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Conducting Successful Witness Interviews

Experts identify best interview practices

Al Bassett, JD, a former Special Agent and Executive in the FBI and Assistant Inspector General of Investigations, states: “When conducting an investigation, it is critical to always project a professional image, beginning with one’s attire. An interview is a formal business meeting and those conducting interviews should dress and act accordingly. Dressing down in jeans or other casual clothing in a business setting does not project a professional image. Those interviewed are not friends, and therefore investigators should not dress and act as if the interview was a social meeting.  The demeanor of the interviewer is important to the outcome of the interview. If the interviewer appears competent and professional, it will likely encourage respect from the individual being interviewed. It may also reduce anxiety in innocent parties, and increase anxiety in those who have something to hide. The interviewer should always be polite but firm.  Cooperation is essential; intimidation is counter-productive and possibly disastrous in outcome. Under no circumstances should the interviewer show disrespect for the person being interviewed.”

Emil Moschella, a career investigator and former FBI executive, observed that: “It is important to take time at the front end of the interview to establish rapport with those being interviewed. Beginning an interview with five or ten minutes of easy conversation has the advantage of reducing tension and allowing for better communication and cooperation. It also permits the investigator to observe the person and his or her behavioral patterns during this initial, more relaxed discourse. This often proves very valuable when questioning begins to address more serious issue areas. Any established rapport can be easily lost by careless use of terms or phrases that may evoke negative connotations, or cause the person to become more defensive and less cooperative.”

As Kashish Chopra, JD, points out: “The best way to have a productive interview is to do one’s homework in advance. This means (1) knowing the objectives of the investigation; (2) having an investigative plan to achieve those objectives; (3) identifying facts needed to properly understand and assess the issues; and (4) considering what the person being interviewed may offer in terms of facts. It is useful to create a guide containing key points to be covered. But just going down a list of questions is a bad practice, as it turns the interview into something more akin to an interrogation. Use open-ended questions and allow the person to speak. The person will often cover many of the points on your guide in his or her discourse. At the end of the interview, review the guide to see if all the points were covered.”

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Carrie Kusserow, with over 15 years of experience in handling hotline complaints and conducting internal investigations, states: “A key principle to remember is that the person conducting the interview asks the questions and seeks information, not the person being interviewed. The interviewer is not the dispenser of information and, as such, should not reveal the status of the work, offer opinions, or indicate what has been found so far, and what has been said by others. Losing sight of that principle often leads to losing control of the interview and is one of the major causes of bad outcomes in the process.”

Suzanne Castaldo, JD, who has interviewed both as an attorney and a Compliance Officer, states: “Always remember that the interview purpose is to establish facts. As such, it is critical that the investigator remain at all times focused on facts. It is common to have those being interviewed to drift off of 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 basic questions such as who, what, where, when, how, and why have been addressed.”

27 Tips from the Experts

  1. At the outset, identify yourself and any others participating in the interview.
  2. Explain purpose of the investigation.
  3. Explain your authority to conduct inquiry.
  4. Explain why the individual is being interviewed.
  5. Remind the individual it is his or her duty to provide complete and accurate facts.
  6. Work to establish rapport.
  7. Explain you are seeking cooperation and the interview is voluntary.
  8. Ask if the interviewee has any questions before the interview begins.
  9. Treat those interviewed with dignity, respect, and courtesy.
  10. Tell the interviewee it is important to be open and candid.
  11. Remain quietly professional throughout the process.
  12. Remind the interviewee that he or she need not fear retaliation for any information provided.
  13. Keep control of the interview by asking, not just answering, questions.
  14. Avoid use of any investigative jargon or slang.
  15. Note that comments will be kept confidential to the degree possible.
  16. Request, in turn, that the interviewee keep the interview confidential (“street runs both ways”).
  17. Offer no opinions relating to the investigation.
  18. Don’t ask the interviewee’s opinion or conclusion on the case.
  19. Take notes (discretely as possible) throughout the interview.
  20. Keep the questions simple and direct, avoiding compound sentences.
  21. Ask open-ended questions and allow the person to fully answer them.
  22. Restate important questions in different ways to ensure correct answers.
  23. Ask if the interviewee knows of others that might be able to add useful information.
  24. Never intimidate or make threats.
  25. As the interview nears end, read back points to ensure accuracy and completeness.
  26. At the conclusion, tell the interviewee he or she may be re-interviewed to clarify points.
  27. Request that the interviewee contact you if he or she can think of anything not covered.
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