In Interviewing, One Size Doesn’t Fit All

Sweatpants, maybe, but interview methodologies are a bit different when it comes to a one-size-fits-all approach. With an evolving job description, loss prevention and asset protection professionals are consistently faced with unique investigations. One employee is suspected of stealing money, another committed sexual harassment, and two more engaged in a potential workplace violence incident. These investigations contain witnesses, victims, and suspected wrongdoers. Within these subject types are people with vulnerabilities, some with interview experience, and others that may be dealing with post‑traumatic issues. Additionally, each case presents a different level of circumstantial or direct evidence.

The modern investigator must be prepared to encounter a variety of case types, and they must be professional enough to know when a different strategy or considerations may apply. Although the approach to the conversation may be different, the foundation of proper planning and strategizing is essential in conducting an effective interview. It is within this process that these variables should be considered and modify the approach used. Interviewers should also be adaptable and recognize that their pre-disposed theories may be wrong, thereby creating the need to have a fluid and flexible approach to the conversation.

What Do We Know?

In the process of preparing for the interview, the ongoing investigation should provide insight into the available evidence surrounding the situation. This level of evidence, and its reliability, should be heavily scrutinized by the investigator prior to conducting an interview. In some cases, the investigator may not have much evidence, creating the need for the interview in the first place. A sexual harassment investigation, for example, may have been initiated through a complaint from a witness of one employee making inappropriate comments to another. In this case, there is little evidence, and an initial interview will most likely take a fact gathering or cognitive approach when talking to other witnesses or the reported victim.

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As the level of evidence increases, the approach may also change along with it. If this sexual harassment investigation produced copies of inappropriate emails that were sent from the employee’s computer, there may be a strategic advantage to using the participatory method. In this approach, the interviewer would construct a series of questions to determine who has access to the employee’s email account, attempting to identify any explanations for the available evidence. This interview may yield information that warrants further investigation, such as the employee stating that they share their computer with other team members. Conversely, this strategy may eliminate all explanations and thereby strengthen the power of the evidence that exists. Withholding the known information from the subject provides them the opportunity to be honest and forthcoming without the need to become defensive or resistant to any confrontational approach.

Who Is Being Interviewed?

In addition to evaluating the level of evidence, investigators must also realize that each person they interview has unique characteristics that may also impact the strategy being used. The obvious question to ask is whether the person being interviewed is a cooperative or uncooperative subject. This qualification applies to all subject types, whether they be a complainant, witness, or the suspected wrongdoer.

If a subject is deemed to be cooperative and shares information easily, interviewers should also assess the reliability of any statements provided. The willingness of a subject to disclose information does not always equate to accuracy of their statements. Interviewers should conduct effective investigative interviews, attempting to substantiate any admissions or disclosures. Conversely, uncooperative subjects may take additional preparation to identify why they are resistant and how to better develop a rapport-based relationship during the interview.

Investigators should also evaluate other subject characteristics, including any vulnerabilities that may make them susceptible to improper interviewing techniques. In the current craze of violent organized retail crime activity, there may be an occurrence where an investigator must interview store personnel after an aggressive shoplifting incident. Interviewers should be aware that the employees may have experienced trauma during this event, making it difficult for them to relive and to easily retrieve details. The exposure to trauma can significantly impact a person’s memory, while also potentially displaying emotions that do not seem to correlate with what happened. This combination often results in interviewers disbelieving the interviewee, creating hostility during the conversation, and reducing the likelihood of an effective interview.

In the evaluation of a subject, investigators should also review things like age, intellectual capacity, and their current disposition. If interviewing a minor, special considerations should be made to the conversation, including the approach used and the potential need for parents or other representation to be present. The current disposition or state of mind of the subject should also be considered. If an interviewee is under the influence, overly stressed, or simply exhausted, it may cause complications during the conversation and create a risk of obtaining false information.

What Is Our Goal?

This question may seem simple but is often overlooked by investigators when determining the appropriate strategy for an interview. Any interview where the goal of the conversation is a confession has already started in the wrong direction, creating confirmation bias and a presumption of guilt. Most interviews should have the common goal of obtaining reliable and actionable information, leading the investigation to the truth. However, the goal of each interview may be detailed further than this and could impact the strategy used in the conversation.

In a workplace violence investigation where an employee has purportedly made a threat to harm other team members, the goal of the conversation may be to ensure safety. With a sense of urgency, interviewers will want to obtain more information with the goal of identifying the level of concern of these threats and how to take appropriate action. Gaining actionable intelligence, including the time and location of the potential incident, could prove to be a lifesaving conversation.

Other interviews may have less focus on identifying an immediate threat, but more emphasis on the knowledge or intent of a subject. A travel-and-expense fraud investigation may provide certain levels of evidence that allow the investigator to strategize the conversation. Although an interviewer would hope to obtain an admission during the conversation, there is a possibility that the evidence is misleading. Instead, they should be aimed at obtaining information that either further implicates the subject or provides a reasonable explanation for the evidence. The goal of this conversation may be to identify any potential excuses, training issues, or legitimate reasoning for the anomalies reported. By achieving this goal, the investigator would have either cleared the subject from any wrongdoing or obtained information that implicates the person with their own statements.

All interviews have some foundational commonalities, including the importance of rapport, proper question structure, and planning. The importance of strategy and preparation for an interview cannot be overstated, and investigators need to take many variables into account during this process. Although a specific method or approach may have yielded successful results for the investigator in the past, it is imperative that we recognize not every case is the same. Each subject has their own story, every piece of evidence has fallibility, and professional interviewers must adapt and prepare, as one interview method does not “fit all.”

 

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