Open-ended questions play a key part in every investigation. It is crucial for workplace investigators to plan their open-ended questions effectively to ensure they obtain accurate information from their interviews. Poorly planned questions can lead to biased or incomplete answers, which could ultimately hinder the investigation process. Investigators should be using open-ended questions during their interviews as they have many benefits and can be helpful during the investigation.

What are open-ended questions?

Open-ended questions are a type of inquiry/enquiry that allows the respondent to provide a more detailed and comprehensive answer. This type of questioning is often used in investigations to gather data and gain insight into complex topics. Unlike closed-ended questions, which require a simple yes or no answer or a specific response from a limited set of options, open-ended questions encourage individuals to share their thoughts and opinions freely without any restrictions.

Such questions often start with words like “why”, “how”, or “what” and give the respondent the opportunity to provide a comprehensive explanation or an argument. They allow for more in-depth responses, and can be used to explore a subject, gaining a better understanding of the topic at hand.

Examples of open-ended questions

As a workplace investigator, it is crucial to ask open-ended questions in order to gather as much information as possible. These types of questions allow the interviewee to provide more detailed responses and they also prevent the interviewer from leading the conversation in a specific direction.

Some examples of open-ended questions a workplace investigator could ask include:

  • Can you describe the situation in more detail?
  • How did you feel during the incident?
  • What led up to the conflict?
  • What options did you consider before making your decision?
  • How do you think this situation could have been prevented?

These types of questions allow the interviewee to expand on their responses and provide more context, which can be helpful in understanding the full picture of the situation. Asking about emotions and thought processes can also provide valuable insight into why certain decisions were made.

It is important to note that open-ended questions should be asked in a neutral tone and without any judgement or assumptions. This approach can help to build trust with the interviewee and encourage them to provide honest and comprehensive answers.

The benefits of open-ended questions

Open-ended questions should be included in every investigative interview. They should replace weak, one-way questions to get the best results. For instance, instead of asking, “Did you witness the incident?” investigators could ask, “Can you describe what you saw and heard during the incident?” The latter prompts the interviewee to provide a more detailed account of their experience, which could potentially uncover valuable information.

Other benefits of open-ended questions include:

  1. Better follow-up questions
  2. Avoidance of assumptions
  3. Expression of different perspectives
  4. Leaving room for contradictions
  5. Showing empathy

1. Better follow-up questions

When conducting an investigation, flexibility is key. Open-ended questions enable the interviewer to dig deeper into the subject matter as the interviewee begins to reveal new and pertinent information. By allowing the speaker to expand on the issue, the interviewer can actively listen and come up with follow-up questions. These questions will be closely linked to the workplace problem and will focus on clarifying details, getting more information and establishing chronological order.

This can only be done through open-ended questions as they do not restrict the interviewee and give them space to speak for as long as the interviewer deems necessary. To get better answers, it would be wise to keep the questions simple and short so the individual does not get confused or lost.

2. Avoidance of assumptions

Another advantage of open-ended questions is their ability to help counteract prejudices and assumptions that may inadvertently influence the investigation. By asking open-ended questions, interviewers can remain impartial, ensuring that the conversation remains focused on the facts and respondent’s account of events.

Rather than asking, “Why do you think your coworker is biased against you?”, a more neutral and open-ended question like, “Can you tell me about your interactions with your coworker and how they have affected your experience at work?” will likely result in a richer, more objective assessment of the situation. They will fill in the information gaps and prevent the investigator from potentially jumping to any conclusion.

3. Expression of different perspectives

Open-ended questions can also help create a sense of trust and openness between an investigator and the individual being interviewed. By giving the interviewee the space to express their thoughts and feelings without constraint, open-ended questions enable them to present a genuine and comprehensive perspective on their experiences. They are able to clearly state what happened from their own point of view, which many times could lead to unexpected answers. 

 This is one of the many reasons even researchers rely on open-ended questions. They give them answers they never thought of and allow them to make better decisions. Such type of questioning can be especially important if an individual is under investigation themselves, as it allows them to present their perspective and provide context around any allegations made against them. This, in turn, ensures a complete and fair examination of the situation. 

4. Leaving room for contradictions

When conducting an investigation, it can be helpful to identify inconsistencies in the information provided by various employees. One way to achieve this is by using open-ended questions to encourage the interviewee to keep speaking on a topic or by getting them to revisit an earlier topic to see if their answer has changed. If the person is lying, this tactic is likely to produce contradictions in the accounts of events.

 By comparing and contrasting these discrepancies, an investigator can gain a clearer understanding of the overall situation, identify any inconsistencies that merit further examination and reevaluate the credibility of their recollection accordingly. They might even result in more problems or allegations to appear if the interviewee is not fully aware of what they are sharing.

 This method of identifying factual inconsistencies between statements – sometimes within the one interview, sometimes across multiple interviews or compared with other witness statements – is the most reliable method of determining truthfulness in interviews. Old methods of trying to ‘read’ body language and behaviour have been proven to be unreliable, and best practice is now to prepare good questions, take detailed notes, and look for factual discrepancies. 

5. Showing empathy

Open-ended questions engage the respondent by giving them the opportunity to express their thoughts and feelings in depth. This type of question allows the respondent to share their personal experiences and opinions without feeling judged or like a conclusion has already been made.

Moreover, open-ended questions make the respondent feel heard because it shows that the interviewer is interested in their perspective and values their input. This type of questioning can also facilitate a greater level of understanding and empathy between the interviewer and the respondent.

Open-ended questions that focus on empathy can result in a greater willingness to continue the conversation. This is because empathy creates an atmosphere of collaboration and mutual respect, rather than simply trying to obtain information. They encourage the individual to speak at length about the incident or feelings, allowing the investigator to identify specific areas that warrant further exploration.

Limitations of open-ended questions

While open-ended questions may provide valuable information, they also come with several disadvantages. One of the most significant concerns with open-ended questions is the potential for data contamination. When individuals are asked broader questions, they are likely to give unprompted responses, which can be biased or inaccurate. People might often respond with their own personal opinions or beliefs that could be different from the reality of the situation at hand.

They are also time-consuming. Unlike closed-ended questions, which only require simple, direct answers, open-ended questions demand a more thoughtful and comprehensive answer. This aspect could make the interview longer, leading to the respondent being more tired and giving poor responses.

When conducting a large-scale inquiry/enquiry, open-ended questions can be difficult to analyse. These types of questions can result in a high volume of data that is time-consuming to sift through and assess. This can make it challenging for the investigator to make sense of a vast amount of data and identify the key issues that need addressing.

In almost all cases, they are harder to answer. The interviewee will need to explain a lot which means that the investigator needs to be skilled and avoid phrasing it in a way that could encourage a bad reaction.


Open-ended questions are able to provide the investigator with more meaningful answers. They also help to reduce the chances of leading interviewees to a particular answer. Closed-ended questions, particularly those with a positive or negative connotation, might lead interviewees to provide answers they believe investigators want to hear. However, open-ended questions allow interviewees to provide their perspectives impartially.

Are you looking for ways to make your interview better? Polonious provides its clients with a secure space where they can store their interview notes, evidence and recordings. We also offer investigators with the means to conduct an interview online, making it easier to connect with remote employees. We are ISO 27001 certified which highlights our commitment to a high-security standard when it comes to confidentiality and keeping all of your data away from unwanted parties. Only those responsible can access investigation files. Do you want to know more? Request a demo and let’s have a chat!