The Effective Interviewer: Not a One Size Fits All Approach

The job tasks of today’s loss prevention professional have greatly expanded from the job description that existed years ago. Apprehending shoplifters, internal theft investigations, and safety concerns still play a role in the industry, but investigators are now tasked with even more complex cases and obstacles in their efforts to protect profits. Investigations now expand beyond basic theft, policy violations, and fraud. Loss prevention professionals are now additionally tasked with cases regarding employee relations issues, e-commerce fraud, data-privacy issues, workplace violence, and countless others. Interviewees are also more complex as some cases involve collusion with organized crime rings, technical expertise for digital fraud, and a greater knowledge of the investigative process.

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An increasingly complex investigation or case-type paired with an interviewee that has experience or knowledge of the process require interviewers to be adaptable. Structured interview approaches are important for consistency in an organization, but adaptability is also essential for the organic investigative process. There are a variety of approaches that may be used relative to the type of case, characteristics of the interviewee, and level of evidence. Although the context may drive the interview strategy, there should still be consistency in the foundation of rapport, open- mindedness of the investigator, and a framework of non-confrontational approaches.

In reviewing a “typical” case for the loss prevention investigator, we can see how adaptability is important throughout the life of an investigation. One of the more common obstacles in the retail industry today is the growing issue of organized retail crime (ORC). An all-too-often received phone call by an LP leader may be from a store operator describing an ORC incident in one of their locations.

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“Hey, this message is for the LP department. We just had a group of people come into our store, and they stole hundreds of handbags. Julia tried to confront them, but they started yelling at her and then they just took off. Sorry!”

Fact-Gathering

The initial conversation with the store personnel may be a brief fact-gathering interview. These types of interviews require active listening, open- ended questioning, and note-taking. These are also often conducted remotely, leveraging technology to conduct the conversation. As the investigator is asking questions of the store operator, they may pick up on key terms or phrases needing follow-up investigation.

The store personnel may have suggested that Julia “confronted” the shoplifters and that the group “took off.” These subjective terms need further explanation, as assumptions could impact the investigation and may also leave opportunity for issues in the future. “Confronted” could mean a variety of things, prompting the interviewer to ask an echo question as simple as: “confronted?” Additionally, “took off” needs to be expanded, identifying if the group left in a vehicle, public transportation, or on foot.

Cognitive Interviewing

As the investigation proceeds, the interviewer may want to talk directly to the store associates that were engaged in the incident. In these conversations, it may be helpful to be trained in the cognitive interview strategy. This strategy also relies on the importance of open-ended narratives and active listening but provides additional structure to the interview. An investigator may start the conversation by providing instructions to the interviewee, explaining the importance of minor details, and providing transparency to how the conversation will be conducted. The interviewer should also let the associate know that they can take their time when attempting to recreate the context of the event in their memory, and then allowing for silence as they process through the recollection.

This interview strategy may also include a guided narrative and use other memory-probing techniques. An investigator using this strategy should also be aware of the potential contamination of a person’s memory by poorly structured questions or other means of fact-feeding. This interview is then intended to increase the amount of information recalled by the associate and provide additional details to the investigation.

Trauma Informed

During the cognitive interview with the associate, the interviewer may have identified several inconsistencies in the narrative of the event. It is also possible that upon video review of the incident, the descriptions of the suspects are not accurate, and it appears that the associate was engaging with these customers prior to the theft taking place. As the investigator explores these contradictions, it may suggest that the associate was involved in the theft or had a prior relationship with the members of this ORC group.

Of course, the above is a possible theory, as every investigation is an ongoing process, and each avenue should be properly explored. However, interviewers should also be aware that in this circumstance it is possible the associate has experienced a traumatic event in their interaction with the shoplifting crew. A trauma informed interview approach would assist both the interviewee and the interviewer. Showing empathy and understanding for the situation can assist the associate in reliving and recalling the experience. The trauma informed interviewer is also aware that memory may be distorted, non-sequential, or even inaccurate.

Participatory Method

During further investigation, it was determined that many of the handbags that were stolen were not properly secured with cabling or other alarm devices. There are two associates responsible for this task and both had left the store prior to the shoplifting incident taking place. An open-source investigation also identifies that one of these associates is friends on social media with some of the known members of this specific ORC ring. These investigative pieces are of a circumstantial nature and do not prove any collusion on their own, however a participatory method strategy may assist in the process.

This interview strategy would rely on strategically withholding evidence and using a structured questioning process to determine potential negligence, ignorance, or intent. The interviewer may want to determine what the normal process is for cabling products and how often it is audited. It’s possible that some locations were given directions by management to ignore security guidelines, or it is also likely that this associate intentionally left the products easily available. This approach takes additional preparation to properly sequence the open-ended questions, allowing the interviewee to provide truthful information with little resistance or hesitation.

Adaptability

In this case, we have seen the implementation of four different interviewing strategies (and we have not even confronted a potential wrongdoer yet). Interviewers should be prepared for the variety of situations they are dealt with and understand that each case and individual may require flexibility in their approach. In your next investigation, ensure that you have contingency plans for the variety of routes the case may take. If we make an assumption about the outcome, we are already defeating the purpose of the investigative interview.

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