Life Is Like a Circle: Part Three

In part one of this series, we talked about organizing the harassment investigation based on the complaint, the individual who made the outcry, and company policy. We also addressed the order in which interviews should be conducted and the importance of a complete and thorough conversation with the complainant. This is a time for the complainant to do the majority of the talking, while the interviewer spends most of his time listening for facts, biases, and assumptions. Once the complete story has been related, it is only then that the interviewer uses probing questions to enhance the level of details of the story.

In part two of the series, we addressed the confidentiality of the investigation, its timeliness, and the preservation of evidence. Then we went on to discuss the strategy and preparation to begin the interviews with the victim, witnesses, and alleged harasser.

In this article, we will focus on the actual interview process and how it differs between the parties involved. The interviews themselves help the investigator establish the facts, potential witnesses, and evidence that may corroborate the different parties’ statements.

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The Complainant

The first interview to be conducted is a thorough conversation with the complainant. The complainant may or may not be the victim—it could also be another individual who heard the victim’s outcry. Victims, for any number of reasons, may be reluctant to make a complaint against another employee or a supervisor. However, once the complaint has been made, it must be investigated in a timely manner. If the individual who heard the victim’s outcry comes forward, he or she should be carefully debriefed in great detail not only focusing on the statements made by the victim but also examining the victim’s demeanor and relevant facts concerning the work environment. This interview generally begins with rapport building between the interviewer and subject before asking the open-ended question, “Tell me in as much detail as you can, what happened?”

This interview should also ultimately provide a context for the investigation relating to the personalities and general environment of the workplace. Without a context for the event, the investigator in future interviews may not ask the right questions or may make erroneous assumptions about day-to-day events.

If the complainant is the victim, the interviewer should start after establishing rapport with an open-ended question that directly addresses the individual’s complaint. This may be an emotional time for the victim as they struggle with anger, shame, uncertainty, or any other number of emotions. The interviewer needs to be supportive, and one of the best ways to do this is to be a good, nonjudgmental, empathetic listener. Open-ended questions let the victim relive the event in their own words without contamination by the questions, biases, or assumptions that the investigator may have made or had.

The Cognitive Interview

Often the victims may have suffered a pattern of harassment, which will require the interviewer to break the interview into portions that can address each of the incidents in the pattern. One of the best ways to address this type of interview is to use a cognitive interview, which encourages the victim or witness to provide a detailed account of each event.

The cognitive interview starts out with rapport building and then moves on to instructing the witness or victim on what is expected of them in the conversation. Generally, the interviewer will ask the individual to be as detailed as possible in their recollection of events reporting even the smallest details. They could also be told to step into their memory remembering things that they saw, heard, felt as they went through the experience. The interviewer will also let them know that they may be asked the same question more than one time. The witness or victim should understand that asking a question multiple times is not because the interviewer doesn’t believe them, but he simply wants to encourage them to go into more detail or clarify their previous statements.

The interviewer then opens the interview with an open-ended question that encourages the subject to give a narrative answer: “Tell me in as much detail as possible, what happened from beginning to end?” The interviewer should just listen to this untainted narrative from beginning to end without interruption. Once the interviewer has the subject’s untainted story, he can divide the story into sections to develop details, facts, and evidence that may support or disprove the account.

The interviewer now selects a portion of the story to begin further development, which is best done in a chronological order since this does not disrupt the memory but enhances recall. The interviewer asks the subject, for example, “Tell me in as much detail as possible what you saw, heard, and felt between meeting him in the hall and walking to the elevator?” The interviewer now carefully listens for additional information, facts, biases, or assumptions as the individual adds more detail to the story. As the interviewer listens to the retelling of this section, he may ask more open-ended questions to continually expand the person’s narrative. An open-ended question relating to some detail might sound like this: “Now you said he ‘seemed excited.’ Tell me more about that?” Notice that the interviewer did not add any information to the question but used a quote from the individual’s statement to ask for clarification and expansion.

The interviewer continues to explore each subsequent section or incident of the victim’s story in the same way saving any closed-ended questions until the very end to avoid contaminating the person’s story. A closed-end question is asking for a specific piece of information: “When your boss said, ‘I’m going to ruin your career,’ was Janet in the room?” The closed-ended questions supplies a specific answer, not the important narrative the open-ended question achieves.

Once the victim and witnesses have been interviewed, the investigator should examine each of the individual’s narratives against the evidence, context of the event, and statements for consistency. Research has shown that the Cognitive Interview helps the interviewer judge an individual’s truthfulness. The truthful individual’s story generally has a wealth of detail mixed with emotions. The story makes sense in its structure and has a logical portrayal of events. The deceptive story is much more likely to be bare-bones lacking in detail, illogical in nature, or told in a way that leads the interviewer away from pertinent events. At the end of the day, it will be the investigation that supports a particular individual or conclusion. There may be verifiable facts, supporting witnesses, or even in some situations recordings of the incident.

The Harasser

Usually the harasser will be the final person interviewed in the investigation. The interviewer has now had an opportunity to evaluate the victim’s and witnesses’ accounts and investigate and establish certain facts, and believes the investigation warrants an in-depth conversation with the alleged harasser.

There obviously may be some variations based on whether the harasser is aware of the complaint or specific company policy or political issues to taking certain courses of action, but regardless the conversation with the alleged harasser should be a detailed inquiry into the circumstances surrounding the events.

The Cognitive Interview is often an appropriate way to introduce the topics under investigation and obtain the alleged harasser’s explanations or view of the situation. Once the interviewer has a complete explanation of the situation from the alleged harasser, he can begin to use evidence or statements made from other parties that contradict the individual’s story. The interviewer obtains and carefully examines each of the subject’s responses to these contradictions locking down in detail each of his statements. The individual’s responses to the contradiction should be noted and placed within quotation marks in the interviewer’s notes and final report.

Depending on company policy and the general investigative practices of the organization the deceptive subject may be confronted to obtain an admission to the allegation. The transition to an introductory statement, which discusses who the interviewer is and what he does, the types of cases investigated, and how investigations are conducted, makes a smooth transition to offering a showing of understanding of how people make errors in judgment. Using third-person stories, the interviewer offers the subject an opportunity to save face and admit his indiscretion without being subjected to ridicule. This conversational approach allows the interviewer an opportunity to understand the subject’s decision-making and feelings relating to the event. The interviewer, after obtaining the admissions to the incident, may take a witnessed written or recorded statement to document the individual’s statements.

Unlike a traditional theft investigation where there may be video or solid documentation of the fraud, a harassment interview requires more detailed attention to victim and witness interviews to bring the case to a successful conclusion.

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