Employee Complaint Investigations: Why you must make interviewees comfortable
  • leadership
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Employee Complaint Investigations: Why you must make interviewees comfortable

We’ve all seen TV cops interrogate criminals and witnesses, and maybe enjoyed the spectacle of a bad guy or a whiny witness squirming under the barrage of tough questions.

But when it’s time for HR to do its own kind of investigation – into employee complaints of harassment or other policy violations – hardball police techniques won’t cut it. You’re not the law, and you don’t have arrest powers.

So, according to veteran complaint investigator and attorney Allison West, it’s wise to remember this key point: The person you’re talking to, whether alleged wrongdoer or witness, has something you want – information. And you’re probably not going to get it by making the person uncomfortable.

Espresso not required
Fine. But what must you do to make your interview subject comfortable? Do you have to pamper someone you believe to be a repeat violator of an important company policy, or someone who’s covering up for a malefactor?

No. As West puts it, you don’t need to have an espresso machine in the room or offer the interviewee biscotti. Comfortable in this context means relaxed enough to give meaningful answers, not relaxed like on the beach at Cancun.

Here are several techniques that West advises interviewers use to make the person comfortable, and elicit the maximum of information:

1. Prepare the scene
To some folks, being called down to HR seems like being sent to the principal’s office. A neutral setting like a conference room – or even a nearby coffee shop – may ease the interview subject’s mind.

Wherever the interview is, try for “seating parity.” Wrong way: Ensconce the questioner in an armchair behind a well-stocked desk and put the interviewee opposite in an ordinary chair. That’s a recipe for intimidation.

Another point: Some tearful interviewees may need the comfort of a box of tissues. Keep one handy. Also a bottle or pitcher of water and cups.

2. Frame the proceedings unsensationally
Which approach do you think would relax the interviewee more?

  • A. “We’re here today as part of a sexual harassment investigation. We think you know something about the harassment.”
  • B. “I understand you may know something about a workplace issue. Your information could be valuable and might help some people.”

Of course, B would be the way to go. Unlike A, it contains no negatively loaded words that make the interview subject freeze up right away.

Note: There are certain reassurances you must avoid, including:

  • A pledge of absolute confidentiality. You can say you’ll share their information only on a need-to-know basis.
  • A promise that there will be no disciplinary consequences for the interviewee. Even if the person is a witness, not an accused, you don’t know going in whether the witness also violated policy.

3. Use the ‘inverted triangle’
There may be times when, because of the nature of the investigation, you have to jump right in with your most probing questions. But most often, you’ll keep your interviewee more relaxed if you gradually turn up the temperature. West calls this approach – broad at the top, pointed as you drill in – the “inverted triangle.” Here’s an example:

  • “Do you know Angela Wright?” (Answer)
  • “And Rob McDade?” (Answer)
  • “Have you seen the two of them together?” (Answer)
  • “And have you ever noticed a time when they didn’t seem to get along?” (Answer)
  • “On that occasion, or before, did you see Rob touch Angela?” (Answer)

4. Avoid interrogation

The use of certain words and phrases can give you the air of a high-pressure interrogator. Examples:

  • Sounding officious if the person doesn’t want to talk to you. Don’t say: “You’re obliged as an employee to answer my questions.” Say: “You know, as part of this company, if we do need your assistance we expect you to provide it.”
  • Asking “why” too often. It has a suspicious, accusatory ring.

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