The Art of Interviews
WHEN SECURITY PERSONNEL have to follow up on a report of potentially illegal, inappropriate, or suspicious employee activity, witness interviews will be at the heart of the investigation, especially in scenarios where fraudulent activity is alleged. Yet it can be difficult to get anyone to participate in an interview, especially without the authority of law enforcement or the power of a subpoena. Therefore, investigators must rely on their own skills of persuasion, including establishing authenticity and trust, active listening, and keeping calm under pressure.
Some detachment is important when dealing with any witness, but engagement is also essential. If you don’t come across as caring, a witness will not be motivated to speak to you. Even when witnesses speak to you initially, they may later drop out of sight or recant if they sensed disinterest on your part. It is likely that they are scared, and if they detect that you are apathetic, they will not feel obligated to hang in there with you.
It is not only the witness who feels tense as an interview begins. The investigator may also feel tremendous pressure, because it may be the only chance to get with a witness. Even so, it’s critical to establish a relaxed and trusting relationship.
To that end, before you pick up the phone or meet the witness, try to put yourself in their shoes. In most cases, the witness gets absolutely nothing out of speaking with you and has no obligation to do so. In fact, their professional or personal reputation could be jeopardized because colleagues, family, and friends might brand them as disloyal.
Establishing trust can be simple. Be cordial and respectful. Be up front about the investigation; end the interview when you say you are going to; call back when you say you are going to call back; and if the witness asks a question that you cannot answer, follow up when you have the answer.
Do not promise confidentiality if you cannot guarantee it. If you tell witnesses that the information they are providing is confidential and then they are named in a public source, it increases the chance that they will recant. Also, avoid misleading the witness by making up stories about the case and avoid revealing what other witnesses have told you in order to coax a witness to tell you more. Either tactic can backfire and jeopardize the interview.
While asking the right questions is important, it is equally important to listen to the answers, even if the witness seems to be meandering a bit. Some people take longer than others to get to the point, and it is your job to suffer through whatever the witness thinks is relevant in the hopes that useful information will be given in the process.
You should also avoid interrupting the witness. Never hesitate to ask the witness for clarification throughout the interview, however. It can even be prudent to explain to witnesses at the beginning of the interview that you need their help in trying to figure out your case. This can be flattering to witnesses and may help them feel that they have some control over the interview. If appropriate, you should go as far as telling witnesses that you are seeking their expertise. Make sure the flattery is sincere; your motives are more transparent than you think.
Near the end of the interview, be sure to ask witnesses if there is anything they would like to discuss that you have not asked about or mentioned. You might also ask them if they can give you the name of other potential witnesses that they think you should try to interview.
People and events are unpredictable, but if something goes awry during the interview, it’s important that you remain composed. Your anxiety is contagious, and it could affect your witness’s sense of calm.
For example, if right in the middle of the interview, the recorder malfunctions, it is fine to take a minute and decide the best course of action. Thank your witness for his or her patience. Humor is also effective when trying to deflate an unfortunate or unplanned predicament.
If the interview can continue, then proceed, but if not, simply reschedule. Be careful about deciding to cancel an interview, however, as you run the risk that witnesses will change their minds about participating and stop taking your calls.
Another common scenario is when witnesses begin to get anxious and want to terminate the interview. They might be agitated because suddenly they feel they have told you too much. Or perhaps they have in some way incriminated themselves. There is no set response when this happens, but you should try to defuse the situation.
One option is to assure witnesses that you are amassing data from many sources. This relieves witnesses of the burden they might feel if they think your case is resting on their testimony alone.
If a particular question causes a witness to balk, you might acknowledge the discomfort and change the subject. Maybe there are other aspects of the investigation that you can explore that are less charged. Of course, whatever is making them uncomfortable may be key to what you are exploring. Therefore, you may want to try to revisit the topic after they calm down.
If an investigator, or any manager, can hone both their personal and practical skills, as well as maintain an authentic interest in both the case and witness, they will have greater success with all of their interviews.
Thea Bournazian is a director with Gryphon Investigations in White Plains, New York.