Investigative interviewing: five strategies to ask questions that count

Jill McMahon - Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Construction worker on the phone 

A sub-contractor on a construction site was instructed by a lead contractor to start drilling through a wall - despite warning signs on site that indicated the risk. He hit an electrical cable and received a massive shock. Amazingly, he lived.

As the dust settled, managers of several businesses involved in the project, realising the potential liability from this breach of health and safety, initiated a full investigation.

This incident is typical of the kind of health and safety breach that benefits from independent investigation – there is too much at stake for any of the parties involved to investigate this incident themselves.

The key is to obtain a complete account of what actually happened.

Here are 5 key strategies, or steps, in the process of asking questions of the people who were involved in or witnessed the incident that a professional investigator would use to get as close as possible to the truth of exactly what happened.

Step 1 - Obtain a free recall
A free recall is an account of events offered by a person free from guidance or interruption by the investigator. The investigator should ask a very broad open question seeking as much information as possible from the interviewee about the incident. It’s always advisable to seek a free recall before asking specific questions. For example: “I am investigating the circumstances surrounding John James’s accident. I’d like you to tell me everything you can about how it happened.”

Step 2 - Establish a timeline
Create a timeline based on the information obtained in the free recall. A timeline is a chronology of events. This will form a road map for questions later on in the interview. You may need to obtain evidence that requires the order of events to be very clear. For example: “When did Mr Smith ask you to start work on the drilling? Was that before or after you received the briefing from the electrical contractor?”

Step 3 - Recreate the context
Recreating the context of events surrounding the incident can be an effective way of obtaining a free recall. You can do this through verbal instructions to the interviewee. For example:  “Please close your eyes and think back to the time of the incident. Imagine where you were and then tell me everything you can about what happened” – and by asking them to draw a sketch. Encourage the interviewee to describe verbally what they are drawing at the time, and also ask them to label the diagram and sign it. Use this to ask clarification questions. For example: “You have drawn the stairs over here, was it directly opposite that window?”

Step 4 - Obtain a second recall
Interviewees rarely disclose all information in a first recall. Asking a person to recall the events for a second time normally produces more detailed information. But it’s a good idea for investigators to narrow the questioning to more specific issues; otherwise the interviewee may lose interest in the interview. For example: “In the first interview, you said Mr Smith was in a hurry to get the job done, can you explain why you had that impression?”

Step 5 - Ask probing questions
Probing questions are those that seek specific answers. They should be open to allow an unlimited range of responses wherever possible, but the occasional use of a closed specific question to clarify a point is also advisable. (Closed questions are those that illicit only a single “yes” or “no” response - or a very limited range of responses.) An example of a probing question may include: “What training have you been provided on the use of this machine?”

For further information on investigative interviewing skills you can purchase a copy of our book Investigative Interviewing here.

To audio record ... or not to audio record?

Jill McMahon - Tuesday, March 12, 2013

HARRIET STACEY on an age-old dilemma for investigators - even as technology makes it all so much easier.

Regardless of recent technological developments that enable reliable digital audio recording without great expense - and mass access to MP3 and MP4 files and transcription programs – workplace investigators still dwell on this question: to audio record or not.

Anyone who has an iPhone and music software on their computer can easily audio record an interview on their phone, upload it to their music player and be confident that the recording is accurate and audible.  

I’ve been playing recently with smartpen technology that allows you to record the audio on an unobtrusive pen whilst taking notes. The recording device can then play back the audio by simply touching the pen on the notes from that section of the interview.  

Testing competency
This approach is potentially invaluable when testing competency and concepts with children and vulnerable witnesses, enabling them to draw their understanding of ‘under’, ‘over’, ‘in’ and ‘out’ etc.

Whilst interviewers are still obliged to gain permission to record the interview and announce the parties present and the time and date of the recording at the start of each interview, the absence of the triple-deck tape machine goes a long way to reducing the anxiety that recording devices used to generate.  

In fact, our whole attitude towards recording life in general has become more relaxed with the mass adoption of video phones, social media and YouTube. Now, it seems almost any moment from your social life could end up online!

I’m not suggesting for a second that investigators even consider posting their interviews on social media, but the point is society as a whole is more accepting of all of our lives being that much more public than they used to be. And that means a lot more interviewees are probably more relaxed about the presence of recording devices.

Barriers Remain
Recording interviews with people accused of workplace misconduct – or respondents - is now generally accepted. But some organisations still resist this when it comes to interviews with witnesses or complainants.

Managers and their advisers become anxious about privacy laws, confidentiality and potential liability, all of which results in policy inertia about accepting new technologies and embracing best practice.

There is a mass of research on the unreliability of witness evidence in the criminal arena. Just as early research into police interviewing conducted by J. Baldwin in the 1990s showed big skills gaps, recent research into the accuracy of witness statements is likely to cause ripples throughout the world’s justice systems by illustrating the inaccuracies in witness statements when compared against transcripts.

Assess Reliability
Whilst some decision-makers harbour misconceptions that taking witness statements is quicker (and therefore less costly) than audio recording -- it certainly produces shorter paper documents -- the main reason for recording witness accounts in workplace complaints is to enable investigators and decision-makers to assess the reliability of the witness account, and identify issues that are lost or hidden in a polished witness statement.

In administrative decisions, viewing the transcript of an interview provides valuable information to decision-makers about the likely reliability of the evidence. Unlike criminal proceedings, administrative decision-makers are rarely able to cross-examine and question witnesses, so they have to base decisions on the evidence in front of them. That makes the transcript of interviews so much more valuable.

What do you think?

NOTE: In May Professor Ray Bull, a UK-based psychologist, will be conducting a number of Master Classes in Investigative Interviewing in Australia. Ray has been intimately involved in the development of Investigative Interviewing in the UK and in law enforcement organisation around the world. The British Government commissioned him to draft the first guidelines on interviewing children in the 1990s. Ray has since gone on to build a lifetime of research and practice on police interviewing and more latterly the application of interviewing in the administrative law field. His visit to Australia in April and May is being hosted by WISE Workplace.

Upward bullying

- Thursday, August 18, 2011
One aspect of bullying that receives little attention is the small but not insignificant number of cases where managers are bullied by team members.

Here's an article I've written discussing this issue that was published in this month's online Human Capital Magazine.

Upward bullying: When bosses are targets of harassment

With awareness of bullying and its insidious effects on the rise, one aspect that receives little attention is the small but not insignificant number of cases where managers are bullied by team members...

Full article...

Public sector wages changes a recipe for unrest

- Tuesday, June 21, 2011
Recent changes to NSW public sector wages will lead to greater employee unrest and dissatisfaction.

The contentious changes, passed recently by both Houses of Parliament, sparked an angry protest by nearly 12,000 workers in Sydney’s Macquarie Street, earlier this week.

Unfortunately this protest is just the tip of the iceberg.

The Government should brace for more fallout from disgruntled public servants.

In my experience, such sweeping changes lead to increased complaints from staff, higher levels of sick leave, absenteeism and misconduct.

Under the new legislation the NSW Government will have the power to stipulate wages and conditions for public servants.

In effect, the legislation puts a 2.5 per cent annual cap on wages increases, unless productivity savings are delivered. It also requires the Industrial Relations Commission (IRC) to consent to its policy.

The NSW Opposition, Greens and unions have waged an angry campaign against the reforms, which they say will give the government unprecedented power.

But Premier Barry O'Farrell maintains the changes will not lead to any cuts in public sector wages and conditions.

Opposition Leader John Robertson says the changes will send the workplace rights of public servants "back to the dark ages".

Whichever way you look at it, significant changes to employee rights fundamentally change the way employees feel about their employers.

Government employees in particular, many of whom work in the health and care sectors, traditionally have high levels of engagement with their employers and those receiving their services.

Undermining this relationship will damage the commitment felt by staff, reduce motivation to comply with policy and compound work-related stress already present in the overloaded services.

Whilst most people will continue to comply with departmental policies, increased disengagement will have an effect on a minority and reduce their incentive to act in the best interest of the public. The policy is going to increase the incidents of corrupt conduct, misconduct and complaints.

Sadly, no one normally carries a budget for complaints management subsumed as part of a general HR budget. These issues will take up more of the pie and leave less money for “positive” staff improvements by HR departments.

The action is also likely to give rise to an increasing level of resignations in already understaffed areas such as hospitals, family services, disability services and aged care.

There is no doubt workers are very upset about the way these laws have been imposed.

The fallout that follows will be just as upsetting for Government and public sector management.

* Harriet Stacey, is the co-founder and principal of Wise Workplace Investigations.  Harriet specialises in corporate investigations and disciplinary processes. She has been involved in more than 150 investigations since the company’s inception – predominantly in the NSW public sector.