Not asking the right questions to the right interviewees can be costly to your company.
Recently, a towing company was required to pay a terminated employee nearly $20,000 as part of a wrongful dismissal suit. Witnesses they interviewed during their workplace investigation were key to their termination decision, but the accounts were inconsistent across multiple interviews.
“Where this particular [employer] fell short was in the credibility of the witnesses that were put forward, particularly the witness to the conduct, who was inconsistent,” explains employment lawyer Ted Flett. “I think that proved to be highly problematic, as he was central for allegedly having observed the theft having taken place.”
To make sure you get the most helpful details during your interviews, start by asking the sample HR investigation questions below. Use them as a basis for starting the conversation and covering the basics of what happened, but don’t limit yourself. It’s by asking the probing questions that arise from what’s revealed in the conversation that the whole truth is uncovered.
It’s important to take the reporter’s complaint seriously, no matter how frivolous or unlikely it may seem. Sometimes the most adored manager turns out to be a harasser, or a loyal employee is secretly stealing from the company.
Another reason to take complaints seriously is to assure the complainant and others that the company will follow up and provide a fair assessment of their concerns, no matter how small. This helps to establish a speak-up culture and increases the chances that people will come forward in the future.
You’ll also reduce your risk of lawsuits and fines by nipping issues in the bud and resolving problems before they have time to escalate.
No matter what type of incident you’re investigating, interview the complainant/reporter/victim first. By doing so, you’ll be able to gather more details about the complaint so you know what exactly you’re investigating.
The reporter can also provide the names of potential witnesses that can help with your investigation, according to SHRM.
In the reporter’s interview, your main aim is to uncover the who, what, where, when, why, and how of the incident. Ask them to provide as many details as possible.
However, don’t push too hard, especially if the reporter is the victim of harassment, discrimination, or another type of mistreatment. They might become overwhelmed or distraught recalling the events.
Read their body language and tone. If they become anxious or start to shut down, offer to take a break or continue another day. Be compassionate without adopting a bias toward the reporter. In addition, direct them to your company’s mental health resources, such as an EAP.
During your interview with the reporter, ask these HR investigation questions:
- What happened? Be as specific as possible.
- What was the date, time, and duration of the incident or behavior?
- How many times did this happen, that you’re aware of?
- Where did it happen?
- How did it happen?
- Did anyone else see it happen? Who? What did they say and/or do in response?
- Was there physical contact? Describe it. Demonstrate it.
- What did you do in response to the incident or behavior?
- What did you say in response to the incident or behavior?
- How did the subject of the allegation react to your response?
- Did you report the incident to your or another manager? Who? When? What they say and/or do?
- Did you tell any other employees about the incident or behavior? Who? What did they say and/or do?
- Do you know whether the subject of the allegation has been involved in any other incidents?
- Do you know why the incident or behavior occurred?
- Do you know anyone else who can shed light on this incident?
- Has this affected you and/or your work? If so, how?
- Do you have any physical evidence of the incident you can share (e.g. emails, notes, etc.)
- How would you like us to address/resolve this situation?
- Is there anything else you want to tell me about the issue?
After questioning the person who filed the complaint, the next step is to interview witnesses.
Witnesses can help to corroborate or refute the reporter’s account of what happened and shed light on some of the details that the reporter may not have been able or willing to furnish.
The most compelling witnesses are, of course, those who actually saw or heard the incident. But witnesses can also be those who heard about the incident from others who witnessed it, those to whom the reporter relayed the incident after the fact, or anyone else the reporter mentions might have extra information about the issue.
If the subject of the complaint was involved in other incidents, especially similar to the one you’re currently investigating, consider interviewing witnesses from those cases as well.
Some witnesses might be hesitant to cooperate. They may want to protect a friend or not want to implicate themselves if they were involved or complacent in the incident.
Assure them that they are safe and that their input is invaluable to your investigation. Emphasize your company’s “no retaliation” policy and promise to keep their account as confidential as possible.
These HR investigation questions can help you gather the most useful information from your witnesses:
- What did you witness? Provide as many details as you can.
- What was the date, time, and duration of the incident or behavior you witnessed?
- Where did it happen?
- Who was involved?
- What did each person do and say?
- Did anyone else see it happen? Who?
- What did you do after witnessing the incident or behavior?
- Did you say anything to the parties involved in response to what you witnessed?
- How did the complainant and the subject of the allegation react to your response?
- Did you report this to anyone in management? To whom? When? What they say and/or do?
- Did you tell any other employees about the incident? Who?
- Do you know why the incident occurred?
- Do you have physical evidence of the incident you can share?
- Do you know anyone else who can shed light on this incident?
- Is there anything else you want to tell me that I haven’t asked you?
Finally, interview the person accused of the incident or behavior. This is potentially the trickiest and most sensitive interview you’ll conduct.
You’ve heard the accounts of everyone else involved in the incident, and it’s difficult to avoid forming an opinion before getting to this crucial interview. But it’s important that you keep an open mind to avoid making assumptions based on what you’ve already heard.
Remember that the purpose of interviewing the subject of the accused employee is simply to find out the truth. You shouldn’t attempt to make any decisions or judgements at this time.
When you inform the subject what they’re being accused of, they could react in a number of troubling ways. They could shut down and refuse to cooperate. They might lash out, becoming verbally or physically violent.
Stay safe and avoid accusations of coercion or wrongful dismissal by having two investigators in the room, if possible. Recording the interview can also help prevent negative consequences. Check this list to see if your state requires the accused to agree to recording or if you can make the decision on your own.
Here’s what to ask the accused person:
- What happened? Provide as many details as possible.
If the subject denies that the incident occurred, ask:
- Is there any reason anyone would invent or lie about the incident?
- Where were you on the date and time the alleged incident occurred?
- Do you have any witnesses who can corroborate your whereabouts at the time of the incident?
If the subject doesn’t deny that the incident occurred, ask:
- When (date and time) and where did this happen?
- What were the circumstances leading up to the incident?
- Was anyone else was involved?
- What is your connection to the complainant?
- Are you aware of any other complaints by this person?
- Recount the dialogue that occurred as best as you can remember.
- What did the complainant do or say?
- Is there any evidence (e.g. emails, notes, messages) to support your account of what happened?
- Is there anyone else we should talk to who had knowledge of the incident or the circumstances surrounding it?
- Have you talked to anyone about the incident? Who? What did you tell them?
Can you tell if an interviewee is trying to deceive you?
Download this free eBook to learn signs and forms of deception and how to improve your deception detection skills.Get the eBook
As you try to uncover the truth during your investigation, you want to use the least effort to gather the largest quantity of useful details. No matter who you’re interviewing, you need to go into the meeting with the right attitude and approach.
Everyone has personal biases. It’s your job to recognize your own biases and take them into account. This takes a great deal of self-awareness and self-control, but an excellent investigator has both of these qualities.
Keep these dos and don’ts in mind when asking your HR investigation questions.
Do thank the employee. The interviewee took time out of their day to help with the investigation, and in some cases, they might be nervous to participate. Before questioning them, thank them for coming and offer them comfort items such as a glass of water or some coffee.
Don’t ask loaded questions. According to SHRM, “a loaded question is one that assumes a fact that has not yet been established.”
For example, say Shayna accuses Brad of calling her a racial slur. In Brad’s interview, don’t ask, “What slur did you call Shayna?” This assumes he actually said the slur. Instead, say, “Share what you discussed with Shayna during your one-on-one meeting.”
Do keep your body language objective. Nodding or frowning in response to an interviewee’s answer can make them think you’re “on their side” or passing judgement against them. Keep your facial expression neutral and sit straight and still as the employee answers.
Don’t lead the interviewees. Ask questions in a way that doesn’t take sides. For instance, rather than asking a witness, “You heard Kyle yell at Mary, right?”, try saying, “Tell me what occurred at your team meeting on March 12.”
Do keep questions simple. Long questions filled with jargon will just confuse your interviewees. Ask short questions that aim to gather one detail at a time, rather than multi-part questions. Based on the employee’s answer, you can then move on to follow-up questions to gather more information.
Don’t ask questions that assign judgement. Avoid asking interviewees if they witnessed/experienced/took part in behavior that was inappropriate or unusual. This gives them the power to decide if the behavior falls into those categories. Instead, ask objectively about the behavior.
Instead of asking, “Did Mike make an inappropriate comment toward Isha?” try, “What did you hear Mike say to Isha? Was it sexual in nature?”
Do build rapport. Employees are more likely to answer your HR investigation questions truthfully if they trust you. To build that trust, act friendly, start the interview with some neutral small talk, and use language that makes them comfortable (i.e. no jargon or buzzwords).
Building rapport can make or break your interview's success.
Download this free cheat sheet to learn more ways you can establish and maintain rapport with your interviewees.Get the Cheat Sheet
Sometimes that last few minutes can be the most productive phase of the interview.
Thank the interviewee for their time and for helping you to get to the truth. Pack up slowly and allow silence to hang in the air to give the person an opportunity to be forthcoming with more information.
Once they aren’t being questioned, interview subjects have been known to divulge revealing details that weren’t discussed during the interview. Investigators shouldn’t discount this important opportunity to hear what they have to add.
Whether or not your subject provides extra details at the end of the interview, it’s important to end the session on a positive note. Show your appreciation for their help and provide your contact information in case they think of something they would like to add. If they leave feeling positive about the experience and you, they are more likely to help you in the future.
When assessing the creditability of the subject, reporter, and witnesses, you’ll also need to keep your biases in check and follow best practices. Before asking the HR investigation questions above, ask some basic questions that are not connected with the incident being investigated.
They should be non-threatening questions that have objective answers you already know. This helps you to establish a baseline against which you can measure the person’s subsequent behavior, language, and manner.
Examples of baseline questions include:
- How long have you worked at the company?
- What is your position?
- How long have you been in this position?
Notice the interviewee’s speech patterns, gestures, and degree of eye contact when answering these non-threatening questions. This helps you to assess whether there are differences in their behavior when you ask questions related to the incident.
RELATED: Determining Credibility
After you’ve conducted your interviews, determine how likely it is that each employee was being truthful. To figure this out, consider:
- Does the employee have a reason to lie/omit information?
- Does their story match the other employees’ accounts?
- Did the employee exhibit signs of deception during their interview (e.g. sweating, shaky voice, tapping fingers)
- Does their story make sense?
- Is there evidence to corroborate their account?
If you suspect an employee’s account isn’t credible, you might need to schedule a second interview with them. See if they stick to their story and behave the same way. Offer new follow-up questions based on the other interviews to try to elicit new or more honest information from them.
Strong investigation interviews are key to preventing incidents in your organization.
If you can’t get to the bottom of an issue, you won’t be able to take preventive action. But if you see why and how an incident happened, you can make changes to your policies, procedures, and culture to keep the behavior from occurring again.
When planning your interviews, be mindful. Asking the right questions in the right tone to the right employees can help you close cases faster and figure out how to avoid similar issues in the future.
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