What are some investigation interview tips for speaking to someone who may have experienced trauma?

Our internal investigation team needs help addressing the presence of witness trauma.
What are some tips to deal with an individual who may be experiencing trauma during the interview process of an investigation?

An investigator’s role in an investigation is to gather facts, but there are times when they need to recognize the signs of trauma, and understand how it affects complainants, respondents, witnesses, and the accuracy of investigative data.

Trauma can have a significant impact on the investigation process, both in terms of the accuracy of the information gathered and the emotional well-being of those involved. So investigators may need to develop what is referred to as a trauma-informed approach.

For starters, when posing questions, explain your role and what you’ll be asking. If the witness seems reluctant, be prepared to offer a positive statement that will encourage participation. For example, in sexual harassment investigations, reticent witnesses will sometimes open up if they believe that by doing so, they may help others or prevent harm to others.

During the interview, show empathy by recognizing the difficulty of the complaint process without acknowledging that an incident took place. Phrases like, “I can see this is hard for you to talk about,” can show empathy without confirming any factual bases.

And as you ask questions, understand that an individual experiencing trauma may not respond well to a linear, sequential approach as their memory may have become fragmented. So instead of questions like “what happened next,” or “start at the beginning,” investigators can say, “Start where you feel comfortable,” or “Tell me what you remember.” This simple, but effective, technique lets the witness choose a starting point.

It is important for investigators to be aware of the potential impact of trauma and to approach investigations with sensitivity and understanding. Not only will this facilitate more effective ways of dealing with allegations of misconduct, but more importantly, the long-term wellbeing of witnesses will be supported.

For more information or to address your specific concerns when conducting internal investigations contact your Littler counsel.

Information contained in this publication is intended for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice or opinion, nor is it a substitute for the professional judgment of an attorney.