When facing allegations of workplace misconduct, employers need to act promptly and appropriately to get to the bottom of the matter. Interviews with witnesses are important in any investigation \, so there’s a lot riding on asking the right questions.
While the specific allegations themselves will drive many of the questions, there are some basic things interviewers should ask in any workplace investigation.
Here are five great questions to include in interviews for just about any workplace investigation:
1. “Tell me what happened, in your own words.”
Before you can ask any specifics about the alleged misconduct, you need to hear first-hand what the witness believes happened. More importantly, a good interviewer gives the witness control over how to describe the incident, the words to use, and the tempo of disclosure. Do not, under any circumstances, interrupt. If you have questions about something a witness says, note them down. If they jump ahead in the chronology, follow them. You can always circle back. A common rookie mistake interviewers make is bulldozing the witness with their outline and their agenda. This will shut your witness down before you have a chance to establish real rapport.
2. “Are there any emails/texts/documents relating to that?”
Documents, particularly e-data, are your best friend. Unlike witness recollection, which can be influenced by a myriad of factors, documents won’t change – most of the time. In many investigations, it is wise to have email or text messaging gathered ahead of interviews, before there are opportunities for data to be deleted or revised.
3. “Who else knows about this?”
While you likely already have a list of witnesses, asking this question will lead to other witnesses you do not know about. Those witnesses, in turn, may be able to shed light on the event(s) you’re investigating. It’s okay to ask about witnesses who just heard about a situation, as well as those who may have witnessed it. Unlike a court of law, “hearsay” evidence is not verboten in investigations. Instead, hearsay evidence can provide you with leads.
4. “Help me understand that.”
This is one great way to approach the direct questions about whether or not a person engaged in misconduct. Asking a witness if they did or did not engage in the conduct is essential. The next question should always be, “help me understand that.” This is a non-threatening, non-judgmental and open way to engage on a difficult subject.
5. “Is there anything else you think I should know?”
Ask this question with every witness, in every investigation. This can lead an witness to share details and information not addressed through previous questions. It is amazing how many times I have gotten to the end of an unremarkable interview, just to have a witness unload after they have been asked this concluding question.
Remember that objectivity and impartiality are critically important during workplace investigations, and that every interview should be handled in a professional manner. Above all, don’t forget that an interview is simply that – in the civil context, it’s not an interrogation. At the close of each interview, be sure to thank the interviewee for the information they’ve shared with you. Let them know to contact you if they remember something they hadn’t already told you, or if more information becomes available. If you need the interviewee to provide you with follow-up information, be clear about exactly what you’re looking for, and when and how they should provide it to you.
Finally, remember that the interviews are just the beginning of the process. You will not reach any conclusions until all of the evidence is in.
Every investigation is different. They will all involve different questions, and your outline of questions will be evolving as you go. That said, there are certain inquiries you want to make every time. These five should be in your toolbox every time you sit down with a witness, to help you do a thorough job, as well as to ensure that your process is fair.