Employee interviews can be one of the most challenging aspects of workplace investigations – employers have to make sure they know how to extract the ‘right’ information because failing to do so can jeopardise the outcome of the entire investigative process.
Your ability to determine the truth can be impacted greatly by the questions you ask. The wrong questions can not only make employee or witness interviews unhelpful to the investigation but actually lead them in the wrong direction regarding the facts of the situation.
Interviewing the complainant
As part of the investigation process, you may interview many different parties, from the directly accused to potential offenders, witnesses and bystanders. The common practice though is to interview the complainant/reporter first. Their initial report may have provided some insight, but taking the time to question them more thoroughly will help you better understand the problem’s depth and impact. In some circumstances, there may not be an initial complaint or report in which case it’s best to start with individuals with the greatest ties to the issue.
The complainant’s interview will help you decide whether an investigation is even necessary and if so, to what scale it should be conducted. Giving them the opportunity to speak and describe their experience also helps make sure that every complaint is taken seriously which is great for picking up on major concerns before they have a chance to cause too much damage. Additionally, it provides employees with the confidence to raise concerns without fear of repercussion, helping to promote a strong speak-up culture within the organisation.
The more details that you are able to gather from the complainant, the clearer your roadmap will be for how you need to proceed. Using the ‘who, what, when, where, why’ approach is helpful for uncovering key information and can be a great tool in such interviews.
Below are some questions which utilise the principles of the technique and can be helpful for gathering useful details:
- What occurred in as much detail as possible?
- Who was involved and in what way?
- How many times did the incident occur and is it ongoing?
- What was the date, time and location of the incident?
- Were there any witnesses or bystanders who saw what happened?
- How did you react in the moment? (verbally or physically)
- Do you know of any potential motives the offender may have had?
- What, if any, type of evidence are you able to provide (physical or digital)?
- How did others around you react to the incident?
- Who else knows about the situation?
- Did you report the incident to your manager or any other person of authority?
- How have you been affected, both in terms of work and personally?
- Is there anything else you want to add?
At this point in the interview, it’s also important to make sure the complainant understands that whilst you will try your best to maintain confidentiality, some details may need to be shared with key stakeholders. Privacy is undoubtedly important to workplace investigations but as it progresses, it is likely that more people will become involved and require specific information about the complainant and their issue.
As an employer or investigator, it’s helpful to have this conversation, especially when working with potential victims of workplace discrimination or harassment who may not be comfortable with sharing certain details.
Questioning the witnesses and the accused
Witnesses are pivotal to the outcome of a workplace investigation. They help point the investigator towards the truth of what occurred by providing additional insight from the perspective of an individual who wasn’t directly involved. This allows them to provide details that the complainant may not necessarily be privy to or is unwilling to share. Their accounts can help to strengthen or refute that of the complainant and provide a more comprehensive image of the incident.
Keep in mind however, that it’s important not to treat witnesses as impartial judges about the situation – whether it’s intentional or not, their account may be influenced by their relationships with the complainant or accused as well as their own personal motives.
When it comes to questioning the individual(s) that have been accused, there are a few additional factors that investigators should account for. This interview can be the most difficult as the individual has to be made aware of what they have been accused of. These claims can hold implications about potential consequences if the accusations are proven, which can cause the individual to react negatively. They may shut down, be unwilling to share or react aggressively regardless of whether the allegations are true or not.
As the interviewer, it’s important to remain neutral and refrain from using leading language and explain that the investigative interview’s purpose is not to pass judgement but rather to hear out the person and their perspective.
The witnesses and the accused should also be asked the questions indicated above for the complainant. Alongside them, there can be certain questions that are specifically suited to their role but these will be dependent on the particular context of your investigation and organisation.
Additional examples of questions to ask these parties include:
- Where were you when the incident occurred?
- Who was with you at the time of the incident?
- On how many occasions have you witnessed something related to the incident?
- Describe the event from your perspective.
- How well do you know the complainant? How well do you know the accused?
- What is your relationship like with the complainant and/or the accused?
- Recall what was said and done by the complainant to the best of your ability.
- Recall what was said and done by the accused to the best of your ability.
- How did you react to the situation in the moment? How did you react afterwards?
- How did any other witnesses respond to the situation?
- Are you aware of any evidence supporting what you’ve said or the incident in general?
- Did you learn anything about the incident after it happened (from talking to the complainant, accused or other witnesses etc.)
- Is there anything else you want to add?
Regardless of the questions you ask, make sure you are documenting the interview thoroughly – there can be a lot of ground that is covered and relying on memory alone is unprofessional and can also cause major problems down the road due to its unreliability and susceptibility to unconscious bias.
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Interviews play a major role in the workplace investigation process. They are one of the only opportunities investigators have to engage directly with parties involved in the incident(s) and they set the scene for what claims, evidence and information need to be evaluated. Ensuring that you plan carefully and ask questions that are relevant and encourage useful information allows the investigation to proceed more smoothly and establish the facts more quickly.
If you want to make sure that your investigation asks the right questions and is ultimately effective, Polonious can help with its case management software that helps to automate and streamline investigative processes so you can have reliable results every time.