Investigation Interview Skills that Get Results With Less Risk

Sometimes, all you need to do is let the subject talk

Posted by Dawn Lomer in on November 15th, 2012

The way an investigator handles interviews can mean the difference between a satisfactory resolution for the company and a trip to court as a defendant in a lawsuit. It’s important, therefore, for every interview to be well planned and executed, guarantee fair treatment for the interviewee and a provide a good chance for the interviewer to get the information he or she needs.

Planning the Interview

“I think sometimes investigators interview too quickly,” says Judy Kalisker, Vice President of Compliance and Compliance Officer at The MENTOR Network. “They don’t develop their plan first, they don’t develop their opening script first and they may say too much or the wrong things and can set a company up for potential liability.”

She gives the example of an interviewer who fails to stipulate that the company prohibits retaliation. This is critical information that must be conveyed to everyone involved in an investigation, and failure to communicate this policy could mean trouble down the road.

Opening the Interview

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It’s good practice to start the interview with general questions about the employee and his or her job, in order to:

  • Establish a baseline for conduct so that you can see the changes when you get to more difficult areas of discussion
  • Gets them talking about a comfortable subject, which sometimes leads to them opening up spontaneously about the incident under investigation

“I think that one of the best skills that a good interviewer brings to the table is to get people talking in a way that they just naturally come to the subject,” says Kalisker. “So if something occurred in a meeting, you start talking about the people they work with and how often they meet and ask about things that may or may not have happened at meetings. And sometimes it just comes out.”

Keeping an Open Mind

“I like to combine healthy skepticism with assuming positive intent,” says Kalisker, “and I like to give the person the opportunity to talk about what happened in their own words. A lot of novice investigators fail to get the full story because they start by asking ‘Did you do this?’ instead of letting [him or her] tell the story.”

It’s important to focus on the meeting as an interview and not as an interrogation. “You’re not there to get them to confess to something. You’re there to get information to help you paint a picture of what may have happened and get their view, so that you can put all the different stories together and come up with one that makes the most sense,” says Kalisker. “If the person you’re investigating feels they are being treated fairly, you’re going to go a long way with that interview.”

The Power of Silence

We’ve written before about the classic mistake that novice interviewers sometimes make: talking instead of listening. Kalisker takes this one step further.

“An investigator’s best tool is silence,” she says. “Ten seconds of silence can seem like forever, and because of that, people are much more likely to fill the silence. You look them in the eye and ask ‘Is there anything else you can think of?’ Then you just wait. Stop writing, make eye contact and wait. It’s uncomfortable. And the person is going to want to fill the silence if there’s something to fill it with.”

If you’ve handled the interview well to this point, that moment of silence may lead to the information you need to tie all the pieces together.


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.