How to ensure compliance, break the ice, manage your tech, and professionalize your environment when you’re doing remote interviews
In Part 1, I discussed factors that are out of your control when conducting remote investigative interviews. In this article, I’ll talk about aspects of remote interviewing that you can control.
The first problem an interviewer faces is compliance. If you work for an organization that has a company policy requiring employees to cooperate any internal investigation, you’re in luck—you can use this to your advantage. Remind the employee of this fact when you make initial contact. In Part 1, I noted that the easiest way to do that is by sending the employee a written preamble stating the policy.
You can also attach a word document that spells out the company’s compliance policy. And you can kill several more birds with this same stone by including any stipulations in the policy that require the interviewee to be honest and forthright. You may also advise the employee that they cannot speak to anyone else about what will be discussed or obstruct the investigation, and that there’s zero tolerance for retaliation—either against them or perpetrated by them.
As a final reminder, before the interview, the interviewee must reply in writing (i.e., by email) 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.
Breaking the Ice
Here’s what all interviews have in common, whether they’re in person, by phone, or through a virtual platform: the first few minutes set the tone of the whole conversation. As quickly as possible, you’ve got to break the ice and establish rapport with your interviewee. Meanwhile, you’ll norm and calibrate their behavior onscreen as you ask initial questions that seem irrelevant and innocuous, before you begin your phased interrogation.
Most professionals and students in America have learned to use Webex, Zoom, and other videoconferencing platforms since last March. But no matter how proficient and comfortable we’ve become with this new tech reality, we can’t escape this one major vulnerability: the internet connection can always fail.
The good news is: there are ways to overcome the internet challenge.
One trick I use is to have the platform system call my cell phone at the beginning of the Zoom session. That way, if I lose internet service, I’ll lose the camera connection but will at least still be on the phone call.
My preference, of course, is the on-camera virtual interview. Assuming your interviewee has agreed to use their camera, the advantage to video conferencing is that you get to observe the interviewee’s body language. There are limitations. For example, if the interviewee opts to use their phone instead of a PC (on a platform like Google Meets, say), you aren’t going to get a great visual on the person. Plus, they’ve got to physically hold the phone, which is distracting and not conducive to producing a stable image.
Ideally, you’ll have your interviewee use a PC in a semi-controlled environment. And even then, you won’t have full head-to-toe view—but at least you can see their face, shoulders, and possibly, hands. That’s certainly better than nothing.
Appearance and Surroundings
Working in our comfort zone we all call “home” for these many months, it’s tempting to surrender to informality. Virtual meetings have become windows into home lives and the at-home personas we usually keep under wraps. But as investigators, we should keep in mind that our appearance and body language, as well as the visible and audible background environment, can profoundly influence how the interview goes.
We’ve talked about ways you can control the interviewee’s surroundings; don’t forget to pay attention to your own home environment. Carve out a quiet area in your house and designate that the “interview zone.” Remove distractions, close doors, and set up decent lighting.
Dress in business casual attire. Keep food or drinks out of view, and if possible, eliminate any possibility that family members will walk into view. It’s distracting, and worse than that—if interviewees have sensitive information to share, they may clam up when they realize others are present.
If you share a small house or apartment with several family members who also work and study there, it’s obviously tough to avoid some visible onscreen movement around the house. But do whatever you can to conduct your interviews in a private and secure setting.
Concluding the Interview
Your goal, of course, is to get a written statement from the employee by the end of the interview. Ideally, you’ll simply have the employee type out their statement while still on the call with you (and while you’re in mute status). To make my life easier, I usually ask the interviewee to jot down some bullet points or highlights of the interview on a piece of scrap paper as we’re finishing the conversation.
These bullet points should cover the facts of the case, why they did what they did, an admission that what they did wrong and against company policy, and their expression of any remorse. After the employee finishes the bullet points, have them have them expand upon these points as they compose their statement.
Once they’ve typed the statement, ask them to read it out loud to you and your witness. Any changes that need to be made are made right then and there. If they choose to write the statement in an attached document, just advise them to type their name and date into the word document and send it immediately.
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.