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Advice from the Experts Plus 27 Tips for Effective Witness Debriefs During Investigations

At some point during their internal compliance investigations, compliance officers may need to debrief witnesses.  Successful witness debriefs require a thoughtful strategy and approach.  Compliance experts offer the following advice and tips to achieve effective debriefs:

Remain Professional. Al Bassett, JD, was a Special Agent, Deputy Inspector General of Investigations, and executive for the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). He points out that projecting a professional image is critical when conducting a compliance investigation, beginning with professional attire. Witness interviews for internal investigations are formal business meetings, and those conducting them should dress accordingly. Dressing down in jeans or other casual clothing does not project a professional image. Interviewees are not friends and investigators should not dress and act as if they are friends. The interviewer’s demeanor is important to the interview’s outcome. If the interviewer appears quietly competent and professional, it will encourage confidence in the individual being interviewed. This also reduces nervousness in innocent parties and increases nervousness in guilty ones. The interviewer’s manner should always be polite, but firm. Cooperation is essential in a compliance investigation; intimidation is counter-productive and can be disastrous to the outcome. Under no circumstances should the interviewer show disrespect for the person being interviewed.

Establish Rapport. Emil Moschella, JD, a career investigator and former FBI executive, observed that “it is important to take time at the beginning of the interview to establish rapport with those being interviewed. Starting an interview with five or ten minutes of easy conversation has the advantage of reducing tension and increases communication and cooperation.” It also permits the investigator to observe the person and their behavioral patterns during this initial and more relaxed discourse. This often proves to be very valuable when assessing responses, especially when the questioning starts to address more serious issues. Be aware that any rapport can also be easily lost by the careless use of terms or phrases that may evoke negative connotations, or cause the person to become more defensive and less cooperative.

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Be Prepared. Tom Herrmann, JD, served over 20 years in the Office of Counsel to the Inspector General, and six years as an Appellate Judge for the Medicare Appeals Board. He suggests that the best way to conduct a productive interview is to make advance preparation that includes: (1) defining the objectives for the investigation; (2) making a plan to achieve those objectives; (3) identifying facts needed to properly understand and assess the issues; and (4) assessing what the individual being interviewed may offer in terms of facts. Prepare the key points to be covered for use as a guide, but not a checklist of questions that would turn the interview into something more like an interrogation. It is best to use open-ended questions and permit the person to relate what they know. Their story will often cover many of the points on your guide. At the end of the interview, review the guide to see if all the points were covered.

Maintain Control of the Interview. Carrie Kusserow, MA, CHC, CHPC, CCEP, has evaluated hundreds of hotline complaints and conducted numerous internal investigations over the last 15 years as a general manager of a national hotline service and as a compliance officer and consultant. She noted that a key principle to remember is that the interviewer asks the questions and seeks information, not the person being interviewed. The interviewer is not the dispenser of information and, as such, they should not reveal the status of the work, offer opinions, indicate findings, or disclose what others have said. Losing sight of this principle often leads to losing control of the interview.  This is one of the major causes of bad investigative outcomes.

Remain Focused on Facts. Suzanne Castaldo, JD, has conducted numerous witness interviews, both in her capacity as an attorney and as a compliance officer. She notes that one should always remember that the interview’s purpose is to establish facts. As such, it is critical to remain focused on relevant facts at all times. It is common to have interviewees drift away from facts, especially if they are uncomfortable with the direction of the interview. Therefore, always follow through on questions asked and do not be diverted by other comments. Ensure that basic questions such as “who, what, where, when, how, and why” have been addressed.

27 Expert Tips for Conducting Successful Compliance Investigations

  1. Identify the interviewers to initiate the process;
  2. State the purpose of the investigation;
  3. Cite the authority for conducting the inquiry/investigation;
  4. Explain why the interviewee is being interviewed;
  5. Note the interviewee’s duty to provide complete and accurate facts;
  6. Work to establish rapport;
  7. Never intimidate the witness or make threats;
  8. Explain that you are seeking their cooperation;
  9. Ask if the interviewee has any questions before the interview begins;
  10. Treat interviewees with dignity, respect, and courtesy;
  11. Express that it is important for interviewees to be open and candid;
  12. Remain quietly professional throughout the process;
  13. Remind interviewees that they need not fear retaliation for any information they provide;
  14. Keep control of the interview by asking, not answering questions;
  15. Avoid use of any investigative jargon or slang;
  16. Express that the interviewee’s comments will be kept confidential to the degree possible;
  17. Request, in turn, for the interviewee to keep the interview confidential;
  18. Offer no opinions relating to the investigation;
  19. Do not ask the interviewee’s opinion or conclusion on the case;
  20. Take notes (discreetly as possible) throughout the interview;
  21. Keep questions simple and direct, avoiding compound sentences;
  22. Ask open-ended questions and allow the person to fully answer;
  23. Restate important questions in different ways to avoid misunderstandings;
  24. Inquire if the interviewee knows of others that might be able to add useful information;
  25. As the interview nears its end, read back salient points to ensure accuracy and completeness;
  26. Upon conclusion, tell the interviewee that they may be re-interviewed to clarify points; and
  27. Request that the interviewee contact you if they remember anything that was not covered during the interview.

Get Help With Your Compliance Investigation

Conducting a compliance investigation can be complicated, especially when having to debrief witnesses. Whether you need assistance with your internal investigation, are looking for an outsourced compliance officer, or have general questions regarding your compliance program, contact us online today or give our experts a call at (703) 683-9600.

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