Blog Post

Effective Witness Interviewing

Richard P. Kusserow | March 2020

Five Tips

The biggest challenge with conducting successful compliance investigations is knowing how to conduct successful witness interviews. The following are tips for successful interviewing:

  1. The demeanor of the interviewer is important for the outcome of the interview. If the interviewer appears quietly competent and professional, it will encourage confidence in the interviewee. It will also decrease nervousness in innocent parties and increase nervousness in the guilty ones. The manner of the interviewer should always be polite but firm. Cooperation is essential; intimidation is counter-productive and possibly disastrous. Under no circumstances should the interviewer be disrespectful towards the interviewee.
  2. The interviewer should establish rapport. The interviewer should begin an interview with five to ten minutes of easy conversation to reduce the tension and increase communication and cooperation. It also permits the interviewer to observe the interviewee and their behavioral patterns during this initial, relaxed discourse. This often proves very valuable when assessing the interviewee’s responses during questioning of more serious issue areas. Any rapport established can be easily lost if the interviewer carelessly uses terms or phrases that may evoke negative connotations or cause the interviewee to become more defensive and less cooperative.
  3. The interviewer should do their homework for the investigation in advance. This means (a) knowing the objectives of the investigation; (b) having an investigative plan to achieve those objectives; (c) identifying the facts needed to properly understand and assess the issues; and (d) anticipating what the interviewee may offer in terms of facts. It is helpful to prepare the key points to be covered during the interview to use as a guide, but the interviewer should not just go directly down the list of questions. This is a bad practice and will likely turn the interview into something more akin to an interrogation. The interviewer should use open-ended questions and allow the person to speak, which will often result in the interviewee covering many of the points on the interviewer’s guide during their discourse. At the end of the interview, the interviewer should review the guide to see if all the points were covered.
  4. A key principle to remember is that the person conducting the interview is the one that 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 or 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.
  5. It is critical that the investigator always remain focused on facts. It is common to have interviewees drift away from facts, especially if they are uncomfortable with the direction of the interview. Therefore, the investigator should always follow through on the questions asked and not be diverted by other comments. Also, the investigator should ensure that basic questions such as who, what, where, when, how, and why have been addressed.

About the Author

Richard P. Kusserow established Strategic Management Services, LLC, after retiring from being the DHHS Inspector General, and has assisted over 3,000 health care organizations and entities in developing, implementing and assessing compliance programs.

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