Bob Acton, Ph.D., R.Psych., LPI, Glen Haner, LPI, and Karen Anthony, BA, PCC, C.Med., LPI.
Investigations are a key deliverable for most Human Resource (HR) professionals, and effective interviewing skills form a cornerstone in the production of quality results in investigations. Interviewing others, a component of investigations, particularly in the context of a quasi-legal process such as a workplace investigation, is complex and multifaceted. It is important for the HR professional using interviews as part of the investigation strategy to have an understanding of the best methods available to conduct these types of interviews. This article summarizes research and experience on this subject, and outlines the best practice methods to use in the context of this area of human resources work.
The word ‘investigate” originated from the Latin vestigare, meaning “to track”. As such, an investigation is the tracking of information and facts and demands a commitment to observation, an attention to detail, and systematic analysis.
Structured Methodologies: Investigators are obligated to be ethical and to respect the rights and dignity of others, regardless of their role as a complainant, respondent, or witness. As such, investigators should also act with integrity and make every effort to be truthful, honest and fair. A fair process needs to employ standards and methods that people inherently trust and with which they cooperate freely. An ethical and fair approach to a workplace investigation involves using high quality, scientifically-supported interview methods as part of the investigation.
The Conversation Management (CM) Approach incorporates a number of high-quality, evidence-based interview methods as well as standard interview principles that serve to acquire the best evidence available. These include helpful psychological principles that help to improve the interpersonal process and enhance accurate reporting, using relatively structured methods such as the PEACE framework, techniques concerning how to work with vulnerable populations, as well as techniques to evaluate the data.
A fundamental aspect of the CM approach is the acknowledgment that these are often difficult conversations undertaken in high-stress situations in which people are likely to present inaccurate information. To counteract these problems, good investigators should first strive to create a positive environment that facilitates the retrieval of accurate memories and information. One way to do that is to use a structured approach such as the PEACE model.
The PEACE model was developed in the 1990s in the United Kingdom after legislation was introduced mandating the audio recording of suspects in criminal investigations. The PEACE model is an acronym for the sequential phases of the model. ‘P’ refers to the necessary ‘Preparation and Planning’ before the interview. The ‘E’ stands for the interview ‘Engage and Explain’ phase which involves the opportunity to understand the person being interviewed and build rapport between interviewer and subject. ‘A’ is the ‘Account‘ phase which is pivotal to the interview, during which open questions invite an account of the events from the people or persons being interviewed. If this open-ended phase produces inconsistencies (with either the existing evidence or the person’s actual account) further probing should then occur to resolve these queries. This phase would then be followed by the ‘Closure’ phase, during which a summary of what has been said is shared with the interviewee, allowing the person to either add to or modify it before concluding the interview. The ‘E’ or final phase, ‘Evaluation’, occurs after the interview, and is meant to allow the interviewer and their team to reflect on the effectiveness of the interview as well as determine if further inquiries are necessary.
Within this framework, there are a number of factors to consider in producing high-quality interviews. These include the following six components.
The Interviewees: Just as a piece of delightful music or a dance performance has elements of spontaneity even though the artistic performance is based on rigorous practice, planning and preparation, so too is the work of the skilled investigator. The preparation work is done behind the scenes before, and sometimes during, the interview itself.
Each interview should occur only after considerable planning, which includes an in-depth understanding of the background of the individuals in order to develop an interview strategy (the overall approach to the interview and how it fits with the overall investigation) and an interview plan (the detailed, tactical interview approach taken with an individual).
A review of their personnel file and research about their experience within the organization can be helpful to develop some early hypotheses about the person and their characteristics that can be beneficial in creating an effective interview. While this review can be helpful in guiding the investigator (e.g., the interviewee may be shy so the phrasing and general approach may need to be adjusted accordingly) the investigator needs to be wary of inadvertently creating assumptions or being influenced by others in this regard.
The Context: The workplace itself, including the team functioning, interpersonal relations of the group, and the physical and psychological safety of the workplace can all significantly affect the individuals concerned and may play a role in the investigation. The wily HR investigator will gather independent perspectives about the workplace to begin to understand how the context may play a role in the interview.
The Interviewer: The interview is an interaction, a dance so to speak, between the investigator and the interviewee. An investigator’s role is to fully understand the factors involved including the facts and how individual motivations, thoughts, and emotions drive behaviour in these types of situations. To do that effectively, the investigator must:
- Maintain their role as a mediator of the truth, not that of an adversary,
- Actively minimize personal bias, and
- Not be moved from logic to emotion.
While, of course, high-quality interview methods are key to obtaining good information, the interview itself is an artful activity. The best interviewers are deft and able to adjust their approach to meet the needs of the investigation.
The Relationship: The interview is a purposeful conversation involving a relationship between two people. The investigator must influence the interviewee to tell the truth, but this influence is based on many factors including the interviewer’s credibility, trust, and the rapport built at the beginning of the process.
In the context of workplace misconduct investigations, people need an opportunity to tell their story. People need to be heard and the investigator can build rapport and create an atmosphere of trust by listening and demonstrating understanding. Not only does this help the interviewee, but it improves accurate memory recall.
A number of methods, when combined during an interview, can be effective in producing more accurate and detailed information, and serve to maintain the relationship between the interviewer and the interviewee as well as reduce the stress on the interviewee. This is often very important in the workplace, where relationships are often maintained over years, as opposed to criminal investigations in which relationships are started and ended with the timeline of the criminal investigation.
The investigative interview should facilitate maximum spontaneous disclosure both initially and in response to further questioning and capture comprehensive details which are then systematically analyzed. The analyzing of the data occurs both during an interview and post-interview.
“But I’m not a police officer, why do I have to learn all about these in-depth methods?”
While the HR professional is not involved in criminal investigations, their investigations can have powerful consequences on those involved, including loss of employment, physical and psychological impairment, and legal disputes. Therefore it is incumbent upon investigators to use the best methods possible not only to obtain accurate information but to preserve existing workplace relationships as much as possible.
The Conversation: The proper interview method is not an interrogation. An interrogation is a conversation in which the investigator presumes a person’s guilt and then establishes a dialogue that is designed to prove the guilt of the interviewee (think of all the “interrogations” we’ve seen in movies). Interrogation is not an interview, per se, but a method to persuade a person to tell a specific truth.
Investigators must avoid interrogation methods as these can influence the information obtained, particularly for vulnerable individuals who may be affected by their emotional state, developmental abilities, and psychological or mental state. In addition, the way questions are phrased can play an important role during an interview. Even seasoned police officers can fall into the trap of “leading the witness”, thus making their statement inadmissible in court.
Active listening, methodical observing, and attention to detail are all skills critical to success in this area.
Recording the Conversation: In the context of workplace investigations, there is no definitive answer as to whether to record the interview on some sort of audio device. Unlike in the United Kingdom and in many police jurisdictions in North America where audio (or video) recording is mandatory, HR advisors will receive different advice from their legal counsel ranging from never record to always record.
It is important to create a culture of organizational justice; so, when recording interviews, ensure that all interviewees are recorded, not just a select few. Transcripts of each recording can be judiciously produced depending on the need to manage costs.
Our perspective is that accuracy is paramount. Using technology such as digital audio recorders to record the conversation is easy and accurate. In our opinion, it is important to record your conversations with complainants, respondents, and witnesses because of the following five benefits:
- Improves Communication: The interviewer can focus on the interview rather than typing information or taking notes and therefore be able to use observational skills and active listening strategies.
- Produces A Better Record: It preserves the most important evidence – the oral evidence – in its original form. A full and valid representation of the information provided and how the interview was conducted is produced.
- Protects Investigators and Interviewees: Failure to record interviews, or failing to record the entire interview, can increase the scope for abuse, or speculation of abuse and protects investigators against false accusations of abuse, coercion or manipulation, or of failing to follow procedural rules.
- Assists in Analyzing Data: Recordings can help organize the information and thus improve the ability to analyze all the data.
- Evaluation and Learning: Recordings are great tools for evaluation and feedback on interviews, and for training and research. They also help investigators improve their skills.
A common myth is that the interviewee will be more formal and provide less information when being recorded. It is our experience, however, that the skilled interviewer can move past initial concerns quickly and effectively. Once the procedure and benefits are explained, and permission is given by the interviewee, a proper and full interview can follow.
Thinking: The skillful investigator uses critical thinking (the objective analysis and evaluation of an issue in order to form a judgement without the influence of emotions and opinions) and blends their various approaches to gather evidence and form appropriate judgements.
Critical thinking involves a number of components including analyzing the information, applying standards to the data, discriminating data value, using logical reasoning to analyze the data, and synthesizing the information to reach an answer or conclusion. There are, however, a myriad of risks to this approach (e.g., confirmatory bias) that the investigator must be wary of.
Finally, there are a few specific interviewing techniques, mostly emanating from police interviewing methodology, such as the Reid Technique and the Cognitive Interview, that may be considered. Each of these techniques has valuable contributions to make but it is likely beyond the normal practice of an HR investigator to dive deeply into these practices as it is normally the purview of those involved in criminal proceedings.
Understanding and practicing the best methods to obtain facts through interviews is an ethical approach all HR professionals conducting investigations should aspire to. These strategies can provide outstanding methodologies to use in workplace investigations particularly when dealing with high-stress situations and vulnerable populations.
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