Have you ever had that moment? You know, one of those times when as an investigator you get a case, do the work, put all the pieces together, and plan for the interview. The interview goes well, you get an admission, obtain a written statement and a signed promissory note, the case is reviewed, and the employee is terminated. The facts of the investigation were conclusive, and the necessary and appropriate decisions were made as a result. And while the situation itself is always difficult for all involved, you are left feeling pretty good—satisfied with the definitive outcome along with the effort and hard work that went into putting the case together.
That was my Friday many years ago. Unfortunately, when Monday came around, I was asked to see human resources (HR) and my mind was racing and trying to figure out why. As I entered the HR office, I was greeted warmly but met with some tragic news. I was told the employee I interviewed on Friday had committed suicide on Saturday. I was reassured I did nothing wrong, obviously this employee had a lot of problems beyond what happened Friday, and I should not worry about it—the meeting was just an FYI to make me aware of what had happened over the weekend.
I was shocked, to say the least. I left HR thinking about all the things the employee told me during our conversation—about his wife and kids, and how he was having some financial issues—but didn’t see any outward signs that he might hurt himself. At the time, I was sorry it ended the way it did, but honestly didn’t think that much more about it. I felt terrible, but no one else around me seemed bothered.
In that moment, it almost numbed me. I felt the lesson I learned was that these things happen and there was no one to blame. Was this a normal reaction? I just don’t know. At the time I was relatively new to interviewing. If I had to guess, I would say this was one of my first twenty interviews after completing Wicklander-Zulawski (WZ) training. I have never spoken to another individual in an interviewer’s role who has experienced this type of situation. In all my years, during all the conferences and classes I have attended, I have never asked anyone if they have experienced this, nor have I ever heard anyone talk about even the possibility of self-harm or suicide after an interview.
Fast forward to current day, and I am assigned a case where a highly disgruntled employee is making comments to other employees about how much he dislikes upper management, can’t stand when they visit, has stalked their social media posts to see what kind of lives they are living, and would take an opportunity to visit their homes if the opportunity presented itself.
There was concern this employee might hurt others. He had a criminal history that included violence (too far back to be considered in the hiring process). After interviewing his peers and managers, I learned they were concerned he may have mental health issues and were anxious about what may happen next.
Upon completing my initial investigation, the decision was made to speak with the employee. In the best interests of all involved, precautions were taken to ensure the safety of our employees. Three members of the corporate security team arrived at the store to provide additional support. A guard service was arranged, and local police were advised of the employee’s history and our concerns.
Sitting with this employee and my witness in a very small office, I quickly surmised, based on his body language—rubbing his arms, both feet turned toward the door, fingers fidgeting, and hand wringing—that he was very uncomfortable, so I did my best to ease the tension and build rapport.
From the beginning, he told me I was “just like the others”—showing up with no warning and expecting him to smile, be friendly, and pretend he’s glad I was there. I told him I was sorry, but I couldn’t let anyone know I was coming because it often starts rumors and gossip, and I knew he wouldn’t want that. He agreed, and we continued.
During our conversation, the employee admitted verbally and in writing to many things, including stalking other employees. He shared that he was disgruntled over how much vacation time other employees took and wanted to know what they did with their time off. He claimed he did his own social media investigations when employees called saying they had COVID-19 to determine whether they were truly sick or just abusing the sick pay policy.
But this time, I was able to hear much more. I was able to hear something beyond his words, and more about the message he was trying to share. By listening in a different way, I heard:
“I am anxious.”
“I need to burn off this energy.”
“Am I going to lose my job?”
“I need this job to support myself.”
This time was different, and I heard his attempts to reach out. I empathized with him and continued to remind him that this was a confidential conversation and there was help for him if he chose to accept it. I responded with, “We have an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) that can help you with what you are feeling.” He declined, but I gave him the information in case he changed his mind. I told him I knew this was a difficult conversation and appreciated his honesty.
The employee left the interview without incident. All information—my investigation and the results of the interview—was turned over to company leadership for appropriate corrective action.
Reflecting on the Conversation
The ride home from that interview was difficult for me because it took me back almost twenty years to that Monday morning with HR. My thoughts reached beyond the sadness and repressed guilt I felt, making me question what I missed back then. What could I have possibly done differently? While searching for the right response, I realized I honestly couldn’t answer the question.
Back then, we didn’t talk about mental health—especially at work. In fact, depending on where you worked, you were encouraged to leave your personal problems at home. When you came to work, you did your job. Issues at home and the stress of everyday life were to be dealt with when the workday was done.
Then I started thinking about my initial training as an interviewer. As I looked back, I realized I was not trained to recognize “red flags” regarding this type of internal conflict in the person I was talking to during the interview or the actions that person may or may not take. But this time was different. This time, not only did I hear it—I recognized the red flags—but I also addressed it.
I wish I could point to exactly what made me think this interview was different and that the subject may hurt himself. Maybe it was just instinctual. Maybe it was my experience as a parent and learning to better read nonverbal messages. Maybe it is because I have been exposed to more training, whether it relates to active shooters and how many take their own lives, or other related experiences. Likely, it is a combination of many things.
What I can tell you is that every interview I have done since that one, I have intentionally looked and listened for red flags that would indicate a person may harm themselves. I have done subsequent interviews where I have offered EAP to the employee during the conversation based on what I heard and again at the end of the discussion. I feel it is important to share the message that help is available if they want it.
When a person makes certain comments—”I cannot lose this job.” Or, “I can’t live without this job.” Or, “My husband is going to kill me.” Or, “I cannot go to jail.”—while crying, shaking, or stuttering, we must consider what we are seeing and hearing. Are they crying and reacting because they were caught, or are they, in that moment, trying to reconcile how they are going to get through today and maybe tomorrow? The answers can literally change lives.
I have been so very fortunate to have mentors who have guided me through my LP career, but there is always that one—the one who is your biggest supporter, the one who introduces you to a whole new passion within your career path. In my case, he knows who he is. I remind him every so often how much I appreciate him, along with how old he is getting.
This mentor also happened to be the one who introduced me to WZ interviewing and interrogation training, which changed everything. It helped me put greater focus on why we were saying what we said, how we were saying it, and when we said it. For me, it all made sense. In 2016, I earned my CFI and to this day I immerse myself in continued education, webinars, articles, and book recommendations.
When all these emotions and questions came flooding back following this recent interview, the first person I reached out to was Wayne Hoover, CFI with WZ. While he did not have all the answers, he took the time to listen, walked me through what I heard, how I was feeling, and what changes I wanted to see in interview training, and how I thought it would benefit newer interviewers.
I feel today, and have for a while now, that we as a society talk about mental health in a more open and healthy way. Our employers talk about it, celebrities share openly, and social media has embraced a culture of sharing without shame. Many companies have programs available, and the month of May is dedicated to mental health awareness.
Still, it feels like we have more questions than answers. How do we prepare the next generation of interviewers to become more aware of what they see and hear during an interview? Are they prepared to address it if they have concerns? Are they aware of the resources available to the employee and how to share that information?
I believe that if we see or hear anything that makes us, as interviewers, feel someone may hurt themselves, we should give that individual appropriate information about the resources offered through the organization.
Interviewers should also know it’s okay to ask for help following a tough conversation. We spend so many interviews listening to employee problems and how that’s impacted their actions and state of mind, it can be difficult on us. If in some way we, as interviewers, feel we need additional support, we should be willing to seek it out.
I will continue to educate myself on these issues and recommend others do the same. Always keep in mind—there is no shame in asking for help, letting someone in, or having a conversation with a professional when you feel you need to.
Be Prepared and Keep an Open Mind
“Preparation is a critical aspect of every interview,” according to Hoover, who is senior partner at Wicklander-Zulawski & Associates and advisory board chair with the International Association of Interviewers. “You can do everything right, and things can still happen. We do our best to run a game plan in our
heads—if this, then what—but we also need to consider the possibility of emotional or despondent individuals and how they may react. After the interview is complete, we should spend some time thinking about its impact on us. If you notice something, speak up. If you feel like you need support yourself, ask for it. Know your company’s options and find a partner. Do you have an EAP, for example? Keep your mind open and always look for the best possible answers.”
Deanna Lawton, CFI is a senior investigator with the Verizon Wireless Corporate Security, Domestic Investigations Team. Lawton earned her CFI in 2016 and has over 25 years’ experience in retail loss prevention and security. She is a wife, mom of three, grandma to four granddaughters, and has two adopted pups. She loves trips to the park and zoo and enjoys woodworking as a hobby. Lawton can be reached at email@example.com