How to Conduct Fair and Unbiased Investigation Interviews

Give witnesses the respect they deserve by reserving judgment and questioning assumptions

Posted by Dawn Lomer in on July 10th, 2012

We all make mistakes. It’s part of being human. But a good corporate investigator knows that mistakes made during workplace investigations can have dire consequences. Imagine your company losing an expensive lawsuit because you failed to secure the evidence or question all witnesses adequately in a harassment case.

It’s not just money; reputations are at stake. Internal investigations have that much power. So it makes sense to review some of the mistakes investigators are most likely to make and ensure you don’t make the same ones.

At the SHRM Annual Conference Allison West, Esq, SPHR, a workplace investigations specialist and consultant with a background in employment law, talked to me about a few of the most common mistakes investigators make when conducting interviews.

Stay Objective

If HR is doing the investigation, they many know the people involved, so they must remember that they are not advocating for either side, but must remain independent.
The biggest mistake investigators make is being biased, says West.  If HR is doing the investigation, they many know the people involved, so they must remember that they are not advocating for either side, but must remain independent, she says.

But even an independent investigator can have preconceptions. “There are all sorts of things that can happen because we’re human,” she says. And that can cause us to ask questions in a way that shows bias.

“If I have talked to other people and I say to you: ‘Four other people said you did it, why don’t you just admit that it happened?’  I’ve already let you know that I don’t believe you. I’m not objective. When you ask a question in that way, you’re not giving the person an honest opportunity to give their version of the facts,” she says.

Use Words Wisely

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West advises investigators to be aware of the language that they use, as that can indicate bias as well. “I think it’s very important to use the right words,” she says.

“People use ‘accused’ and ‘accuser’. I’m totally against it, because that’s criminal. We’re talking (about a) workplace so it escalates it in a way that adds bias.” She advocates using softer words, such as complainant, respondent and alleged wrongdoer.

Premature Conclusions

West also warns against reaching a conclusion before all the evidence is in. It’s ok to assess credibility as you go based on how the person responds to your questions and their demeanor, she says, but don’t base conclusions on this.

“If you have a calm demeanor throughout and I start asking you questions about the money, and I see you getting uptight, I will not make a judgment on that but I will ask you about it,” she says. There could be another reason for the behavior you are interpreting as nervousness, such as low blood sugar, or medication, she says. “As an investigator, to start making judgments without asking questions is a huge mistake. There may be a reason why they are fidgeting. You have to give them a chance to say what it is.”

To learn more about the most common mistakes investigators make and how to avoid them, register for our free webinar, How to Avoid the 10 Biggest Investigation Mistakes, presented by Allison West on July 26th at 2pm EST.

Dawn Lomer
Dawn Lomer

Managing Editor

Dawn Lomer is the managing editor at i-Sight Software and a Certified Fraud Examiner (CFE). She writes about topics related to workplace investigations, ethics and compliance, data security and e-discovery, and hosts i-Sight webinars.