How to Conduct Fair and Unbiased Investigation Interviews
We all make mistakes. It’s part of being human. But a good corporate investigator knows that mistakes made during workplace investigations can have dire consequences. Imagine your company losing an expensive lawsuit because you failed to secure the evidence or question all witnesses adequately in a harassment case.
It’s not just money; reputations are at stake. Internal investigations have that much power. So it makes sense to review some of the mistakes investigators are most likely to make and ensure you don’t make the same ones.
At the SHRM Annual Conference Allison West, Esq, SPHR, a workplace investigations specialist and consultant with a background in employment law, talked to me about a few of the most common mistakes investigators make when conducting interviews.
The biggest mistake investigators make is being biased, says West. If HR is doing the investigation, they many know the people involved, so they must remember that they are not advocating for either side, but must remain independent, she says.
But even an independent investigator can have preconceptions. “There are all sorts of things that can happen because we’re human,” she says. And that can cause us to ask questions in a way that shows bias.
“If I have talked to other people and I say to you: ‘Four other people said you did it, why don’t you just admit that it happened?’ I’ve already let you know that I don’t believe you. I’m not objective. When you ask a question in that way, you’re not giving the person an honest opportunity to give their version of the facts,” she says.
Use Words Wisely
West advises investigators to be aware of the language that they use, as that can indicate bias as well. “I think it’s very important to use the right words,” she says.
“People use ‘accused’ and ‘accuser’. I’m totally against it, because that’s criminal. We’re talking (about a) workplace so it escalates it in a way that adds bias.” She advocates using softer words, such as complainant, respondent and alleged wrongdoer.
West also warns against reaching a conclusion before all the evidence is in. It’s ok to assess credibility as you go based on how the person responds to your questions and their demeanor, she says, but don’t base conclusions on this.
“If you have a calm demeanor throughout and I start asking you questions about the money, and I see you getting uptight, I will not make a judgment on that but I will ask you about it,” she says. There could be another reason for the behavior you are interpreting as nervousness, such as low blood sugar, or medication, she says. “As an investigator, to start making judgments without asking questions is a huge mistake. There may be a reason why they are fidgeting. You have to give them a chance to say what it is.”