The outcome of a workplace investigation typically depends on information gleaned through witness interviews. That information can, in turn, lead investigators to explore new or different avenues toward uncovering the truth. Witness cooperation can be critically important. Unfortunately, witnesses are sometimes hesitant to share what they know for fear of retaliation or retribution. In other cases, witnesses may be hostile or wholly uncooperative. Here are several tips to help you deal with witnesses who may hold the keys to the information you need, but who are reluctant to participate in the investigatory process.
1. Be open and straightforward about your purpose and the investigation process.
It is natural for a witness called to assist with an internal investigation to be uncomfortable or nervous about the process. Rather than diving straight into interview questions when you sit down with a witness, it can help to introduce yourself and your role, and to explain the purpose of the interview. If the person you are interviewing is not the subject of the investigation, let him or her know that. This simple step can ease tension and nerves, making the witness more willing to open up.
Another best practice is to acknowledge that investigations are difficult and stressful. While it seems obvious, voicing this truth can diffuse tough situations and level the playing field. Explain your role as a neutral investigator and describe, as best you can, the process and timeline you will follow to come to a conclusion.
2. Explain what you will do with the witness’ side of the story.
It can also be helpful to let the witness know that the information he or she can provide may be valuable in shaping the outcome of the investigation. Explain that information shared will be kept as private and confidential as possible, but be clear about the fact that there are certain situations under which you would not be able to maintain absolute confidentiality.
3. Interview witnesses individually in a neutral location.
Sometimes, uncooperative witnesses are difficult simply because they are uncomfortable. Never conduct group interviews; interviewing witnesses 1:1 will usually yield more, and better, information.
Consider the interview location too. While a conference room next to the employee’s workstation may seem like a convenient choice, that choice can actually make witnesses more reticent. When you’re able to conduct interviews in a neutral spot, away from the witness’ coworkers and supervisor, you’re more likely to have a cooperative witness.
4. Remember your role – and your goal.
When a witness is being difficult, resist the temptation to take it personally and respond in anger or frustration. Try to remember the purpose of conducting the investigation and stay as focused as possible. Remember that your role is to be neutral and to get to the bottom of the complaint you are investigating. Don’t view difficult investigations as personal failures. Instead, recognize that despite your best efforts, some witnesses simply will not help further the investigation as well as others.
Working with an experienced, professional, outside investigator is one strategy that can make witnesses more likely to cooperate and participate fully in interviews and interrogatories. That’s because witnesses who see an impartial third party involved in the investigation may have more confidence that they will be listened to and heard, without risk of retaliatory actions. To learn more, contact Ablin Law today.