- Blog post
Interviewing the hostile witness
The principle of making the interviewee comfortable during a complaint investigation goes only so far. If you’re facing a hostile witness – or a hostile accused – you may have to approach them differently.
Complaint investigator Allison West recommends the following techniques for hostile interviewees:
- Turn down the volume. Hostile interviewees frequently get LOUD. They’ll say something like, “This is crap, a witch hunt, and I won’t put up with it,” in a rising tone, ending in a shout. Don’t mirror their agitation. Get quieter. Talk even more calmly. Say: “Actually, it’s not a witch hunt. I’m here to give you every opportunity to speak.”
- Seek the hostility’s source. Hostile interviewees often behave that way because they’re afraid. You can move your investigation forward by probing their fear. If, for instance, witness Mary says, “You’re just trying to hammer nails into my friend Jill’s coffin,” try saying, “Why do you think that’s what I’m doing?” Mary may respond with new information about Jill or about her own state of mind.
- Dismiss them – with a caveat. If you just can’t get anywhere with a hostile interviewee – or you fear an eruption – you might consider telling them they can leave. Don’t do this, however, without warning them of the consequences. Say: “We could take a short break if necessary. If you still need to leave after that, I may continue the investigation without the benefit of your version of events. And you’ll be in violation of our policy on [XYZ], which requires employees to assist in these investigations.” They may stay after all – and calm down.
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The best first step in my opinion is to have them sit down and address at an even level of eye contact. From my experience this will work everytime and allows the hostile employee to feel that they are being respected and given an opportunity to address what ever issue in a relaxed mode as the body takes a rest from any strain they may be experiencing. This usually gives them a moment to pause and think of what they want to say.