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26 Tips From Experts on Conducting Witness Interviews

Conducting successful interviews in the course of an investigation is a matter of following best practices. Many interviews fail to achieve positive results from simple errors of judgment or lack of professionalism. It is critical to always project a professional image. For this blog, I consulted with two nationally recognized experts on investigations, particularly in the health care sector. Both have more than 35 years of professional experience as an investigator.

AL BASSETT, FORMER DEPUTY IG AND FBI EXECUTIVE

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Al Bassett stated he believes the outcome of a successful interview depends, in large part, on what occurs before questioning. He believes the process begins with how questioners dress and present themselves. He notes that an interview is a formal business meeting and the investigator should dress in a conservative suit and tie. He believes that dressing down in jeans and sports shirts does not project a professional image nor build rapport and understanding. Basset stated that “it is important to realize that the interviewees are not friends and therefore you should not act as if they are.” Bassett advises investigators to remember that “the demeanor of the interviewer is important to the outcome of the interview and if an interviewer appears competent and professional, it will encourage confidence in the interviewee.” Basset also stated that professionalism also reduces nervousness in innocent parties but increases nervousness in guilty ones. He advises investigators to have a polite yet firm manner at all times. Additionally, Basset offers the following tips concerning the lead up to questioning:

TIPS TO FOLLOW BEFORE QUESTIONING BEGINS

  • Identify yourself and any others participating in the interview
  • State the reason for the interview
  • Explain your authority to conduct the inquiry
  • Explain why they were selected, in particular, to be interviewed
  • Remind the interviewee of their duty to provide complete and accurate facts
  • Request their cooperation
  • Inform them that they will be protected against any retaliation
  • Clarify that the interview is voluntary and can be ended at any time
  • Explain that it is important they be open and candid
  • Note that their comments will be kept confidential to the degree possible
  • Request them to keep the interview confidential (“street runs both ways”)
  • Before questioning ask if they have any questions
  • Work to establish rapport and to relax the interviewee

JAMES COTTOS, FORMER ASSISTANT IG AND CHIEF INSPECTOR HHS OIG

James Cottos of Strategic Management

Jim Cottos advises investigators to remember that “the person conducting the interview, not the person being interviewed, asks the questions and seeks information.”  Cottos elaborates that “since the interviewer is not a dispenser of information, they should not reveal the status of the work; offer opinions; indicate what has been found so far; or what has been said by others.” Cottos reminds us that interviewees may offer many opinions or conjecture, but only the facts are needed.  He notes that people in an investigative interview often try to wander away from facts.  This is especially true if the interviewee is uncomfortable with the direction of the interview.  Therefore, Cottos advises investigators to always follow through on questions asked and not to be diverted by extraneous comments.  Investigators should ensure they have adequately addressed basic questions such as who, what, where, when, how, and why.  Furthermore, Cottos warns investigators to avoid using terms that might evoke negative connotations or disengage the person being interviewed.  He also makes clear that seeking the cooperation of the interviewee is essential while intimidation is counter-productive and possibly disastrous to the outcome of the interview.  Cottos underscores the point that the primary rule of interviewing is to always remember that its sole purpose is to establish the facts.

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TIPS IN CONDUCTING INTERVIEWS

  • Treat those interviewed with dignity, respect, and courtesy
  • Never intimidate or make threats
  • Keep control of the interview by asking, not answering questions
  • Avoid use of any investigative jargon
  • Offer no opinions relating to the investigation
  • Don’t ask for the interviewee’s opinion or conclusion on the case
  • Take notes throughout the interview
  • Keep the questions simple, direct, and avoid compound sentences
  • Restate important questions in different ways to ensure a correct answer
  • Ask if they know of others that might be able to add useful information
  • Before concluding the interview, recap what was said to ensure accuracy
  • At conclusion tell them you may be re-interviewed to clarify points
  • Request that they contact you if they think of anything not covered
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