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  • Writer's pictureStephen Berriman

Workplace Investigation Series Part 5: Oral evidence

Welcome to part 5 of our workplace investigation series. Here we take a look at oral evidence to be gathered from interviews.

Taking oral evidence: interviewing

One of the aims of an investigator obtaining oral evidence is to minimise the possibility of people subsequently denying, changing or contradicting the information they have given.  Investigators should therefore:

  • ensure they are properly prepared for the interview;

  • as with every other facet of the investigation, be (and be seen to be) impartial;

  • at the start of every interview, clearly inform the interviewee of the reason for the interview (although it is not necessary to mention all the factors relevant to the subject under discussion at this stage); and

  • avoid making any statements that cause a witness to believe that they will obtain any privilege, concession or immunity from official action.

Within these bounds, an investigator has a fair degree of flexibility in the conduct of an interview.

Developing the questions

Before the interview, prepare the questions to be asked to cover all the ground that needs to be covered.  As part of planning, anticipate possible responses and decide on further questions to test these responses.  It may be necessary to deviate from the prepared questions to ask follow-up questions and to follow tangents raised by a person during the course of the interview.  It may also be necessary to ask supplementary questions to test the credibility and reliability of answers.

Different people will respond in different ways to particular forms and styles of questioning. The degree of co-operation will vary.  Some people may feel confident giving information, while others may feel intimidated and require support.  Investigators should adjust their approach to cope with this.

When developing questions, bear in mind that the object is to gather information to resolve the facts in issue that were identified in the investigation plan.

Use open-ended questions beginning with ‘Who?’, ‘What?’, ‘When?’, ‘Where?’, ‘How?’ and ‘Why?’. This will allow the interviewee full range in answering and avoid leading the interviewee in any particular direction; e.g., “What can you tell me about these emails?” or “What happened then?”.

There is an order in which questions should generally be put to an interviewee.  Consider beginning the interview with some general questions about the person’s recollection of events relevant to the matter under investigation.  It may also be helpful to ask questions in their chronological order.

Closed questions, to which the answers are ‘yes’ and ‘no’, should be asked only after the interviewee has told their story.  They are useful to confirm matters once information has been obtained. Investigators should aim not to ask closed questions during the earlier part of the interview unless they are having difficulty extracting information.

Each question should seek to clearly address only one point. As the principal function of an investigator is to get at the truth of a matter, they must sometimes ask difficult questions.  It may be useful in some circumstances to preface the question with an explanation such as: “I’m sorry if the question I am going to ask is upsetting to you, but I have to ask it in order to investigate this matter properly”.

Questions about documents

When questioning a person about a document, it is advisable to ensure that it is clearly identified by that person so that there can be no dispute later about which document was being discussed. It will not be sufficient to merely show the person the document in question; investigators should also describe the document in a way that distinguishes it, e.g., “an email from a to b at 3.00 pm on such and such a date”.

The person should be required to acknowledge or express ownership of the document, e.g., by identifying it as a document that they have previously written, received or seen, and should sign and date any document referred to in the interview. It may be helpful to give the document an identification number.

Structure of the interview

There is no one correct formula for conducting an interview, but the interview will generally flow better and be more structured if it follows a logical path.  A useful and commonly used format is the following:

  1. The introduction

  2. A ‘what happened’ component

  3. Specific questions

  4. Closing the interview.

Part 6 of this investigation series will deal more fully with the actual interview process.

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