Interview Techniques for Workplace Investigations

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, July 24, 2019

In any workplace investigation, there will be multiple competing factors for an investigator to consider. One core issue is developing the appropriate interview strategy.

Investigative interviewing requires careful consideration of the purpose of the investigation, and exactly who will be interviewed. There is also the question of tone - ensuring that the interview remains cordial and does not begin to resemble an interrogation. 

At WISE Workplace, we have a wealth of experience in investigative interviewing, including the best practice interview techniques to bring to the task.  

the purpose of the investigative interview

The purpose of the investigative interview is to glean relevant information about a workplace allegation in a manner that is professional and fair. 

In devising a good investigation strategy, the interviewer will carefully select who is to be interviewed during the process. 

People with first-hand knowledge are the key - not those who simply heard a rumour or were told something second-hand. Such statements constitute hearsay, and can reduce the weight of the evidence and the overall value of the investigation if relied upon. It is important for the investigator to identify and interview those people who were directly involved, or who witnessed a situation first-hand. 

Ideally there will be enough witnesses available to corroborate evidence. If facts such as the identity of an alleged bully can be verified between witnesses, or certain actions can be adequately cross-checked, the resulting findings and report are likely to be sound. 

Having a support person available for witnesses is always recommended. Being interviewed for a workplace investigation can be stressful for any of the parties. The presence of a trusted support person can help to calm the witness.

interviewing or interrogating? 

It is vital to create the right environment for the interview. At a fundamental level, the interviewer should avoid any method of questioning that could be seen as interrogating rather than interviewing.

Keep the tone conversational and allow enough time to develop rapport across the interview. Inviting questions around how the interview will work, plus describing procedural aspects like recording and note-taking can assist in reducing anxiety. 

State the obvious. For example: "This is a difficult situation involving certain allegations in the workplace, and we appreciate your help here today".

Offer the witness the option to stop and clarify any questions and to take comfort breaks if needed. Firing off questions and requiring immediate answers is no way to develop rapport and will not illicit the best information and or evidence. 

Adopting a stern or hostile demeanour is unproductive and can also lead to claims of bias. A professional interviewer should never see themselves as a TV detective with a rough attitude and a light shining in the respondent's face! The interview is not seen as a technique used to extract a confession from a witness. Building good rapport is the key to a quality investigative report that stands the test of time.

high-quality interview techniques 

The experienced interviewer understands how to conduct the workplace interview with transparency and objectivity. While the personal information of others needs to be protected, the witness should be informed of all relevant material relevant to the allegations. Even alarming or distasteful allegations should be dealt with professionally and objectively. 

Building rapport with a witness is essential for effective interviewing. Structured processes such as the PEACE model of interviewing can help interviewers to cover all aspects of a professional interview. 

The PEACE model was developed in the United Kingdom to help investigators conduct the fairest and most productive interview possible. The model provides eight steps that should be undertaken which includes:

PLANNING: Examine what planning and preparation need to occur before an interview.

ENGAGE: Choose methods that assist in building rapport with the respondent, complainant or witness.

ACCOUNT: Gather interviewee accounts in a logical and effective structure. Seek clarification where needed. 

CLOSURE: Complete the interview politely and professionally.

EVALUATE: Review the contents of your transcript and take any necessary next steps.  

Other tools such as active listening and open questions are also excellent ways to gather the best information, without raising problems of biased interviewing - perceived or otherwise. 

Don't rush the witness as they tell their story. Ask open questions, which allow the witness to provide a spontaneous and genuine description of events, rather than being fenced in by closed questioning or unnecessary interruptions.

Mastering the Investigative Interview 

Obtaining first-hand witness evidence by way of interview is essential to uncovering the facts of a matter. However, conducting interviews into serious workplace issues such as bullying and sexual harassment can be a difficult and sometimes a daunting task. 

WISE investigators have mastered key interviewing techniques and have extensive experience in conducting investigative interviews across industries. We have developed a comprehensive guide to steer HR professionals and investigators through the process. Purchase our book Investigative Interviewing: A Guide for Workplace Investigators for the best tips on successful interview techniques.

Can Employers Investigate if Complainants Ask Them Not To?

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, May 22, 2019

One of the more difficult aspects of managing an employment relationship is appropriately dealing with complaints, both from the perspective of the complainant and the accused. This is made even more complicated when a reluctant complainant brings something to the attention of Human Resources or management, then does not want it investigated. 

We examine why a complainant might not want to take an issue further, and what an employer's rights and obligations are in these circumstances.

why a complainant might be reluctant

There are many reasons why an employee might be reluctant to have a complaint investigated. These include: 

  • Fear of retribution - This is common in circumstances where the 'accused' holds a position of power over the complainant in the workplace. The complainant might fear reprisals and that their daily work life will become more difficult. This is particularly the case if the complaint relates to physical, sexual or emotional aggression. 
  • Fear that the complainant will not be taken seriously - The complainant might be worried their complaint will be considered 'trivial' or won't be dealt with objectively because of the position of the other party.
  • Time commitments - It is well known that an investigation will require a significant amount of time commitment from all parties. A complainant might not wish to be involved in a lengthy and time-consuming process. 
  • Lack of evidence - Complainants could feel that they are involved in a 'he said, she said' situation. The complainant might be concerned that an investigation will not ultimately support their version of events.    

The best way to address these concerns is for Human Resources or management to make clear to staff that all complaints are taken seriously and are duly investigated. This is regardless of who made the complaint, against whom it is levelled, and how much evidence might be required to fully conduct an investigation.

is a complainant allowed to withdraw a complaint? 

A complainant has the right to withdraw both the complaint and their support of any investigation. This generally spells the end of the investigation, because the person who receives a complaint is bound by confidentiality. This leaves the reluctant complainant as the only source of evidence to support an investigation.  

employer obligations to investigate

But employers are obliged to balance their duties of confidentiality with their obligations under workplace health and safety legislation. This includes eliminating discrimination and ensuring that everybody is able to undertake their jobs without unreasonable impostes. In circumstances of accusations of significant misconduct or even criminal activity, an employer may be justified in or even compelled to pursue an investigation, notwithstanding that a complaint has been withdrawn.

For example, if the complainant has raised issues of conduct that may constitute the commissioning of fraud, then the withdrawal of the complaint will not immediately result in the conduct alleged not being able to be independently investigated. There are also other considerations and duties of care that need to be taken into consideration before an informed decision to not undertake or to cease an investigation can be appropriately made. 

The dangers of a rigid policy structure

Although it is essential that all businesses have a complaints and grievances policy, there is some risk in having a procedure that is perceived as being too strict or rigid. If the general consensus amongst the staff is that there are only 'black and white' approaches toward dealing with complaints, this could result in staff being deterred from reporting incidents. This could ultimately result in employers breaching their legislative obligations and duty of care. 

At WISE Workplace, we have expertise in dealing with investigations involving reluctant parties. Talk to our team about full or supported investigation services for your organisation.

Counter Allegations - Who Did What When?

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Experienced workplace investigators are well aware that when two or more people are in dispute, there will inevitably be differing perspectives on what 'the truth' might look like. Contentious workplace issues can often play out in a 'he said, she said' fashion, with one allegation being closely followed up by a second person's counter-allegation. Such complications should be dealt with in a fair, considered and methodical way.

Separate allegations made by opposing parties will ideally be dealt with in discrete stages by workplace investigators, with each being handled in accordance with its individual merits. And as evidence comes to light regarding one or more of the competing allegations, investigators should aim to assess and weigh each piece of information with utmost care and objectivity.

When two tribes go to war 

When a counter-allegation is initially made, it is important not to jump to conclusions regarding this development. It does not necessarily mean that the first complainant was misrepresenting events or indeed that the second complainant is somehow defensive, guilty or panicky. It is possible that both the original and the counter complaints are valid.

Let's take an example: perhaps she took his stapler and he wiped her hard-drive. Two complete denials on the same issue can require the workplace investigator to look more closely at the milieu of the counter-allegations. For instance, if two workers in a scuffle both identically calm that "I did nothing - she pushed me", an astute investigator will know that a pointed and methodical approach to the counter-allegations is certainly called for.

In each of these scenarios, both allegations should be investigated and dealt with separately. It can be tempting to create one big file entitled 'Stapler/hard-drive fiasco' or 'Smith and Jones stoush'. Yet clear delineations between people, events and timing will ensure that impartiality and clarity are maintained for the duration of the investigation and that the validity of each complaint is tested.

Seen and unseen allegationS

Very occasionally a workplace investigation involving counter-allegations will be easily settled. For example, the employee might not have been at work on the day that she allegedly stole the stapler - a simple mistake, evidenced by the work roster and now the complaint file can (on that issue at least) be finalised.

If only things were so simple... In most workplace situations, the investigator will need to step carefully through complex evidence attached to each allegation. Some events might be directly witnessed in a cut and dried way; Brown was in the kitchen with Smith and Jones on 7 December 2017 and can confidently say she saw Smith push Jones, who then walked away. Yet in many cases there are no witnesses to wrongdoing in the workplace and the 'he did/she did' scenario must be dealt with. 

Further clarification in many forms becomes the best way to methodically tease out the knots of knowledge. This might take the form of documentary evidence, circumstantial evidence such as presence at a meeting that day, or a contemporaneous report such as an OH&S report involving counter-complainants. A tidy pattern of good circumstantial evidence can at times provide the clarity needed in the face of vehement counter-allegations. The workplace investigator must carefully assess the quality, reliability and utility of such material, being sure not to make assumptions and/or factual errors along the way.

Hearsay - treading lightly on complex terrain

As with all areas of law and investigations, hearsay evidence can provide helpful insights in situations where nothing more concrete is available. Hearsay is generally words or things observed by an individual who was not directly present when an event occurred. In other words, it is a type of indirect evidence. A simple idea, but surprisingly difficult to manoeuvre successfully during investigations.

Great care is needed in these situations, as hearsay evidence is notorious for causing problems later in post-investigation proceedings. Employees may go home and talk openly to their spouse about distressing events. Or they stomp back to their desks, muttering to a colleague about 'the stapler thief'. Yet the spouse or the colleague cannot tell us much about what actually happened. They are a friendly ear - after the alleged event.

Such indirect evidence can be the least helpful in many cases. However, experienced investigators will know how to gather and utilise such material when more direct evidence is difficult to obtain.

Workplace allegations and motivations

It is not unheard of that rather ulterior motives can exist in a workplace allegation. When stories are not gelling, it is natural for the workplace investigator to think - what am I missing? Why would this person make this up? It is important to consider the possibility that rivalries, emotional issues and/or collusion might unfortunately form part of the mix that has motivated an internal complaint. While it does not pay to assume such a phenomenon, investigators should be aware that such dynamics can and do arise in the workplace.

In workplace investigations, we find that it is never simple. If you have an investigation that has 'blown' out, or you are reviewing cross and counter complaints and could use some professional assistance, then contact WISE today.