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5 Steps to Defuse Hostility in an Investigation Interview

What to do when words get heated and tempers flare

Posted by Dawn Lomer on November 27th, 2012

When conducting a workplace investigation, it’s not uncommon for interview subjects to become angry. After all, employees sometimes feel they are under attack when they are being questioned in an internal investigation.

With common sense and patience, a good investigator can get through the hostility hurdle by following a few basic steps.
In order to keep information flowing it’s important for investigators to develop the interviewing skills to defuse hostility when it arises and get on with the task of gathering information. With common sense and patience, a good investigator can get through the hostility hurdle by following a few basic steps.

1. Listen patiently

Sometimes, just listening properly without interrupting is enough to neutralize the angry person’s negative energy. Once the subject has finished venting, repeat the main points of the argument back to him or her, so that he or she is clear that you have listened and understood. Try reasoning and concede on any points you agree with. Take the time to hear the subject out, without looking at your watch, getting fidgety or trying to move the conversation on.

“If it takes me 30 or 40 minutes for them to calm down and agree to talk with me, so what,” says George Cramer, CFE and owner of George Cramer Investigations. “If I was interviewing somebody regarding a very sizeable theft or a large and harmful leak of proprietary information, I might spend hours,” he adds.

2. Don’t be defensive

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The more you deny, the more wrong you sound. If someone attacks your line of questioning or criticizes your assumptions, don’t start explaining yourself right away. That puts you on the defensive and gives your attacker the opportunity to pick apart your reasoning.

Try using questions, such as: “How would you handle this?”, or “What would you propose we do?”. Turning the tables in this way forces your attacker to justify his or her beliefs, rather than you doing so with yours.

3. Don’t get angry

“It is easy to become frustrated and resort to a more aggressive approach and then be perceived as threatening or intimidating,” says Joseph Agins, CFE, Director of Ethics & Compliance Investigations at Apollo Group. “However,” he warns, “this is typically counterproductive to your end goal, as well as inconsistent with most investigators’ values.”

The longer you’re able to stay calm in the face of an angry interview subject, the more in-control you will appear in comparison to their irrational state. Reacting in anger will only destroy your credibility.

4. Sidestep loaded questions

An agitated interviewee might ask a question containing underlying accusations or assumptions, such as, “What is the company doing about this prehistoric HR policy?” Many interviewers fall into the trap of responding to the question as it is asked. The best way to proceed is not to answer the question, but to challenge the assumption behind the question.

Another alternative is to ask questions back: “Can you explain what you mean by that question?” This will expose what they are really saying, force them to be specific and give you time to consider how you want to answer. Another option is to use a transition, such as: “I think the real issue you are objecting to is…”

5. Know when to quit

There may be times when an angry interview subject just won’t or can’t calm down. There can be many reasons for this, and some of them are beyond the control of the investigator. There may be other things going on in the person’s life that are contributing to his or her irrational behavior. There’s no point wasting hours trying to reason with an irrational person, so sometimes it’s best to know when to call it quits. You may want to reschedule the interview for another time when the subject is less emotional or in a better position to control his or her anger.

Most of all, the safety of the interviewer is of paramount importance and if anger threatens to spill over into physical violence, the investigator should end the interview immediately and call security.


Dawn Lomer
Dawn Lomer

Manager of Communications

Dawn Lomer is the Manager of Communications at i-Sight Software and a Certified Fraud Examiner (CFE). She writes about topics related to workplace investigations, ethics and compliance, data security and e-discovery, and hosts i-Sight webinars.

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