Foley & Lardner LLP

24 October 2012
Labor & Employment Law Perspectives

Effective Ways to Start and End an Investigatory Interview

Human resources professionals and other managers often need to question employees as part of an internal investigation of some potential workplace problem. The effectiveness of the interviewer and her/his process can determine whether the company learns the truth about the problem and its cause, and whether it will be able to implement a fair and effective solution to address any problem. A strategic interviewer is a much more effective interviewer. While much more can be said on this topic, this brief, two-part article focuses on several suggestions for effectively starting and ending the investigatory interview.

Starting the Interview

Greet the employee to be interviewed as she/he arrives at the meeting room. First establish some personal connection by briefly exchanging a pleasantry and perhaps commenting about the Yankees, the Packers, Dancing With The Stars, or the Olympics, or some other fun thing you think the person might care about. You also could ask how work is going for him or her, but only do that knowingly and if you have time to listen, because that question can sidetrack the whole discussion if the person has a list of gripes to get off his or her chest.

After the chit-chat, you then should use a strategic approach like this to starting the interview:

1. Identify the purpose of the meeting in somewhat general terms, giving away no information about what you might (or might not) know, and showing no pre-judgments:

Example: I asked you to meet with me because I am investigating a claim about some tools missing from the maintenance office, and I need to ask you and some other folks some questions about that.

2. Confirm the importance and requirement of full and complete answers.

Example: It is very important that you and others I talk to in this process give me responses that are both truthful and complete, without withholding information. No persons will be retaliated against for giving truthful and complete responses, but in fairness I tell everyone I interview that if an employee gives false information or withholds information in this investigation, that will result in some serious disciplinary consequences for that person, maybe even a termination.

3. Confirm the employee’s understanding.

Example: Do you understand this?

4. Get the employee’s commitment.

Example: Will you give me truthful responses? Will you give me complete responses without withholding any information? (What else can he say but “yes?” If he dodges, ask again. And again, if necessary.)

This simple procedure raises the stakes for the interviewee, who will understand that there are serious risks to being less than truthful. This approach will make most employees being interviewed more focused and more diligent about telling the “whole truth.” Even for those intent on dissembling, this approach still is valuable because it sets the foundation for the imposition of fair discipline or even a termination if the employee lies. You can often spot those persons intent on lying, or at least obstructing, because they will hem and haw before finally confirming to you that they will give responses that are true and complete. If one of these employees later files a retaliation claim, you can establish that he or she was aware of the potential discipline ahead of time, and committed to giving true and complete answers just moments before lying.

Next week: Concluding the interview in a strategic and effective manner.