, review, mediation and training services in Sydney, we are seeking an experienced HR professional who has a passion for assisting Worklogic’s clients manage the risk of misconduct. In summary, you would be supporting the Sydney office by:
• Undertaking workplace investigations and reviews;
• Facilitating training on a range of subjects of interest to our clients including workplace investigations, workplace culture, effective communication and managing conflict; and
• Actively marketing Worklogic and its offerings to new and existing contacts.
The ideal candidate will be looking for a part-time six-month fixed term initially, with potential for a permanent position. If you are interested, or know someone who may be, please email Jason. A full position description can be provided on request.