Whether you are interviewing potential suspects or witnesses, the goal will be the same—get the information you are looking for, while being open and receptive for that which you may discover on the way to your goal.
With over 40 years under my belt and an uncounted number of interviews, including murder, robbery, and shoplifting involving gangs, bank tellers, professional and organized crime leaders, and everything in between, I learned a few things that I have used throughout my career. The most important is that I don’t know it all and will not assume that until all is said and done. Yes, I learned that the hard way, but that makes a quick learner most of the time. Here are some examples that worked, and some pit falls to avoid.
The Foregone Conclusion
So, you have it all figured out, do you? You have video of your suspect, a witness to the crime, and you know exactly when and what happened, how it happened, and why it happened. Now you know who made it happen. What more could you ask for? What you are telling yourself is, you were right, and it happened just as you thought. Have you ever heard the cliché, “Don’t bother me with facts; my mind is made up?”
You start the interview thinking, I’m busy and we need to get this guy in and out quickly, and I’m the one that can get this guy. Then you hear some words that put you in your place. Maybe something like, “I told them we would get caught.” Are you at the point in the interview when you are wrapped up, have you made statements indicating that you are not aware of others’ involvement, do you go back and start over, and what interview position or step are you at now? Do you want to take back the first sentence of this paragraph? Need a do-over?
The over-confident interviewer comes in two different types. The “been there done that” and the “I’ve interviewed ten people and have never lost one!” As a bike rider, I can assure you that when you think you are getting good at it, that’s when your confidence outweighs your skill level. The result—road rash.
The Red-Handed Apprehension
Here’s how to keep a “red-handed” apprehension from becoming a “red-faced” incident in hindsight. Of course, hindsight can be good. Being able to look back and reflect on items or using it to formulate your next move is valuable. Using it to improve your technique is always a good thing. However, “Monday morning quarterbacking” is a little different. That is being critical of others’ decisions after a passage of time or after the results of the decisions are known. Sometimes known as “no skin in the game.” You know, one second for the decision, and forever live with the outcome. Mistakes are better called “risk management.” You might also refer to it as being human.
Remember, being prepared for the risk of the decision and having a game plan to govern any risk is success. But back to the “red-handed” apprehension and interview. It seems that the best thing to have is the red-handed object of your intention sitting there in the office with the product or occurrence staring them right in the face. Just collect the marbles and call it a day kind of case. Did you get all the marbles? It’s a great thing to know that you have what you have and that’s good enough to send the person packing. That’s a feeling that most of us in the investigative world like to have.
If you are not into apprehensions, investigations, interviews, or the court system, then you probably think that attitude is masochistic or bent a certain way that’s hard to figure out. Here’s a reality check—those $85 blue jeans you just bought would have cost half that if there were more of “us” that felt that way. So, take to heart that while you push numbers or carts, work in customer service or HR, you need to realize that a wagon wheel needs all the spokes to work right.
So, what about the “red-faced” part of this? When interviewing, even the slam dunk, remember that you know what they did to get in the chair this particular day. But you can’t know what yesterday or last week or who their cohorts are, unless you work with what you have and parlay it to get all the information you need. Red-faced is what you get when you walk out of the interview, you’re about ready to hit the “that was easy” button, and then information falls in your lap that you were unaware of and probably would have been very easy to add to your case value or recovery.
When the bad guy is gone, it’s quite often followed by other people realizing they can come forward with additional information now that the threat is over. When that information drops in your lap, especially if it was very easy to prove, you suddenly go from “red-handed” to “red-faced” and very likely some Monday morning quarterbacks will show up right on cue.
The Streetwise Type
You know the type—streetwise with a clam mouth, right? I probably feel that way about 60 percent of everyone I prepare to interview. The result is more like about 10 percent. I find with the 10 percent, you have all you’re going to have, so take your shot and try a different approach. Maybe play the friend or the person that gives them hope by saying, “We can fix it right here and now.” Who knows what will work, but you know it’s not going to be any worse than before you asked. Take your shot, watch for the signs, and react accordingly. You might find they are not one of the 10 percent after all.
Over the years I’ve gotten more confessions from empathy and an honest sounding, “I’m here to help you with this issue,” than all the slam-dunk cases combined. Remember the basic instincts people have—fight or flight, hope for a better outcome, guilt, remorse, and all the others, and use them to your advantage. Be nice and respectful, firm and professional, and try to divert their negative thoughts to a potential positive outcome. Even if to no avail, they can still see you tried to help with their dilemma. And this could be the one item that pulls up all those emotions that they may have suppressed.
Be a Great Communicator
Remember that the best interviewer is also the best communicator. To be a good communicator, you must be schooled at addressing people at their level. Don’t talk over them and don’t make the mistake of talking lower to them. Did you happen to look up their educational level and employment history before the interview? Yes, should be the right answer. Always take the time to stage your opinion based on facts. Don’t make me use another cliché like “Don’t judge a book by its cover.” Remember a couple of more items:
- Is the person a veteran? If so, do you have a veteran on staff who could do the interview with a better chance to relate to them?
- Be careful who your witnesses are. Most people will admit to anything they did, but the wrong person, a competitor, a “goodie two shoes” character, someone who knows their friends, or a long list of other types can cause someone to clam up quickly.
- Do you know where their peer pressure is coming from, or their need to commit the act?
All of these are part of a pre-interview plan that should be carefully considered. I would say even more important than staging the room.
War Story #1. While interviewing a rapist of a 10-year-old, I was hitting him with everything in the book. I had a strong education but a little short on experience, I confess. My detective was the witness, a senior gentleman, and he stood 6’5” but looked 7 foot. He stood up, looked at the young man, and said, “Bobby, there’s a time to speak up and there is a time to be quiet. This is the time to speak up!” The confession immediately followed. Bobby later said he felt like the detective was speaking to him as a father he never had.
What did I do wrong in this situation? Among other things, the desk was always in between him and me giving him a safe zone. I talked above his educational level giving him the perception of my being better than him. The detective knew his family and that he was fatherless (interview prep) and probably lots of other things.
It’s Almost Never Easy
If you are an investigator, you’ve probably thought “I’m really going to enjoy busting this person; I can’t stand a thief!” It’s fine to enjoy your profession and to celebrate your results. But what happens when halfway through your interview you discover you might not be going to get the admission, so you push and get desperate to close the case. Now you are about to be “owned” by the subject or by the circumstances you placed yourself into. You are no longer unbiased, forgiving, thoughtful, compassionate, and willing to help with the subject’s issues as you are now consumed with your own dilemma. In my office is an “easy button.” I’ve replaced the battery three times and only used it twice.
War Story #2. I was sitting in my office one day and, quite unexpectedly, an associate walked in and sat down in the chair I refer to as the “hot seat.” I asked him why he was here, as one of my staff escorted him to the office, and he stated, “Because I did something wrong.” I ask what he did, and he stated “I stole this” and laid a shirt on my desk. He had worked for us for three days. I finished the interview using all the usual questions, then, after everyone left my office, I gathered up my staff and hit the easy button for only the second time.
Always celebrate successes with your team at the proper time. Make sure as a leader, you realize that you are being followed at all times—both the good and, unfortunately, the not so good times.
Your Result Is Your Reward
As an interviewer, you should represent a subject’s solution, friend, coworker, or whatever you need to get the job done. Your result is your reward. Don’t dance around too much as it is also your everyday job.
I have been asked several times by a witness of my interview why I was so “nice” to the subject, as they thought it was a good time to teach them a lesson. After mentioning a few of the above thoughts, they understood.
If you have the prep, plan, and information to conduct the interview, you are looking at about 95 percent or better success rate. It depends a lot on the culture of your employee population, previous interviews by investigators with minimal training, company integrity, and other factors all figure into your success rate.
Some areas are just plain hard. But even so, it depends more on your abilities and how you kept up with all the different tactics. Everyone has a favorite posture to take, as I do also. But you are limiting yourself by not changing tactics when the interviewee does not fit your usual encounters. Change it up, take a refresher course of interview and interrogation techniques, reread your resource books, consider other steps you should take, think up some new way to get it done, or sit in on someone else’s interview. Don’t be a one-hit wonder.
The School of Hard Knocks
Almost everything that I’ve learned about interviewing, I learned from the person being interviewed—good and bad. However, Professional training organizations like Wicklander-Zulawski, are very essential. Training and education will get you far enough down to the road to collect experience. At that junction you will become a force to deal with.
My training and education reinforced many of the tactics that I had picked up from experience or was previously educated on. Training provided labels to describe a trait, a step to remember to take, reminder to use a different tactic, or road to go down to get out of my rut. An interviewer’s education provides the knowledge to know what’s best, what works, and what you should forget.
Training and education should never stop. I take notes after interviews that I keep for myself, beyond the case notes. I jot down what worked, what didn’t work, and why I think they did or didn’t work. Be careful not to over judge your method, just remember to avoid the obvious pit falls and include what “you should have said” for future reference.
If you did your homework, carried the correct posture, prepared the environment, communicated to the subject, and showed respect and other traits discussed here, then you will have more successes. Sometimes your educated bluff will work, when the facts didn’t. Sometimes you will have a surprise easy confession, while another time a “sure thing” will go south. Maybe you did everything right, but it still didn’t work. No problem. Pay more attention to trends rather than snap shots. Remember Henry Ford’s successful automobile was a model T, not a model B, F, or M. The person that just walked out of your interview just gave you an invaluable education you will use to be successful tomorrow.
AUTHOR: Mike Hall, CFI, is director of asset protection D2C logistics for Macy’s based in Portland, TN. He first joined Macy’s in 1988, moved to Home Depot from 2004 to 2010 as district operations manager, before returning to Macy’s in 2010. Prior to Macy’s Hall was regional director of LP for Heck’s. Hall begin his career in law enforcement as chief of police for the city of Morehead, KY. He is an instructor for Eastern Kentucky University and has been elected as a city alderman for his community of Portland. Hall can be reached at mike.hall (at) macys (dot) com.