As ethics and compliance professionals, what are the most effective methods for conducting witness interviews during internal investigations of alleged misconduct? The effectiveness of your interview will likely be determined by your own personality and style, and the demeanor of the witness. Should you use a friendly, more interpersonal demeanor, which may help put the interviewee (complainant, accused or witness) at ease, or should you use an aggressive approach with hopes of obtaining more information or even a confession through intimidation? Although you’ve already decided, let’s explore the possibilities.
The number one goal is to get the witness to talk. The more the person talks, the more evidence we can gather to evaluate the facts and determine what happened. More information also helps to confirm or refute specific allegations. I recall the first time I sat in on an investigation. The conversational manner in which the compliance professional asked questions, his polite demeanor, and his accommodating tone made the interview process seem effortless. I’d forgotten we were conducting an investigation! I’d wondered if the same was true for the interviewee who sat there comfortably while providing elaborative responses to each question.
It is not enough to simply get the witness to talk. You want the witness to tell the truth about what they did, said, saw or heard that is relevant to the investigation. For example, during an investigation of an employee wrongdoing at a company in California, the interviewer used an aggressive, intimidating tone and tactics that caused a witness to make a false confession. The company only found out that the confession was false after they were sued and ordered to pay the employee who made the false confession a large sum of money. What is the lesson learned in that example? The failure to use a friendly and positive demeanor can cost a company a lot of money in a lawsuit and render an internal investigation useless because the company did not find the true culprit.
Sometimes a witness may be difficult and not willing to provide information as freely as you would want them to. As we see from the example above, coercing will likely not be effective. Using an aggressive approach typically intimidates the party. This method can cause a person to shut down and not respond, or not respond truthfully. It also causes the respondent to be defensive; feeling as if you’ve already made your decision which is likely not in their favor.
Effective interpersonal skills make it easier to get the job done as your ability to interact in a friendly way makes the interviewee more likely to talk. Your interpersonal skills are enhanced if you, for example, find out as much as you can about the witness’s personality before your interview. That way, you can give some thought to your approach that will allow you to alleviate the reliability on scripted questions and foster a free flowing two way dialogue. Having effective interpersonal skills creates an atmosphere in which the witness feels as if they are engaging in a conversation with a friend as opposed feeling like they are being interrogated. Simply put, maintaining a professional, non-accusatory tone will allow you to obtain information from even the most challenging witness.
Interpersonal vs. Intimidation? Do you still agree with your original answer? Good cop vs. Bad cop? Good cops get confessions too! Now let’s go investigate allegations using our interpersonal skills and close some cases!
Kelly is also an Editorial Board member of SCCE's Compliance and Ethics Blog. Click button below to be directed to that site.