Best Practices for Conducting Remote Interviews in Today’s Restrictive Climate

Travel restrictions, limitations on gathering, and government mandates have created a systemic shutdown of businesses across multiple verticals. Unfortunately, in times of chaos and lack of perceived control, there creates an opportunity for increased theft and fraud. Concurrently, in these times of uncertainty, some businesses are forced to shut down, reduce hours, or even lay off employees creating difficult financial circumstances for all that are involved. The increased opportunity for theft and fraud combined with the unpredictable need of those impacted may create a high-risk environment.

Considering any additional investigations that arise during this pandemic, adding to the caseload an investigator was already working, create an urgency in resolving these issues. An extra layer of difficulty is now added to conducting the investigative interview with the limitation on travel and recommendations on “social distancing” by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Investigators are now tasked with conducting more interviews remotely while taking precautionary measures for the safety and well-being of their team. This two-part series will focus on the solutions that many investigators are relying on at this time.

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First, we will review the “standard” phone interview including recommendations on how to be most efficient and encourage cooperation through this venue. We will also discuss examples of policies and protocols that many organizations have implemented as guidance for these conversations.

In the second part of this series we will take a deeper dive into the use of video-conferencing platforms as they relate to conducting investigative interviews. The advantages and disadvantages of this solution will be highlighted as well as some considerations in creating an atmosphere that allows for a productive, rapport-based conversation.

When to Use a Remote Interview (Telephone or Video)

Not all cases fit the mold of a remote interview, although those thresholds may be increasing due to the current climate. As we evaluate a case, there are many considerations to determine the viability of remote interview taking place. Investigators should weigh the importance of the information needed versus any potential failure or liability.

Ideally, an interview results in a positive outcome for both the organization and any employees involved. This means that the truth is known, reliable information is obtained allowing the organization to make an informed decision. From the subjects’ perspective, a positive outcome means they were treated with respect and were able to share their reasoning for their actions in a rapport-based, supportive environment.

Typically, one example of an appropriate time for a remote interview in cases in which the subject was caught in the act of wrongdoing. For example, an employee has been observed stealing cash from a register till during their shift and a brief review of video supports the observation. The benefit of a remote interview would allow for a timely resolution of the case as well as an increased likelihood in recovering the stolen funds. The potential obstacle for interviewers in these “live” cases is the limited ability do conduct a more thorough investigation. It is possible that the subject has stolen money multiple times, in addition to theft of merchandise or other acts of fraud. The immediate remote interview could limit the interviewer’s scope of knowledge, while also suggesting to the subject that only the most recent incident is known to the interviewer.

Another consideration to review is the level of evidence relative to the case. Investigations that have produced direct evidence, clear and concise proof of the subject’s acts lend themselves to a remote interview. If evidence is circumstantial, or complicated in nature, it would pose additional difficulties in a remote environment. As an example, a pharmacy technician that is caught stealing cash from the break room on surveillance video would be a standard case fit for remote interviewing. However, if the pharmacy technician was involved in drug diversion and insurance fraud, there may be a need to review evidence with the subject during the development of the conversation.

The tenure of the subject is another element to consider in this process. An employee that has worked for the organization for a long period of time naturally increases the potential scope of their involvement in the wrongful acts. This extensive development of any admissions may be difficult to orchestrate over a remote environment. A subject that is seasonal or has a shorter tenure with the organization likely has had less access and relative opportunity to commit theft or fraud providing for a more simplified conversation. Both employees could be acceptable in a remote interview environment, but these obstacles should be considered.

The type of case should also be evaluated when making the decision to conduct the interview remotely. Outside of the type of evidence, timing of the act, and subject information, investigators should review the context and implications of the case itself. A relatively low-stakes investigation involving a policy or procedural violation, such as discount abuse, would be ideal to conduct in this setting. Additionally, if the investigation involves multiple witnesses or complainants where escalated emotions may be involved, the investigator should consider the comfort level of these employees during and after an interview. Case dependent, some subjects may feel more comfortable discussing a sensitive issue over the phone while others would prefer an in-person meeting.

Disadvantages of the Telephone Interview

Although remote interviews are becoming a more consistent and relied upon method of conducting investigations, there are some disadvantages to consider.

  • General lack of control of the interview room puts more dependence on the witness to properly set up the location per organization guidelines.
  • Communication is limited to verbal only, creating potential misunderstanding or lack of engagement.
  • Interviewer may not recognize the lack of engagement or interest from the subject.
  • Silence during the conversation, without non-verbal context, may be misinterpreted.
  • Presenting complicated pieces of evidence to the subject for explanation could be cumbersome.
  • Handling the disposition of the case (termination, prosecution, suspension, etc.) requires logistical efforts by the interviewer and the on-site support team.
  • Dependent on the circumstances, privacy may be a concern for the interviewer or the subject relative to the environment that are currently in.
  • Reliance on technology and signal strength could interrupt the conversation.

Advantages of the Telephone Interview

Many interviewers have relied on telephone interviews for a substantial part of their caseload over the years, and it has proven to be successful, yielding positive results. With considerations mentioned above, there are also the below advantages to a telephone interview:

  • Adherence to guidelines provided by the CDC and government officials prioritize the teams well-being above all else.
  • Non-verbal behaviors by the interviewer are not seen by the subject (reactions to admissions, looks of frustration, etc.).
  • Interviewer’s physical appearance is not a factor, minimizing any potential issues caused by dress-code, age, or other physical identifiers.
  • Interviewer can easily refer to an outline of questions they intend to ask or a strategic plan of the conversation.
  • Interviewer has access to verify pieces of evidence, review the case file, or pull up additional details without the subject being aware of their actions.
  • Note-taking by the interview is not seen by the subject, minimizing any impact of the timeliness of those actions.
  • Allows for flexibility in selecting the best interviewer for the case, regardless of their location.
  • Significant savings of time and travel costs that are usually incurred for an in-person interview.
  • The timing of an interview for a “live” case provides for increased credibility of the investigation relative to the recent incident as the subject knows they have been caught.
  • Supervisors, witnesses, or additional interviewers can listen into the conversation for training purposes without impacting the physical nature of the room setup.
  • The ability for the subject to hang up the phone at any time minimizes the risk of any perception of custody when the room is setup properly.

Environment of a Telephone Interview

For most organizations, the standard in-person interview comes with protocols for appropriate room setup including the removal of distractions, ensuring privacy, and providing the subject an opportunity to leave the room freely. These same rules should apply in a telephone interview, along with some additional considerations.

As noted in the disadvantages, the interviewer must find a strong partner that will be local to the interview itself to assist in the logistics of the room setup. Removing distractions and creating a comfortable, private environment are essential in providing an opportunity for the subject to disclose information.

Although most often we are focused on the subject’s environment, in these unique circumstances interviewers also need to be aware of their own surroundings. For many that are currently working at home, it is essential to remove any potential distractions and allow for complete focus on the conversation. Simple fixes, like placing a note on your office door, shutting the blinds, and turning off any background music or television will allow the interviewer to focus. Prepare for the conversation as if it was an in-person interview to provide for a sincere and focused approach.

In the current climate, where some employees may be working remotely at their house, it provides additional obstacles in creating an appropriate environment for the interview. In these circumstances, many of the distractions present cannot be changed and interviewers should be aware of these obstacles. The interviewee may have other family members present in the house which would increase the potential fear of embarrassment and other consequences. If possible, the interviewer should coordinate the best time to conduct the conversation allowing the subject to be in a private setting, even if at their own residence.

If the interviewer can conduct the conversation where the employee is at the place of business, they should work with local management to set the environment appropriately. This discussion should include the following:

  • Discuss the importance of social distancing and other precautionary measures recommended for the well-being of the team that may impact the interview setting.
  • Create a strategic plan on what to inform the subject when bringing them to the interview location. If this is not discussed, the witness may contaminate the investigation by informing the subject of details on their way to the discussion.
  • Discuss confidentiality and organizational policy regarding the sharing of information about the investigation.
  • Identify the appropriate witness for the case, relative to some of the considerations we will discuss further in this article.
  • Explain the importance of the subject being free to leave the room at any time without obstruction and detailing the appropriate layout of the interview area.
  • Discuss what actions to take, if any, if the subject of the interview leaves the conversation or the property.
  • Strategically discuss conflict resolution and organizational policies relating to de-escalation in the chance that the subject of the interview becomes violent or creates an unsafe environment.
  • Inform management of the potential disposition of the case and any support you may need from the local team, including contacting law enforcement or terminating the employee.
  • Create an action plan for obtaining and securing the written statement or other evidence obtained throughout the interview.

Additional procedures may need to be discussed relative to the organizations policies, such as removal of access to company resources, process of final paycheck or conversations with the union representative.

Witnesses to the Telephone Interview

In most interview settings, organizations require that their investigators have a witness present in the conversation for several reasons. The witness may provide a valuable perspective of the conversation from an unbiased, impartial third-party if called upon at a criminal or civil hearing. This person can also serve as a note-taker and document essential details of the conversation, allowing the interviewer to focus on the task at hand. These same benefits apply to a telephone interview, with additional items to consider:

  • With restrictions on travel and social distancing recommendations, it may be difficult to have a witness physically present at the location. In these circumstances, a witness may be able to dial into the call remotely and still partake in the conversation.
  • Witnesses should be introduced to the subject, whether they are in person or remote, informing them of their role in the conversation.
  • In addition to the above topics discussed with management, witnesses should be informed of their behavior during the conversation including note-taking guidelines, reactions to admissions, and how to respond if the subject should ask them questions directly.
  • If witness preparation occurs far in advance of the interview, there is a chance for a breach in confidentiality and the witness discusses information with other employees. This concern for contamination should be discussed with both management and the witness.
  • In some situations, it may be appropriate to select a witness that has a subject-matter expertise relative to the investigation. For example, if the interview is focused on some type of fraud in the IT vertical, it may be helpful to have a data security expert or another IT professional as the witness.
  • In selecting the witness, interviewers should identify a person that is acceptable to be in “the know,” such as a position of management.
  • Witnesses should receive clear direction on how to take notes, and what details are important to capture during the conversation.
  • The interviewer should discuss any safety concerns the witness may have, ensuring to follow the organizations workplace violence policies should the conversation escalate.
  • Witnesses need to be informed on how to collect and preserve the written statement, as well as any requirement to submit the statement to the interviewer. This can usually be done through a case management system or electronically scanned.

Conducting the Telephone Interview

The interview structure itself may be relatively similar to the in-person interview. Every case and each subject present a unique set of challenges requiring interviewers to utilize a variety of methods. These non-confrontational methods may include Fact-gathering interviews, the Participatory Method, the Cognitive Interview, the Selective Interview, or the WZ Method. After identifying the appropriate method relative to the case, interviewers should include additional modifications when conducting over the phone.

Rapport. The backbone of any successful conversation is the development of rapport, resulting in a supportive, trusting dynamic between the interviewer and the subject. Non-confrontational methods share the foundational base of building rapport with the subject. This concept, standard in a traditional interview, must be a heavy point of emphasis in a telephone interview. Similar to a telemarketer, a phone call from an unknown person can be awkward and create additional uncertainty in an already uncomfortable conversation. Interviewers must focus on establishing genuine rapport, having empathy and showing understanding, especially in a time of uncertainty and panic in our current climate.

Engagement. Any conversation that is limited to the verbal channel runs the increased risk of losing engagement from the participants. While having a discussion over the phone, interviewers need to increase their dialogue with the subject soliciting responses throughout the conversation. Simple engagement techniques could be the use of questions such as:

  • “Does that make sense?”
  • “Do you see what I mean?”
  • “Wouldn’t you agree?”

These basic check-ins will assist the interviewer in multiple ways. They keep the subject engaged in the conversation, conditioning them to listen as they will be called upon several times throughout the interview. Additionally, these questions will elicit verbal responses from the subject giving the interviewer additional context to the conversation as it changes throughout.

Another form of engagement is relative to the interview method chosen by the investigator. Most non-confrontational methods are built in a dialogue format, however there may be instances where the interviewer is talking for extended periods of time. In incidents like this, such as with the Introductory Statement, the interviewer may change the dynamic of the conversation by asking the subject to partake in the statement. For example, instead of the interviewer listing the types of losses or issues that an employee could cause, they instead could ask their subject “What are some ways that an employee may cause a loss to the company?” Interviewers could then supplement their answer and repeat this form of engagement throughout the conversation.

Tone and Delivery. As in any conversation, the tone of the interviewer and the delivery of their message can impact the cooperation level of the subject. While conducting a phone interview, this becomes even more apparent as the communication channel is limited to verbal only. During the conversation, if the interviewer has a sharp tone or comes across with aggression or impatience, that will only increase the resistance from the subject. It is important at all times, especially in a remote interview, to exhibit empathy and sincerity during these conversations; most of which can be influenced simply by how we are delivering the message.

Timing. In our experience, similarly to the reports we have received from our attendees, the phone interview generally is quicker than a standard interview. Although this is a perceived benefit of the interview, it should also be considered that interviewers may fall short on developing additional information and obtaining a thorough statement over the phone. Supervisors should focus on this area of the telephone interview when providing feedback and critique to their interviewer teams. A benefit of the shortened time frame is the lack of pressure felt by the subject and reduced perception of any coercive nature of an in-person conversation.

Now What?

Many of you reading this article have conducted phone interviews in the past, and hopefully took away some additional tools to your next conversation. If you are in this group of experienced interviewers, offer yourself as a mentor and reach out to those in the industry that are facing this unpredictable obstacle.

Those of you that are new to remote interviewing, reach out to your peers and seek additional guidance or feedback. Most interviewers initially resisted the idea of conducting investigations remotely, until they felt confident in their approach. In the private sector today, a high percentage of our attendees are regularly relying on the phone interview to resolve cases and doing it effectively.

For those in a leadership position, if your organization is leaning on the need for remote interviews, it is recommended to draft a policy and protocols together for your team to rely on. These guidelines should include instructions on when a phone interview is appropriate, accommodations for social distancing, handling of the witness or management presence, preservation of evidence, and company specific issues. Utilize your peers, your legal counsel, human resources, and other partners to assist in the development in these standard operating procedures.

As always, Wicklander-Zulawski is here to support you if additional training is needed for your team or if we can assist in the development of any protocols relative to these needs. Please visit us at www.w-z.com or reach out directly at info@w-z.com.

Click here to read “Using Video Technology for Conducting Remote Interviews.”

Click here to read “Stefanie Hoover with Phone Interview Tips for Superheroes.”

Click here to see many video tips from W-Z.

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