From the Contributor’s Corner: Tips on Initiating an Investigation Interview

At the outset of any interview, the investigator should identify the issue under investigation as well as why that person is believed to be able to shed some light on the subject.  It should be done in a simple, factual way and, if done properly, will go a long way to reducing any nervousness the person may have about the meeting.  In preparing, thought should be given to explaining the purpose, length and nature of the interview and why the investigator selected the person to be interviewed. It is important to establish why it is necessary to have the interview and what the person might be able to provide.  It is important to go slowly at first, in order to ease the concerns and to build some rapport with the person. This will ease some concerns about whether people think they are involved.

For all interviews explain:

  1. What the investigation is all about;
  2. Why the person is among those being interviewed;
  3. There have been no conclusions about the investigation; and
  4. The investigator is seeking only facts and truth.

This approach also permits clarifying any misunderstanding as to the meaning of the interview. The interviewer may make a statement along the lines of “Perhaps I did not make myself entirely clear about this interview. Let me restate it differently.  In light of the issue I described being something requiring factual analysis, I will be asking questions of people who may be able to shed some light on the subject.  You are just one of several people with whom I will be speaking to gather the necessary facts to resolve this issue.”

Taking Notes

Notes must be taken without distracting the person or losing eye contact.  Being properly organized will limit the shuffling of papers that distracts from the interview.  The notes can be just key words and points enough to translate into a more complete report that accurately reflects the substance of the interview.  Immediately upon completion of the interview, while everything is still fresh in the mind, an investigator should fill in the information in more detail.

While it is imperative for the investigator to prepare properly for the interview and know the key points he or she desires to cover during the course of the interview, following a script is not a good idea.  Following a list of prepared questions causes the interviewer to lose eye contact, something that is very important to the process, as noted above.  It undercuts the authority of the interviewer by conveying a lack of confidence and command.  Following a script often leads to a failure to open up an important new line of questions or permit clarification of issues raised in answers.

Questioning Process

The basics of listening when questioning are to always remain neutral and avoid preconceived notions.  Many people make the mistake of jumping into an interview without any preliminaries.  This is a big mistake.  For optimum results, it is useful to take one’s time and lay a foundation for ensuring cooperation and assistance from the witness.  The person being interviewed should receive assurance that there will be no negative repercussions from cooperating with the investigator.

During the questioning process, the investigator should concentrate on the speaker and on what is being said.  He or she must be organized to avoid shuffling papers to find what is needed, which is distracting.  To ensure that the information being provided is clearly understood, one should paraphrase responses and repeat the question in differing form to ensure clarity and demonstrate understanding.  An investigator should avoid using compound questions that may be confusing to the subject and prompt a response that is confusing to the investigator.  One way to get a person to “open up” is to ask an open-ended question and permit the person to go into a narrative. The investigator can always return to key points for further clarification after the statement is completed.

Questioning is a four-step process:

  1. Ask a question;
  2. Receive a response;
  3. Evaluate the response; and
  4. Record the response.

The substantive part of interview should begin with non-threatening questions that are very routine and easy for the person responding to answer.   It also settles the person into to the question/answer format of the interview and sets a tone to increase the comfort of the person.  It also permits an opportunity to observe the person’s normal behavior, general mannerisms and gesticulations, level of eye contact, indications of nervousness, speech patterns, and quality of communications skills.

The introductory questions must be designed to bring the interview to the purpose of the interview.  This can start with some general background information about the person, along with his or her duties and responsibilities.  Common introductory questions include:

  • How long have you worked here?
  • What are your duties and responsibilities?
  • What are your hours of work?
  • Who is your supervisor?

These general questions can be used for expansion in further discussion and to draw a person out in his or her responses.  Follow-up questions can be used to build off of the initial set of questions to clarify and situate the individual in connection to the matter under investigation.


Richard Kusserow served as the DHHS Inspector General for 11 years with prior services in the FBI.  He is the author of Conducting Internal Investigations in Health Care Organizations, AIS, 2011, (ISBN 979-1-936230-60-8). He currently is CEO of Strategic Management Services.

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Copyright © 2013 Strategic Management Services, LLC.  Published with permission.