Handling difficult support people

Tanya Hunter
October 7, 2020
Tanya Hunter

Being interviewed as part of a workplace investigation can be stressful and intimidating for everyone involved – complainant, respondent, and witnesses. Being able to have someone to support them during the interview process can provide comfort to participants. Best practice, and many workplace policies, provide for a support person to see that employee wellbeing is taken into account during the investigation process.

However, it is important that the support person understand and agree to their role in the process.

Who can be a support person?

Generally anyone who is not involved in the matter being investigated can be a support person. In some cases, an enterprise agreement may provide that a person is entitled to be represented by someone such as a union delegate or a lawyer during an investigation interview. If this is the case, the representative is entitled to speak on behalf of the participant, but this is a different role than a support person.

What is the role of the support person?

It is important that the support person understands that they are at the interview to provide psychological support to the participant and to look after the participant’s wellbeing. A support person is not at the interview to answer questions for the participant or to speak for them. A support person can ask for a break if they see that the participant is becoming upset or if they want to discuss something with the participant, but they cannot answer questions on the participant’s behalf.

How do you avoid a support person taking over the interview?

Lay the ground rules for all support people at the start. Make it clear that the support person is present to look after the participant’s wellbeing, but that you do not expect to hear from the support person during the interview, and that their role is not to speak for the interviewee. Also make sure that the support person is not involved in the matter being investigated, particularly if they are a work colleague. If it becomes clear that the support person is actually a witness themselves to the matter being investigated, politely and regretfully end the interview, and suggest that the interview resume with an appropriate support person. Ask the support person to verbally agree to the ground rules so that this is on the record.

What if the support person insists on answering questions?

Remind the support person of their role in the process. The ideal support person is seen and not heard, but if the support person does provide an occasional interjection, consider if this is assisting you in getting relevant information from the participant. If a support person continues to answer questions or interrupt or is obstructing the process, ask politely if they would like to take a break off the record to speak with the participant. Thank the support person for attending the interview to look after the participant, and remind the support person that you need to obtain the relevant information regarding the allegations from the interviewee, and that while you appreciate them providing support to the participant, the support person is not providing evidence.

What if the support person refuses to stop answering questions?

If the support person is not following the ground rules, remind them again, and state politely and regretfully but firmly that you will have to end the interview if they cannot allow the participant to answer the questions.

In our experience, most support people do follow the rules, and the gentle reminder to the interjecting support person usually suffices. Stressing your role as an impartial third-party investigator gathering witness evidence in order to make findings that are procedurally fair to all parties generally helps the participant and the support person to understand their respective roles and to follow them.

Workplace Investigations Book, 3rd Edition !

Worklogic is thrilled to announce that the third edition of Workplace Investigations published by Wolters Kluwer is now available for purchase!

As part of our celebration of the launch of our third edition, we are running a four-part series, “Meet the Authors”. In each of these short audio chats, we are taking a deep dive into some of the hot topics in the latest edition.

You can listen to the first audio chat from Jason Clark about the emergence of Digital Evidence in Workplace Investigations here.

About Tanya Hunter

Tanya Hunter applies a sensitive approach to working with vulnerable clients and people from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds, and astute understanding of legislative and compliance frameworks and enterprise agreements. 

She brings a balanced, impartial approach to the entire process from preliminary analysis of complaints to conducting investigations, creating productive policy guidance and solutions and implementing change projects.

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