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The Softer Side of Internal Investigation Interviews

Why a soft approach is often the best approach for getting the information you need

Posted by Joseph Agins on September 18th, 2012

Years ago, while managing an internal investigative team for a large corporation, I received a call from an HR representative we had partnered with for an investigation into compliance and ethics violations as well as HR concerns. She wanted to pass along kudos regarding the investigator.

The HR representative explained that they had agreed that she would interview the suspect employee first to address the HR-related concerns and that the investigator would then interview the suspect about the compliance and ethics violations. There was plenty of evidence against the employee but, by her own admission, the HR representative had aggressively “grilled” the employee for nearly 45 minutes to no avail. The employee was uncooperative and would admit to nothing.

She finally gave up and turned it over to the investigator, who calmly and respectfully discussed his case as well as all of the evidence with the employee. Within five minutes the employee had not only admitted to the compliance violations, but to all of the HR violations as well. Needless to say, the HR representative was impressed and wanted to know more.

Soft Approach Can be the Right Approach

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I explained our “soft approach” philosophy, as well as how we believed this approach to be not only the “right thing to do” but also one that, in our experience, simply yielded better results. She admitted this approach was not one she had typically practiced before, but that she would most likely use it in the future since she had seen the results first-hand.

She was excited to learn this new method, but also embarrassed about her original failed interview tactics that now suddenly seemed archaic.

The Fear is Already There

There are certainly some individuals who will provide an admission when confronted with tactics of intimidation and fear, but do you really want to be “that” investigator? Whether they show it or not, the employee is already scared to be in the interview seat. There is no reason to try to scare or intimidate them further.

Ours are not investigations dealing with life and death, nor are we law enforcement officers. Sure, there are times when things get heated and where a more elevated response is warranted. However, in most cases a softer approach should be the standard.

Each case should be based upon the evidence, not on fear or intimidation. If the evidence is strong, the basis for your interview is already solid and you should treat people with dignity and respect. Most of the time, you will prevail when using this method. Even when you don’t get an admission, I’m sure you would rather this than compromise your own integrity, and that of your department or organization.

Soft Does Not Equal Easy

Please understand by that by “soft” I am not saying “weak,” nor am I saying to go easy on people. Interviews are inherently uncomfortable and internal investigations are serious matters and should be dealt with accordingly. What I am saying is to treat people with dignity and respect at all times and focus on the evidence at hand, having a conversation and listening.

It is easy to become frustrated and resort to a more aggressive approach and then be perceived as threatening or intimidating. However, this is typically counterproductive to your end goal, as well as inconsistent with most investigators’ values.

Do Unto Others

Put yourself in the subject’s shoes and think about how you would like to be treated if you were being interviewed. Also, if you were guilty of a fraud or some sort of violation, think about how you would imagine your confession, and what type of behavior or evidence would compel you to make such a difficult admission? I strongly doubt that many reading this would say that it would take fear and intimidation to get them to confess. Rather, a serious and respectful conversation outlining all of the evidence would probably do the trick. I know it would for me.

Build or Destroy Trust?

As investigators, we are always working to gain the trust of employees and management throughout the organization. Consistently using a softer and more respectful approach will go a long way in helping to build such trust. Conversely, if you are seen as disrespectful, demeaning or bullying, nothing can undermine your credibility more nor destroy trust quicker.

It is easy to raise your voice and bang your fist on the table and scare someone who is already intimidated and in a compromising position. However, while this approach makes for great theater, it simply does not provide the results that a softer and more measured approach does. I am sure that many of you out there already use this type of approach, and for those that do I am also sure you can vouch for the results. For those of you who don’t, I would offer this as something for you to experiment with and I am confident you will notice positive results.

Joseph Agins
Joseph Agins

CFE, CCEP, Fraud, Ethics & Compliance Expert

Joseph Agins is an Adjunct Professor - white collar crime - at Sam Houston State University (SHSU). He has more than 25 years of experience working and developing programs and best-practices in the fraud, ethics & compliance space. For the past 15 years he has placed specific focus on post secondary education compliance, previously working as Director of Ethics & Compliance for Apollo Education Group, one the world's largest private education providers and, most recently, as the former Institutional Compliance Officer for SHSU.

He is a Regent Emeritus for the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners (ACFE), serving on their Board for 2014 and 2015.

In 2011 Joseph co-founded the Arizona Ethics & Compliance Council (AECC), a successful member organization dedicated to promoting ethical business practices and serving as a forum for Arizona's Ethics and Compliance professionals.

Joe is regularly invited to speak on the topics of fraud, investigations, compliance and ethics at conferences held by organizations such as the ACFE, the SCCE, the IIEC and many others.

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