Interviewing employees remotely in workplace investigations got a whole lot more complicated this year. Here’s why.
When I worked in law enforcement, I considered phone interviews with suspects an absolute no-no. But the private sector presented a few hurdles to doing things the “official” way — namely, budgetary challenges concerning travel. Forced to adapt, I eventually found that remote interviews could be quite effective. My productivity skyrocketed, and the information I was getting by phone seemed to be as good as what I’d learn in person.
And then came Covid-19 — and the new reality for investigative professionals that most or all of our interviews would be conducted remotely. And that, I knew immediately, was going to be a problem.
What’s the big deal, you may be asking, if you’ve had such success with interviews by phone? My answer is this: In normal times, interviewees usually speak with me from a controlled work environment, where a fellow investigator or human resources rep is also present. Whereas during the pandemic, interview subjects are now remote in their home environments as well.
Right away, I foresaw the challenges: the double-remote interview, via phone or a virtual platform, meant we interviewers risked losing control over the interview and sacrificed our psychological advantage.
One loss of control issue relates to the interviewee’s surroundings: If a subject doesn’t have a secure and private home office, the normal hum of family members who are also in lockdown creates an inevitable distraction. Also, if the interview topic is sensitive or related to a potential crime, the interviewee may be reluctant to speak freely, for fear of someone in the household overhearing.
There may even be graver risks related to personal safety, which we’ll discuss below.
There’s no good fix for this except to ask subjects to carve out as quiet and private a space as they can for the interview. A video conference call can also clarify for you how private the space really is — with the downside that it’s also quite easy for the subject to covertly record the interview from a video conferencing platform.
Safety, Liability, and Psychological Advantage
Another loss of control issue is that of psychological advantage. If you’re speaking to someone in a controlled work environment with HR present, there’s a witness — and an incentive for the subject to answer your questions. But if you’re speaking to them as a remote “invader” of their home turf, the employee will likely find it easier to terminate the call. This is a difficult challenge to overcome. Hopefully, the company has a stipulation in its organizational code of conduct that employees must cooperate with investigations.
There are also liability concerns. For example, what if the employee has a person eavesdrop on the conversation? This person could claim to have overheard things you never said, by way of a complaint or legal action. (This is why it’s vital to have a witness present at all suspect interviews.) Another risk: the employee records you without your knowledge and leaks the recording to other interviewees, which could compromise the investigation.
Now let’s talk about that last concern: personal safety. Imagine if a spouse overheard your interview and deduced that their beloved did something bad at work, something that may lead to termination or even criminal charges. At the very least, that could incite an argument — or the potential of domestic abuse, if the relationship is a violent one.
Mitigating Loss of Control
One possible mitigation strategy is to email the interviewee a written preamble that outlines any investigative organizational policy (if one exists) pertaining to the employee. For instance, if the organization has a policy prohibiting the recording of conversations, include that. And particularly if your interviewee lives in an all-party state, which makes it illegal to record conversations without the consent of all parties present, mention that in the preamble.
Most importantly, if the organization requires employees to cooperate with an investigation, you should definitely remind the employee of that as well.
Before the conversation, the interviewee must then acknowledge back in writing that they understand the message and preamble. If there’s a witness who’ll be in on the phone interview, copy this person on the email as well.
In summary, these Covid-era remote interviews are a challenge for all of us. But understanding the potential problems and possible solutions can help us achieve a better, if not ideal, result. Next month, in part two, I’ll discuss some other remote interview factors that present difficulties for investigators.
About the Author:
Bruno Pavlicek has over 25 years of law enforcement and private sector corporate security experience, mostly in financial and non-traditional organized crime investigations, as well as corporate security operations. He is a certified fraud examiner and holds a PhD in psychology. Bruno has served as an adjunct professor of fraud examination, forensic interviewing, and criminology at two universities. He is President of the Georgia state chapter of the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners (ACFE) and works in the telecommunications field as a Senior Corporate Security Investigator.