remote investigative interviews

How to conduct an investigative interview remotely

How to conduct an investigative interview remotely

There are many things to love about conducting interviews remotely. Proper planning and practice help overcome the things we don’t.

In 1996 I participated in my first phone conference, I was in a public phone booth at a campsite in Dunedin, NZ. It was cold and wet and I was being interviewed for my first academic position. The conditions were sub optimal from my perspective.

The interview went ahead – the panel of three were chatty and friendly putting me at ease before asking their scripted questions. The position was won, and that phone call changed my life. I am not aware that the University ever wavered in its enthusiasm to hire me, and through that position I was able to influence thousands of Investigators across Australia and quite a few more overseas.

In 2013 I co-wrote an award-winning book ‘Investigative Interviewing: A Guidebook for workplace investigators’ (H. Stacey and A. Page, 2013, available on Amazon ) and not a word was mentioned about conducting interviews via video conference or over the phone.

Over the past couple of years I have witnessed the steady growth in the use of conferencing platforms to conduct ‘non-essential’ witness interviews, but at the same time a persistent reluctance to interview respondents or complainants any other way than in person.

When we meet people face to face we are privy to vast amounts of information about them. This ‘other’  information can help us identify quickly what is required to set the person at ease, build rapport and pitch our questions at the right level to help the interview move along efficiently. This information is also believed to help inform investigators when individuals may be withholding information or lying.

There is however, little evidence that this additional information actually produces more ‘evidence’, and the cost benefit of gathering this ‘other’ information may be absent when it comes to securing public health and managing the cost of investigations in remote locations.

In one particularly sensitive matter, interviews were conducted over a video stream from overseas. The participants were introduced to the equipment by a local manager – procedures explained, and a welfare check conducted before the participants were interviewed by the investigator. The manager was not present during the questioning but followed up with welfare and any questions from the participants when the interview was finalised. This is just one way we can maintain social distancing whilst ensuring the welfare and support for employees involved in investigations.

In the age of COVID-19 we need to consider both the financial and health benefits of conducting remote interviews.

Some of the benefits of remote interviewing:

  • Convenience, remote interviews involve less travel time and can be conducted from locations of choice to both parties;
  • Often shorter in length and more focused;
  • Environmentally friendly by reducing pollution caused by travel;
  • Reduce unconscious bias in the investigator created by a person’s appearance or the state of their home;
  • Audio only interviews minimise visual distractions, enabling better focus on the words used to describe events;
  • Remote interviews tend to make you better organised and evidence can be set out in view of the investigator without the interviewee being able to see documents until they are required.

Disadvantages of remote interviewing

  • Malfunctioning technology can distract both parties;
  • Lack of familiarity with technology can frustrate the interviewer;
  • Poor planning will be more obvious to the interviewee and can’t be easily covered over with social niceties;
  • Establishing rapport requires more effort;
  • Many people are self-conscious about seeing themselves in a video cam;
  • The interviewer has less control over the environment and may not be able to limit distractions in the location of the interviewee (small children, pets etc);
  • Both parties need a positive check on who else is within earshot of the meeting.

What stays the same?

  • The reason for the interview;
  • The interviewees rights;
  • The structure of the interview;
  • The role of the support person;
  • The best questions to ask;
  • The evidence you have to talk about.

In summary, there is a lot to love about conducting interviews remotely and best practice interviewing is exactly the same over a phone, on a video call or in person. With a few practice sessions, and good planning, investigative interviews should produce very similar results to interviews conducted in person.

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