Guidelines for Conducting Investigative Interviews

Conducting interviews with employees is often part of a job role. These are some guidelines for conducting good interviews.

Employee relations specialists, labor relations specialists and supervisors often conduct interviews with employees as a part of their jobs. These interviews may deal with potential discipline issues or other employee problems.

The following is a set of guidelines for conducting interviews. These can be thought of as a checklist for conducting a good interview.

1. Greet person in an appropriate manner. 

The introduction is an important first step in developing a relationship with the person being interviewed. Showing disdain to the person to be interviewed on meeting can yield a defensive witness. Showing respect may lead to greater cooperation. 

2. Define or state the purpose of the interview. 

The more the person who is being interviewed knows about why he or she is being questioned the more responsive he or she can be to the questions asked. In addition, this can put to rest the fears of a majority of witnesses. 

3. Set forth the ground rules for the investigation.

As well as stating the purposes of the interview, explain to the witness how the investigation will be conducted. The ground rules are especially important when the employee has a representative. It should be made clear to both the employee and the representative what the ground rules are with respect to the role of the representative during the investigation.

4. Maintain control; do not let interviewee interview you. 

Keeping control of the interview is very important. Some employees being interviewed will try to take over the interview by asking the investigator questions. Other times, if the employee has a union representative, he or she will also try to take over the interview and interfere with the asking of questions.

The union representative does not have the right to interfere in the conduct of the investigation. If the representative interferes in the investigation, the employee may be given the choice of proceeding without a representative or the investigation will be conducted without the employee’s input.

In an administrative investigation, the employee must answer the questions. There is no right to refuse based on self-incrimination in an administrative investigation as there is in a criminal investigation. 

5. Try to evaluate each piece of information on its own merits.

Different types of information have different values in an investigation. Hearsay evidence has less value than evidence heard directly by a witness. Documentary evidence may be more credible than witness testimony. Each piece of evidence should be evaluated on its own merits to determine the weight it should be given in an investigation. 

6. Maintain strict impartiality and keep an open mind.

Being impartial gives the investigator a clearer picture of what has happened and provides a better viewpoint to make a judgment on the facts. A prejudiced investigation can lead to mistakes that will show up at a hearing when the third party has an opportunity to review the facts. If an investigator starts an investigation with a predetermined outcome in mind, he or she may find that outcome; however, the investigation may not withstand scrutiny on review.

7. Take your time; do not hurry.

A good investigator is not just taking statements from witnesses; he or she is also thinking about the investigation. Investigators must allow themselves time to think about the evidence they need as well as the evidence they have already collected and how it affects the issues being investigated. Spend time thinking about what the evidence means. 

8. Be a good listener.

An investigation is not just about asking the right questions but also about listening to the answers. Answers to questions tell the investigator what needs to be followed up with more questions and where no more information is needed.

Listening also requires watching the witness respond to questions. Body language often tells more about an answer than the words used by the witness. 

9. Accept the interviewee’s feelings.

The job of the investigator is to obtain the best evidence available. It is not to change the minds of the people being interviewed.

The investigator may not agree with what a witness says. Through questioning, the investigator can challenge the veracity of what a witness has put forth as the facts. However, the investigator must respect the feelings of a witness, even if the investigator does not agree with the facts as presented by the witness. Facts can be attacked, but attacking the feelings is a personal attack on the person.

10. Ensure you understand what the speaker is trying to say.

An investigator should not just write down what the employee has told him or her. The role of the investigator is not that of a stenographer. The role is to understand what the witness is saying and not just transcribe the words. 

11. Use appropriate questioning techniques.

Use the right questioning technique for the witness being interviewed. For example, starting by cross-examining a witness usually is not the right technique to begin an interview. It immediately puts the witnesses on the defensive. However, using it later in an interview may be appropriate. 

12. Do not try to solve the problem during the interview.

As noted above, unless the investigator is given authority to engage in settlement efforts, the investigator’s role is not to resolve the issues being investigated. Trying to solve the problem may lead to an inadequate investigation because more time is spent trying to resolve the issues than is spent gathering evidence. In addition, the evidence can become confused by settlement efforts because it may be difficult to tell what was actually factual and what were purely assertions during the settlement. 

13. Review your information and notes and make sure you and the interviewee agree on what was said. 

A review of your notes with the interviewee will help to assure you have clearly understood the information provided. Your notes should accurately reflect the information provided by the interviewee. The best way to assure this is to go over the information, as you understand it, with the interviewee. 

14. Make no promises.

It is especially important that you make no promises with respect to the outcome of your investigation. The subject of an investigation may ask what will happen to him or her and what the investigator thinks of the evidence. In most cases, the investigator is not the decision maker, and therefore, any promises may be premature and inaccurate. 

15. Extend your appreciation.

Always thank the person being interviewed for their time and candor during the interview. It is important to end the interview in a gracious and upbeat manner. Thanking the person being interviewed is a good way to end on a high note.

16. Close the interview.

Bring the interview to a close with a definite ending point. However, tell all witnesses that you may need further information and may have to talk to them again as the investigation progresses.

About the Author

Joe Swerdzewski, former General Counsel of the FLRA & owner of JSA LLC is the author of The Essential Guide to Federal Labor Relations, A Guide to Successful Federal Sector Collective Bargaining, etc. For more info on JSA’s services, email or subscribe to JSA’s newsletter.