Never Say Always and Never Say Never

Don’t back yourself into a corner when conducting investigation interviews

Posted by Meric Craig Bloch in on October 8th, 2015

Everyone’s job inevitably falls into patterns – or ruts. The doctor who sees patients all day long during flu season who have the same symptoms. The plumber who unclogs sinks every day. The accountant completing zillions of similar returns during tax season. Investigators are no different, but we must resist taking a cookie-cutter approach to our work.

It may be your umpteenth my-boss-hates-me investigation, but there will always be some detail to make the case different from the others. The variables are always there to make the investigation unique.

Assumptions are Like Blinders

You’ll wind up ignoring the information that does not fit within your preconceived template.
Don’t make assumptions about how the investigation will ultimately affect the people involved because, despite what might have happened in the past, you cannot be certain until all the facts are known. Making assumptions poses two risks to both you and the investigation.

First, it closes off your mind to other possibilities and explanations. For example, if you assume that one of the implicated colleagues did nothing wrong, then you will possibly miss information that implicates him. The assumption becomes like putting on blinders. You’ll wind up ignoring the information that does not fit within your preconceived template.

The second risk is that you might assure an upcoming witness that they’ve done nothing wrong, only to have them implicate themselves later in their interview. What are you going to do then, especially if the witness then alleges you tricked them into saying something incriminating?  There is nothing wrong with telling someone that, at that point in time and subject to additional information which could show something different, it does not appear that they’ve done anything wrong. But always give yourself wiggle room, and say “it doesn’t appear” rather than “I don’t believe.” The proof counts here, not what you think may have happened.

Investigations are Unpredictable

Go where the facts take you. You will be frequently surprised where they eventually lead.
An investigation frequently ends in a different place than where you thought it would when your efforts began.  Sympathetic witnesses turn out later to be arrogant tyrants to co-workers, and vice versa. People who initially appeared innocent of any wrongdoing are later found at the center of the misconduct. What first appeared to be a discrete act of misconduct turns out to be a pattern of problems in that department. Theories and colleagues implicated (or vindicated) may change.

So don’t lock yourself, either internally with your thinking or externally with others, into early conclusions. Don’t pre-judge the outcome of an investigation before all the witnesses have been interviewed and all the relevant documents have been reviewed. Use the issues and your working hypothesis as general boundaries that can be crossed as the information you develop warrants.

Keep an open mind to other possible explanations or scenarios. Go where the facts take you. You will be frequently surprised where they eventually lead. A genuine inquiry requires asking lots of questions and observing. Making assumptions too early will also make you look either like a know-it-all or patronizing.

You weren’t there, so you can never be entirely sure what happened. Keep all your investigation options open.

Never say always, and never say never.

 


Meric Craig Bloch
Meric Craig Bloch

Principal, Winter Compliance LLC

Meric Craig Bloch is the Principal of Winter Compliance LLC, a consulting practice helping organizations create effective internal investigations programs through investigation process design, investigator training, and investigations management. He has designed, implemented and managed the workplace-investigations processes for multinational Fortune 500 companies, trained thousands of HR and compliance professionals to conduct investigations and has conducted more than 400 internal investigations of fraud and serious workplace misconduct in the US and internationally.

Meric is an attorney, a Certified Compliance and Ethics Professional – Fellow, a Certified Fraud Examiner, a Professional Certified Investigator and has written two books on investigations as well as chapters in industry publications. He is on the faculty of the Society of Corporate Compliance and Ethics’ Basic Compliance and Ethics Academy.

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