Witnesses are typically interviewed only after the complainant and the subject of the investigation. Witness interviews can assist investigators in validating statements made by the complainant and the subject. For that reason, it is important to encourage employees with information relevant to the incident to come forward and share their knowledge of the events under investigation.
After meeting with the complainant and the subject, the investigator is usually faced with a “he said/she said” situation. The truth often lies somewhere in between. Other employees are vital sources of information that can help you to determine the accuracy of the complaint.
The process of interviewing a witness is similar to the process of interviewing the complainant and the accused. Consider carefully the purpose of your meeting with each witness, and tailor your questions to that end. To preserve confidentiality, investigators generally must limit to the degree possible the amount of incident-specific information they share with each witness.
In preparing for each witness interview, it is a good idea to review your preliminary investigation outline, as well as the results of all prior interviews, and consider relevant topics for each subsequent witness. Encourage witnesses to contact you if they subsequently recall, or come across, any other information that might be relevant to the case. Remind the witness of the importance of confidentiality.
When interviewing witnesses, investigators should begin with some basic background questions concerning the workplace, the company culture and the witness’s relationship with the complainant or subject, if any. It is important to be aware of any existing relationships among witnesses and the individuals involved in the investigation, since those relationships could influence the interviewee’s responses and account of the incident.
It is also important to explain to each witness that his or her account of the incident is critical to the investigation. Witnesses may be reluctant to share everything they know, fearing that if they do so they might get someone in trouble. Background questions provide an opportunity to break down any barriers and create a more comfortable environment before the investigator steers the conversation toward incident-specific questions.
Mandatory questions to ask witnesses, as outlined by the EEOC in the ”Enforcement Guidance on Vicarious Employer Liability for Unlawful Harassment by Supervisors” publication, consist of the following:
- What did you see or hear?
- When did this occur?
- Describe the subject’s behavior toward the complainant and toward others in the workplace.
- What did the complainant tell you?
- When did the complainant tell you this?
- Are you aware of any other information that might be relevant to the case?
- Do you know of any events or reasons that might have prompted the incident?
- Do you know of any other individuals who might have information that is relevant to this case?
Interview Wrap Up
Before ending the interview, take a few minutes to review the witness’s responses and seek clarification of any points that remain unclear or ambiguous. If you have been keeping a written record of the interview, ask the complainant to sign the document so as to confirm the accuracy of your notes. If you intend to have your notes typed up, or if the interview has been recorded in some other fashion, inform the complainant that he or she will be asked to verify the accuracy of the information when provided with the appropriate documentation. Finally, end the interview by reiterating your commitment to protecting the witness’s confidentiality to the extent possible.