Random Lessons from the Room: Part Two

This is the second in a series of articles where we will discuss lessons that we have learned over the years while interviewing tens of thousands of individuals.

Profile of the Subject

While the word “profile” has some negative connotations, we use it as a generic term to organize our thoughts and make some broad generalizations about individuals whom we are planning to interview. Our goal is to determine in general terms how an individual might act during an interview or upon discovering an investigation of them is underway.

We can come to many accurate conclusions of a person by looking at their lifestyle, relationships, interests, or other choices they make in life. Where they choose to live or shop may speak volumes about their self-image and how they evaluate themselves and others. Clearly, examining relationships and how they interact with friends, acquaintances, or strangers can lead to assumptions about loyalty and commitment to others.

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One important question to always ask about an individual who might be interviewed or become a target in an investigation is how the person reacted if they had ever been questioned or disciplined before. The interviewer could also include a broader question relating to how the individual handles conflict. In general, people have developed a strategy that either works for them or that they return to when faced with conflict or unpleasant situations. If the interviewer can determine with some accuracy what this strategy is, it can then be planned for during the interview. This prediction can often prepare the interviewer for the most likely response a subject may make to an investigatory interview.

Anticipate Problems and Plan for Them

Once the subject has been profiled to determine their likely response to the interview or investigation, the investigator can then anticipate likely problems and prepare a plan for how to handle them. The investigator now goes through a series of what ifs and thinks about the resources and strategies that will be necessary to counter them.

For example, what if the subject decides to get up and walk out of the interview? First, the investigator should consider the evidence available indicating the subject’s guilt and whether it is sufficient to terminate the individual’s employment or perhaps bring criminal charges. Depending on the company’s policy, there may be a requirement that clear evidence of the individual’s guilt is available before an interview can take place. In other organizations, circumstantial evidence or even a location’s high shrinkage may be enough to initiate an investigative interview.

Depending on the organization’s policy, it is often useful to partner with a human resource representative or senior manager to determine what admissions from the subject are necessary to terminate the individual’s employment. Get a line in the sand on the decision and a commitment to an outcome. This upfront commitment can save much anguish for the decision maker. In addition, human resources can tell the investigator what will happen if the subject simply decides to end the interview and walk out. If the evidence is sufficient that action may result in termination, will HR suspend employment pending the conclusion of the investigation, or should the subject be returned to their work assignment? Clearly understanding the options before the interview allows the investigator to have a plan in place with clear outcomes that do not require improvised decisions or solutions on the spur of the moment.

Other possible subject actions to be considered are:

  • What if the subject wants to record the interview?
  • What if the subject wants to have a parent or lawyer present during the interview?
  • What if the subject wants to delay the interview to a later date or time?
  • What if the subject explains away the evidence available to the investigator?

The questions might seem endless, but the prepared investigator can often anticipate the most likely problem areas and develop a plan of action or a strategy that can be employed if needed.

Ask What the Fact Giver Wants to Know

Another stumbling block for an investigator is assuming he knows what the fact giver, human resources, or management wants to know about. Don’t assume. Ask.

While it might seem straightforward, what areas should be covered during an interview? It never hurts to ask the decision makers involved in the investigation. The information needs of the different parties can be varied and often far afield from one another. The director of human resources might be interested in the various trainings the individual received and whether they understood them. They might also want to establish that the person knew what they were doing was wrong and in violation of the organization’s policies. Someone from operations might be interested in the procedures currently in place and management adherence to them at the subject’s location. Legal, on the other hand, might have other information needs from the investigator since they will be responsible for defending the organization’s decisions or potentially litigating civil or criminal actions.

There’s nothing worse than the investigator returning from interviews only to discover they didn’t ask the right questions or explore areas of particular interest, which didn’t occur to them at the time. The failure to inquire was really a failure to plan the interviews and to account for the needs and interests of the other parties involved.

Know What Must Be Proved

The investigator must have a clear idea of what must be proven to establish a case to terminate employment or prosecute. In a criminal case, this relates to the elements of the crime set out by statute, while a policy violation may not be as detailed. For example, in a theft case the investigator must prove the ownership of the property. This can be done using company documents such as a purchase order, which establishes the organization’s ownership of the asset. If the ownership of the merchandise is in question, then the criminal charge might be the theft of lost or mislaid property. Second, the investigator must prove the individual had the intent to permanently deprive the organization of its asset. This intent might be established by video, documents, witnesses, interviews, or some combination of these and other investigative findings.

An organization’s policies are generally not set by statute but rather the company’s employee handbook. The handbook covers a variety of areas relating to employment, benefits, safety, and expectations relating to employee behavior. Typically, violation of a company policy can result in anything from a verbal reprimand up to and including termination of an associate’s employment. The ultimate penalty decision will be made based on the investigative findings and the employee’s explanations regarding the facts established in the investigation.

One of the more common violations in a retail setting is related to the discount policy. Many organizations will offer employees an opportunity to purchase company product at a discount, which may extend to certain family members or others as set by the policy.

If an investigator revealed the investigative findings to an employee establishing the individual’s violation of the discount policy, then the associate might be able to just say, “I didn’t know the policy.” HR might view this as a training issue rather than an act of dishonesty by the associate. The issue then becomes a failure by the investigator to establish the employee’s intent to purposefully violate the policy. If the investigator had the associate tell his understanding of the policy, HR would now know whether the act was a training issue or an attempt to defraud the company.

In other situations, a violation of policy might be tempered by the general practices of the facility. While an associate might be acting outside of policy, there may be legitimate reasons why he or she is doing so. On occasion, we have conducted investigations that exonerated employees’ rule violations. In one instance, the employees had been directed by the general manager to ignore safety rules to speed production and shipping at the facility. The investigative interviews corroborated the general manager’s directives and established his intent to violate policy while mitigating the employees’ violation of policy. This resulted in retraining the associates at the facility in current safety protocols and termination of the general manager for his blatant disregard for his employees’ safety.

It is critical for the investigator to know what must be proved in any investigation so that a clear decision can be made on the facts of the case. At the same time, knowing the information needs of the various parties involved in the decision-making process can make the eventual finding easier and more satisfying for all involved. Finally, having the evidence of the individual’s intent and guilt limits the likelihood of future litigation or complaints of mistreatment by the subject.

We will continue our lessons from the room in our next column. If you have any lessons you would like to share, send us a note, and we will try to include them in our future articles.

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