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The Remote Interview: When Do You Need the Human Touch?

Retailers engaged in rigorous competition for seasonal workers this past holiday season, and it pushed some to forgo traditional protocols. The Wall Street Journal profiled the experience of one 22-year-old applying for a job at a Portland, OR, Macy’s. Twelve hours after submitting his online application, he received an email from the retailer that they’d be calling him—and after a 25-minute remote interview (via phone), the young man had himself a new job.

It’s a sign of how tight the job market has become, according to WSJ reporter Chris Cutter (“Yes, You’re Hired. No, We Don’t Need to Meet You First,” Nov. 15, 2018). “Companies are now offering jobs to candidates sight unseen, after a single phone interview, as they hustle to get people in the door,” he explained. “The practice has become most common in seasonal work, particularly retail.”

Retail LP departments are similarly driven to use remote phone or online interviews in its investigations. Conducting suspect interviews remotely is an attractive cost-sensitive solution that has become increasingly commonplace, according to a trainer who has taught thousands of retail security personnel on interview and interrogation techniques. He said it’s not unusual for retailers to conduct telephone interviews in more than half of the cases involving suspected dishonest employees.

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Similarly, a compliance director for an apparel company reports that some of their investigators do 85 percent of their interviews remotely and that it has saved the company millions by reducing travel and increasing investigators’ productivity.

Besides saving time and money on investigators’ travel, there are other advantages to the remote interview:

  • Investigators may be able to more easily refer to scripts and written questions, as well as look up information during the interview.
  • The most appropriate investigator can handle the case, rather than the individual on hand.
  • Other investigators can observe for training purposes without stressing the subject.

Still, as we noted in a previous LPM Insider report, some experts warn that distance interviews should not be viewed as the preferred means of interviewing subjects. Because remote interviews may miss suspect’s non-verbal cues, face-to-face meetings can be a better format for squeezing out the truth from dishonest employees and resolving integrity issues. As such, a remote interview is more appropriate for theft and loss investigations and should be used judiciously in threat or harassment investigations.

While acknowledging that remote investigations are sometimes unavoidable, employment law attorney, trainer, and author Gavin Appleby said companies should avoid them in harassment cases because they are inferior to those conducted in person.

In-person interviews, in addition to giving investigators the opportunity to spot the telltale signs of dishonesty among suspects and witnesses, are also helpful if a case lands the company in a courtroom, he said.

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By conducting an in-person investigation, a company demonstrates its commitment to its policy for preventing and addressing unlawful harassment or other threatening workplace behavior. A complaining employee would be hard pressed to argue that a company is not serious about compliance when it requires an investigator to drop everything and get on a plane to conduct interviews immediately upon receiving a complaint, according to Appleby.

Being able to draw clues from a subject’s body language is one consideration, and a remote interview can have other drawbacks. Subjects in their normal environment feel more comfortable, for example, and it can be harder to refer to physical evidence and more difficult to apply pressure to a subject.

So while retail companies may be keen to use telephone or online video interviews to shave costs, the corporate security department needs a protocol to identify when they are the preferred means for investigative interviews.

Clearly, the value of the investigation versus the cost of travel will be a significant factor in determining whether an investigation is worth an in-person trip, but there are other issues to consider when establishing a preference in the manner of investigation.

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1. The message you want to send to suspects. Conventional wisdom is that in-person interviews are more likely to elicit confessions from suspects, but it doesn’t always apply. In some cases, confessions are more likely when the suspect is less fearful of the repercussions for his or her actions. Remote interviews can give a suspect the sense that punishment is more distant and less threatening. So remote interviews may be preferable when investigators want to give a suspect the impression that the case isn’t all that important to the company.

2. The ability of on-site management to support the effort. Collaboration between corporate LP and store management is critical for a remote interview to work. If an investigator is on site, he or she can put in place all the necessary elements for an interview, but remote interviews by corporate investigators will rely on local personnel. They may be needed to set up the interview room, take notes, secure written admissions if a suspect confesses, distribute notes and documents, and play a role if the case goes to court. Corporate LP staff must provide plenty of direction and support to store staff in this effort, say experts. If local personnel have a single bad experience, it will be much tougher to secure their participation and run effective remote interviews in the future.

3. The skill of investigators. According to the LP director for one retailer, phone interviews are a particularly good fit for inexperienced investigators who are still getting their feet under them. Remote interviews allow them to better hide their nerves, follow scripts or notes, and take notes more freely.

4. The length or complexity of the case. In major investigations, or ones that demand significant records gathering, disposition of the case is not likely to improve with remote interviews. However, if a protocol for telephone interviews and interrogations is in place, they can help make short work of minor cases in which facts are well established, such as a case of employee theft with several witnesses. In these cases, in which the suspect is likely in a vulnerable and emotional state after being caught, an immediate phone interrogation is extremely effective, say experts.

One reason why security professionals may shy away from remote interviews is their lack of experience conducting them. However, most experts suggest that investigative tactics are not substantially different than from in-person interrogations.

Perhaps the most significant hurdle is that, in the case of telephone interviews, investigators will need to engage a suspect more frequently than they might normally desire during an in-person interview. This is necessary to confirm the subject is paying attention and engaged, but must be done while not simultaneously inviting a back-and-forth dialogue (unless that is called for). So telephone interviews require investigators to periodically inject short “do you follow me?” type questions as they proceed. Thus, investigators that conduct remote investigations should be well skilled in active-listening techniques.

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