Mirror, Mirror on the Wall, Who’s the Best Interviewer of Them All?

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If somebody were to ask you about your last “successful” interview—how would you describe it? What defined it as “successful” for you? Did you get a substantial confession? Maybe you overcame denials and resistance or uncovered previously unknown information?

In your recap of this “successful” interview’s highlight reel, are you being critical of your compliance with best practices, or are you focused on the perceived success of the process? Did you think about an interview where you could exonerate someone from suspicion—or did that not immediately come to mind? One of the biggest opportunities for improvement we see with interviewers is their ability (and willingness) to evaluate their performance properly.

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The concept of “evaluation” is a foundational element of the PEACE framework of investigative interviewing (making up the last “E” of the acronym) and should be part of all interview processes. In any investigative interview, including conversations with victims, witnesses, or even those suspected of wrongdoing—interviewers and leadership should dedicate resources to critiquing the process. Of course, part of the evaluation is to assess the credibility of the information obtained from the interviewee, weigh it against available evidence, and determine the next steps of the investigation. However, the commonly missed portion of the evaluation phase is looking in the mirror to assess our compliance with best practices and our effectiveness.

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What Are We Looking For?

To help initiate the evaluation process, we first must identify what we are actually reviewing. There are a variety of things to be critical of during the interview process, many of which depend on the type of interview and the organizational policy around it. For starters, we can explore some foundational concepts to create a consistent and baseline evaluation process.

Question Structure

This may seem simple, but it is often one of the most frequent errors observed during interviews—asking the wrong questions. Investigators tend to rely on closed-ended questions, often interrupting a person to further inquire about a certain point of their story. In an evaluation process, we should review the cadence and structure of questioning and the ability of the interviewer to reflect on the person’s response. One way to review this process is to map out the use and frequency of open-ended, expansion, echo, and closed-ended questions.

Managing Resistance

It is one of the most highlighted parts of an interviewer’s story—how they overcame denials and resistance from the interviewee. However, this is also where we are most likely to see coercive tactics applied in an interview. Reliance on threats, promises, or other suggestive remarks to overcome resistance is a primary example where the result of the tactic may superficially feel “successful” but only if we fail to evaluate the process of how we arrived there.

Our Behavior

Interviewers are human, which means we experience emotions and frustrations during these sensitive conversations. In the evaluation process, we should examine our own behaviors—both physical and verbal—to understand what perception we are giving the interviewee. Eye rolls, smirks, and dramatic gesturing are often a result of an interviewer’s frustration, which is then directly transmitted to the interviewee. Sharpness of tone, sarcastic remarks, and increased volume may also create an escalated environment.

Adaptability

An interview is an evolving process. Conversations can grow organically and often go in directions previously unknown to the investigator. An interviewer who is inflexible in their approach is likely to find themselves guilty of tunnel vision and confirmation bias. In the evaluation stage, we should identify areas in which an interview changed course and assess the appropriate response from the investigator. This change in direction is likely to occur when unknown information is introduced into the conversation, or when an interviewee becomes hostile or uncooperative. It could also occur if it is determined that the interviewee has experienced trauma and may need additional considerations for the conversation to take place.

Scope of Information

This area drives us back to the common fallacy of investigators measuring their success based on the “amount” of a confession. Instead, the scope of information obtained should be a measure of reliable or actionable information. As in most of these topics, interviewers should strategize areas of interest to inquire about during the interview—but be adaptable to expanding those topics. If an employee is suspected of stealing cash, the interviewer should want to explore more than just an “I did it.” Obtaining information about the method of theft, the location of the stolen money, others involved, as well as any other wrongdoings, may help substantiate an admission from a guilty party. However, obtaining information about their training and the process that led to their decision to steal may exonerate a person’s involvement or help create better operational processes. This same concept is crucial in investigations around organized retail crime, where the scope of information is often much greater than initially observed.

Compliance with Best Practices

Although these are just a few of the areas to evaluate an interviewer’s performance, all of them can be drilled down to compliance with organizational standards and industry best practices. With a focus on best practices, elements of coercion and contamination would also fall into the review process. If an organization has interviewers trained in specific methods or procedures, the evaluation process should mirror those expectations. Training, without follow‑up, is merely a box-checking activity where liability increases and return on investment decreases quickly.

How Do We Do It?

Creating a consistent evaluation process is often reliant on an organization’s available resources. One of the first steps is to identify what is being evaluated and create a template for review, which sets expectations and accountability for all involved. Organizations should also determine who should conduct an evaluation. There are options for self-review, peer review, or supervisor review. Additionally, some organizations may partner with their legal, compliance, or human resources teams for assistance in the evaluation.

Logistically, the evaluation process will be dependent on the available resources and the venue for the interview itself. The ability to electronically record an interview will create the most efficient and transparent review process. If this is unavailable, evaluators may listen to a live conversation (in person or remotely). The evaluation process may also include a review of the interviewer’s planning process and their narrative report or other documentation resulting from the conversation. The evaluation method should be consistent throughout an organization including a system to maintain process documentation. These records may prove valuable for potential litigation, employee performance reviews, or other issues that may arise.

What Do We Do Next?

One of the most frustrating things about creating an evaluation or feedback process is the lack of follow-up or action after a review takes place. The feedback from an evaluation process must be translated into actionable items that allow the interviewer to correct any missteps in the evaluated interview while also providing guidance for future investigations. For example, suppose it was determined that the interviewer relied on closed-ended questions and missed exploring other areas of interest. In that case, scheduling a secondary interview or follow-up investigation may be appropriate. Additionally, if elements of coercive or non-compliant interview behavior were observed, it would be essential to review the reliability of information obtained during the interview, especially if it resulted in a wrongful termination.

Regardless of performance, both positive and negative feedback should be shared in a constructive way with the interviewer. Even in self‑evaluations, interviewers should share their own observations with mentors or peers as this will create more open dialogue and accountability for improving their skill set. If we are only measuring our “success” based on the confession‑based outcome of the interview, we are surely destined to create a consistently coercive process focused on confessions versus compliance with best practices. If our ultimate goal is to obtain reliable information in an ethical, legal, and evidence‑based way, then our review process must be built accordingly.

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