The ability to conduct effective investigation interviews is at the core of a good workplace investigation. It is also an area where there’s a lot of myth and misconception. Some investigators take the interview technique they see on shows like The Wire as a model for their own investigations.
The reality of a good investigation interview is that it is much less dramatic. An effective investigation interview is one that gets good quality, detail rich, data from witnesses. It is one where the investigator takes a back seat to the witness who is the expert on the evidence.
Investigative interviews might seem complex, with competing requirements to develop rapport, maintain procedural fairness and get the evidence needed to make findings in relation to the matter, however there are some simple principles to keep in mind when interviewing.
Set Up Your Interview for Success
Ensure that you have explained the process of the investigation to the witness. You need to explain your role as investigator as well as the role of witness and any support person. Explain what will happen at the interview, how the interview will be recorded and how the witness will get a copy of the record of interview.
Ensure that you offer the opportunity of a support person to attend the interview and that you make it clear that the role of a support person is not to advocate or represent the witness in the interview.
If you are interviewing a respondent, ensure that they have access to the allegations against them prior to the interview.
At Worklogic, we find it invaluable to have a Guide for Participants which sets out what a witness can expect from the interview process.
Remember that the Witness is the Expert on the Content
In an investigative interview, it is the witness and not the interviewer who is the expert. Witnesses know the evidence best and the investigator’s job is to conduct the interview in a way that enables them to express their evidence is the best possible way.
There’s no room in a workplace investigation interview for ‘gotcha’ moments or armchair psychology. Our job as the investigator is to let the witness tell their story.
It’s important, therefore for the investigator to remember that it is never their job to give their opinion on the matter being investigated, nor to allow anyone else (a support person for example) to attempt to answer questions or otherwise get in the way of the complainant providing the evidence the matters that they are expert in.
Building rapport is a vital element in any investigation interview. It enables for the interviewee to feel comfortable in the space around them and more relaxed in answering questions.
There are several ways to build rapport:
- A telephone call to the witness prior to the interview where you introduce yourself and explain the process
- Normal hospitality, explain where the bathrooms are, offer tea/coffee/water and ensure that the interviewee knows that they can ask for a break at any time.
- Offer a support person;
- Don’t launch straight into your questions, a little small talk or some friendly questions about how the witness got to the interview for example will help to put them at ease and give you a sense of their style of answering questions.
- Keep an open posture and body language. Maintain occasional (but not invasive!) eye contact, and give non-verbal cues such as nods to show you are listening.
Use of Questions
By using a judicious mix of questions you’ll be able to get rich quality data that is needed from the investigation. This will include a mix of:
This is where an interviewer asks the witness to narrate the evidence in an uninterrupted way. This enables the witness to get into the flow of the evidence and encourages them to recall the events without being interrupted.
Open Ended Questions
The power of open ended questions should not be underestimated. Open ended questions such as “Start at the beginning at tell me what happened on the day of the all staff meeting” and “What happened then?” are much more likely to get you more richly detailed and more accurate evidence than if you start with closed questions.
You will probably still need to use closed questions ‘Who, what, where, when, how’ when you are gathering evidence. These questions are useful when you are clarifying the evidence you’ve collected in the narrative.
Directed questions – if you have particular pieces of evidence (emails for example) you’ll want to ask questions directed at the evidence.
One of the keys to conducting an effective workplace investigation is to ensure that you follow the rules of procedural fairness, including the No Bias rule. As an investigator you not only need to not be actually biased in the investigation, but you also need to ensure that you maintain your appearance of non-bias. This means that as an interviewer you need to treat all witnesses with the same polite neutrality. You should not get emotionally involved in the stories of witnesses or sympathise with them, telling them that you understand what they are going through. They will be best served by you conducting the interview in a procedurally fair way.
The last but most important principle that all interviewers need remember is to listen closely to the answer the witness gives to your question. This is surprising hard to do when the interviewer is monitoring the emotion of the witness, dealing with a difficult support person and thinking about their next question. By listening carefully to the answer given by the witness you are more likely to wait until they have finished answering, you’re better able to assess what the next question should be and most importantly you can tell if the witness has in fact answered the question that you have asked!
Interviewing witnesses is an art that needs to be consistently practiced in order for you to get the best results from your interviews. I have a couple of spaces left in my Conducting Workplace Investigations Online Course on 4 and 5 June and Jason Clark is running a masterclass on Conducting Investigation Interviews Online Course on 18 and 19 June. We would love to see you there.
About Jodie Fox
Jodie Fox is passionate about helping people and organisations manage workplace conflict in a productive way. She specialises in workplace investigations, workplace reviews and mediations to address and resolve complaints and foster a positive workplace culture. An experienced employment lawyer, she works with clients from a diverse range of industries providing pragmatic and strategic advice. She is a knowledgeable and engaging writer and speaker.
Please contact Jodie for an obligation free consultation via email or call (03) 9981 6558.