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Investigation Interview Strategies for Challenging Subjects

If you’re talking or writing, you are not listening

Posted by Dawn Lomer on November 1st, 2012

Whether you are interviewing a suspect in a fraud investigation or a witness in a sexual harassment complaint, your main aim is to get interviewee to give you the information you need to get the truth recognized and the case solved. But it’s not always as easy as asking questions and listening to the answers.

A witness or the subject in an investigation who has a reason to withhold information may be uncooperative or even downright hostile. The investigator’s job is much more difficult when this is the case.

Reasons for Reluctance

An uncooperative interview subject may be:

  • Afraid of getting involved
  • Angry for being singled out
  • Defensive
  • Guilty of something
  • Reluctant to snitch on friends
  • Agitated at being embroiled in an investigation
  • Worried about retaliation

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The first step is to find out the reason. An investigator who knows why a subject is reluctant to talk is in a better position to overcome the problem with reasoning and by addressing the person’s concerns.

Keep them Talking

“The basic reason for any interview is to get the truth,” says George Cramer, CFE and owner of George Cramer Investigations. And the way to do that is to get people talking, he adds.

This may require patience and investigators can’t be in a hurry to conclude the interview.

“I just talk, and get them talking. If it takes me 30 or 40 minutes for them to calm down and agree to talk with me, so what,” says Cramer. “If I was interviewing somebody regarding a very sizeable theft or a large and harmful leak of proprietary information, I might spend hours,” he adds.

“As long as they are talking there’s hope. They may be hostile, but as long as they’re talking. I never raise my voice… if I just talk calmly and continue, they will ultimately come around.”

Types of Interview

Cramer is careful to avoid the word “interrogation”, explaining that there are two types of interviews: subject and informational.

The subject interview has three phases:

  1. The subject admits what he or she did
  2. The subject confesses the details
  3. The investigator gets the subject to help to document in writing what has been confessed

Informational interviews are any other interviews with people who are not the subject of the investigation. These can include interviews in a formal setting or simply walking and talking, says Cramer.

“The subject interview is reserved for anyone from whom you are trying to get an admission. But you give that person the opportunity to tell their side of the story,” he says.

Listen Actively

If you want to get to the truth, says Cramer, you need to listen and you need to do it actively. “The number one impediment to any interview is the interviewer talking instead of listening,” he says.

And the number two impediment? “They’re writing. Because if you’re writing, you’re not listening.”

“Active listening means watching them and paying attention,” says Cramer. “It’s surprising how much more receptive I am to what you are saying when I’m giving you my full attention. If I drift off, I’m screwed. And I’ve done that.”


Dawn Lomer
Dawn Lomer

Manager of Communications

Dawn Lomer is the Manager of Communications 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.

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