INSIGHT: Conducting Effective Workplace Investigations Without the Workplace

Aug. 13, 2020, 8:01 AM

Conducting workplace investigation interviews has always been more difficult than it looks. They may appear to involve simply listening to someone “tell their story,” but they require many more skills.

When the interview is conducted in person, the investigator has more tools (eye contact, body language, physical proximity) to use to create rapport while maintaining control. However, many workers today work remotely in the midst of Covid-19, making in-person interviews impractical and even problematic with respect to employee health and safety.

Conducting an effective investigation interview through a computer screen can be challenging. But with a little preparation and a flexible attitude, an investigator can conduct effective and successful remote interviews by accomplishing several things at once:

  • Express empathy while maintaining a neutral demeanor;
  • Make the witness comfortable enough to provide all relevant information; and
  • Maintain control of the interview to ensure that key topics are covered thoroughly

Online Platform Tips

Many of us are now accustomed to using applications such as Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Webex, GoToMeeting and Google Hangouts. Because some employers prefer the use of certain virtual platforms, an investigator may have to become familiar with three or four of them.

These platforms share many similarities, but they have some key differences, which you don’t want to learn about during the interview.

  • Pay attention to your background. Make sure that it looks professional. Consider installing a virtual background. Some have found that some virtual backgrounds look “fake” and can glitch, and prefer to purchase a physical background screen.
  • Consider using the password and waiting room features of the virtual platform, to ensure that only the witness can log into the interview room.
  • If you plan to show and discuss documents with the witness, practice using the document sharing feature. Have the document(s) already opened on your computer. Generally speaking, do not leave sensitive information opened on your desktop, because the witness may see this information when you enter “Screen Share” mode. Make sure that other windows on your computer (email, web browsing, file folders, etc.) are closed.
  • Because most employees engage in a virtual interview using their work computer, a potential advantage of remote interviews is that the witness can immediately access and share relevant emails and other documents during the interview. If you have security concerns about receiving electronic documents directly from a witness, you may wish to consider using an encrypted file sharing program.

The Interview

While interviewing a witness virtually may feel daunting at first, there are steps you can take ahead of time to make the witness (and you) more comfortable and ensure the interview occurs more smoothly.

Address Technology Issues and Concerns at the Onset

  • In your email invitation to the interviewee, point out the platform you will be using. Suggest that, if the witness has not used this platform before, they download any necessary support applications and practice logging on before the interview. Ask them to let you know as soon as possible if they experience any difficulties logging on or getting their audio or video to work. Busy employees do not always notice the platform until they open your invite, typically just minutes before the interview. An already nervous witness who has problems logging on will be more stressed during the interview.
  • Inform the witness that if there are multiple individuals in the household engaging in high-bandwidth online activities (video games, video conferencing, etc.), the witness’ connection can be impacted.
  • At the beginning, discuss whether the witness is alone or if others are in the room with the witness and whether the witness is otherwise free from distractions. If others are present and you must discuss confidential matters (which is almost always the case), ask whether the witness can use headphones. If you have serious concerns about whether you can proceed while maintaining the confidential nature of the investigation, consider rescheduling the interview until you can arrange a more suitable interview environment.

Take Time to Build Rapport

  • Engaging in small talk is very helpful in putting the witness at ease.
  • Do your best to maintain eye contact with the witness throughout the interview. Due to the positioning of your computer’s camera, this may not always be possible. Let the witness know that, even though it may not appear that you are looking at them, you are paying close attention.
  • Make sure you have closed your email and any other app that may send you notifications during the interview, so you will not be distracted.
  • Virtual interviews tend to be more taxing than in-person interviews, so let the witness know it is okay to take breaks as needed. Monitor the witness’ body language for signs of fatigue and take a break when necessary.
  • Never forget that you’re on camera! The remote nature of virtual interviews can make even the most formal meeting seem casual. However, during a virtual interview, the witness is likely watching your face more than they would during an in-person interview. Maintain an interested and neutral facial expression.

Due to Covid-19, remote investigations, once thought to be temporary, may be with us for the long haul. In addition to addressing health and safety concerns, some employers and employees find that remote interviews are more convenient and less time-consuming than in-person interviews, which often require the investigator and the employee to travel to the interview site.

Employers and employees are generally gracious and understand that remote communications are difficult, and they are willing to adapt if the investigator has prepared ahead and developed contingency plans for unexpected technology problems.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. or its owners.

Author Information

Vida Thomas is a partner at the Law Offices of Amy Oppenheimer. She has conducted more than 200 workplace investigations and frequently trains attorneys and human resources professionals, serves as an expert witness in state and federal employment lawsuits, and mediates litigation and non-litigation matters.

Alezah Trigueros is an attorney at the Law Offices of Amy Oppenheimer, where she has conducted more than 100 workplace and Title IX investigations and assessments of issues including discrimination, harassment/assault and bullying, as well as investigations of allegations against high-level executives, elected officials, and high-profile individuals in the entertainment industry.

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