The goal of an ethics investigation is to get to the truth – did inappropriate behavior take place, or is the reporter making baseless, unsubstantiated accusations? According to one seasoned investigator, about half of all investigations end up going nowhere because there is not enough evidence to support the claim.
The best ethics investigators take an unbiased approach to the investigative process. The cornerstone of the investigation is the interview, which they use to obtain information from the reporter, the accused and anyone else who may be involved in or have knowledge of the alleged incident. Instead of conducting “witch hunts,” professional investigators view the interview as a fact-finding procedure and make a point of preserving the dignity of all parties.
Getting the Most Out of Interview Subjects
Accomplished investigators adhere to a carefully developed methodology to guide them through the interviewing process that consists of the following components:
A poorly planned interview will not produce the appropriate responses from the witness and may even hinder the progress of the investigation. The pre-planning process should entail the compilation of an outline of questions for each witness that are designed to elicit the necessary information. In general, the investigator should interview witnesses in the order of their level of involvement in the case, beginning with those who are the least involved.
Regarding the time and location of the interview, a conference room or private office can create a non-threatening setting that will help to put the witness at ease. Remove any distractions that could prevent the witness from remaining focused during the interview. Provide the witness with a comfortable chair that does not face a window. Give witnesses several time options for the interview to avoid disrupting their busy work schedules.
An ethics investigation interview is not an interrogation. The purpose is to obtain information, not to make accusations or put the interview subject on the defensive. If the witness appears reluctant, explain the advantages of cooperating. Empathy can also be an effective tool for removing barriers – let witnesses know that you understand their plight and that you appreciate their participation in the investigative process.
Ask open-ended questions that give the witness the opportunity to elaborate, as these types of questions will yield more information than simple “yes” or “no” responses. Stick to the “five W’s”: who, what, when, where and why. Save the “why” question for last, as these are often the most sensitive to the witness. Listen actively throughout the interview, while keeping the “80-20 rule” in mind: the witness should do about 80 percent of the talking compared to 20 percent by the investigator. Examples of good questions to ask include:
- “Describe what you saw when you walked into Joe’s office that day.”
- “Tell me about your relationship with the other members of your department.”
- “What more can you tell me about Bob’s behavior leading up to the incident?”
- “What did you do when you first noticed the discrepancies in Mary’s expense reports?”
While you should enter the interview with a prepared list of general questions based on the subject’s role in the incident, avoid conducting a scripted interview. The witness’s response to one question often takes the interview in a different, unexpected direction that could uncover useful information.
Closing the Interview
Once you feel you’ve obtained all the information the witness can provide, thank the individual for his or time and cooperation. You should also supply all witnesses with your contact information in case they recall or come across additional facts or materials that could assist your investigation. If you are requesting the witness to supply documents/data to substantiate/clarify their statements, establish a time frame for receiving the information.
Indicate to the witness that management will make the final determination regarding the outcome of the investigation and that it’s possible he or she may not be notified of the results due to confidentiality reasons. Also, inform them that it could be necessary to conduct a follow-up interview to clarify certain details of the investigation.
10 Interview Tips/Best Practices
The following practices can increase the likelihood of a successful ethics interview outcome:
- Remain fair and impartial throughout the interview, especially when questioning individuals accused of wrongdoing
- Maintain a calm, professional tone – avoid jokes or sarcasm
- Avoid asking misleading questions or attempting to “trick” the witness, as this can create mistrust in the entire investigative process
- Do not put words in the witness’s mouth or make presumptions regarding their responses
- Don’t stop asking questions too early – even if you think you’ve obtained all the information the witness has to offer, ask if there is anything else they would like to add
- Don’t let on that you don’t believe a witness’s statement or story – this may cause them to cease cooperating during the remainder of the interview
- Avoid tape-recording the interview, as this makes some witnesses nervous. Instead, take notes or have a note-taker in the room
- Don’t pre-judge the outcome – wait until all witnesses have been interviewed and all documentation has been reviewed before attempting to draw conclusions
- Don’t try to elicit a confession or admission of guilt – remember, the purpose of the interview is to gather facts to help determine whether an inappropriate act did or did not occur
- Verify witness responses and statements as discreetly as possible to maintain confidentiality and reduce the likelihood of retaliation
Ask for Help When Needed
The ability to conduct an effective, tactful ethics interview is an acquired skill, and it also requires some knowledge of the area where the alleged misconduct occurred. For example, an incident of suspected fraud may call for an interviewer who is familiar with financial/accounting procedures. If you don’t have skilled interviewers who are also subject matter experts within your organization, you should strongly consider enlisting the services of a professional third-party investigative firm. Contact us for more information.