Kusserow’s Corner: Tips on Interviewing Witnesses

At all times, interviewers must remember they are the ones asking questions and seeking information.  They are not the dispensers of information.  Because the purpose of the interview is part of an investigation, interviewers should not reveal the status of the work, offer opinions, or indicate what has been found so far or said by others.  Always remember that the purpose of any interview is to establish facts.  A lot of opinions and conjecture may be offered by people, but only the facts are really needed.  It is common for those being interviewed to want to drift off of facts, especially if they are uncomfortable with the direction of the interview.

Conduct During Interview

The demeanor of the interviewer is important to the outcome of interview. If the interviewer appears quietly competent and professional, it will encourage confidence in the individual being interviewed. It also reduces nervousness in innocent parties and increases nervousness in guilty ones.  The interviewer’s manner should always be polite but firm.  Cooperation is essential; intimidation is counter-productive and possibly disastrous in outcome. Under no circumstances should the interviewer show disrespect for the person being interviewed.

Stay Focused, But Adaptable

Avoid drifting away from the purpose of the interview.  However, at all times maintain an open mind to all information, and be prepared to develop it.  Always follow through on questions asked and do not be diverted by other comments.  Ensure that basic questions such as who, what, where, when, how, and why have been addressed.  It is advisable to avoid using terms that might evoke negative connotations.

Remain Professional

It is critical to always project a professional image.  This begins with dress.  An interview is a formal business meeting and the interviewer should dress as such in a conservative suit; men should wear a tie.  Dressing down in jeans and a sports shirt does not project a professional image and doesn’t buy you much in building rapport and understanding.  The people to be interviewed are not your friends (or shouldn’t be) and therefore you should not dress and act as if they were.

Avoid Disclosing Statements of Others

Interviewers should not volunteer the name of the complainant or another witness, unless it becomes necessary.  The general rule should be to not discuss statements made by others unless absolutely necessary, as it may affect the statements of the interviewee.  Even worse, the interviewee may simply agree to the same points as if it was independent testimony of his or her own.

Interviewers, the following are some tips in initiating interviews:

  • Identify yourself and any others participating in the interview.
  • Explain the purpose of the investigation.
  • Inform them why they are being interviewed.
  • Tell them it is their duty to provide complete and accurate facts.
  • Tell them your authority to conduct the inquiry.
  • Explain you are seeking cooperation and the interview is voluntary.
  • Establish rapport with the person to be interviewed.
  • Treat those interviewed with dignity, respect, and courtesy.
  • Make no threats.
  • Remind subjects they should be candid and not fear retaliation.
  • Ask if they have any questions before the interview begins.
  • Keep control of the interview by asking, not answering questions.
  • Avoid use of any investigative jargon.
  • Note that subjects’ comments will be kept confidential to the degree possible.
  • Request that subjects also keep the interview confidential (“street runs both ways”).
  • Offer no opinions relating to the investigation.
  • Don’t ask subjects’ opinion or conclusion on the case.
  • Take notes throughout the interview.
  • Keep the questions simple and direct, avoiding compound sentences.
  • Restate important questions in different ways to ensure correct answers.
  • Ask subjects if they know of others that might be able to add useful information.
  • At the interview’s conclusion, tell subjects they may be re-interviewed to clarify points.
  • Ask subjects to contact you if they can think of anything not covered.

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 is currently CEO of Strategic Management Services.

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