Kusserow on Compliance: Conducting effective investigative interviews

Obtaining facts from witnesses is a critical part of any successful investigation. The witness interview process involves determining how the investigation is defined and scoped; understanding the facts and issues at play; and assessing the accountability of individuals. When conducting interviews proper preparation is important, as is remembering that even honest and disinterested witnesses can be concerned about being interviewed. Their level of cooperation often depends on their assessment of the professionalism, experience, and trustworthiness of the interviewer.

 

  1. Plan the interview. Know what information is needed from the person and proceed in a logical order to obtain it. If not organized, there will be gaps in the interview and lead to failure to ask something important.

 

  1. Take time to establish rapport. It is very important to take the first couple of minutes to establish rapport with the witness. This can be done by asking routine questions about their duties and who they report to, etc. This will help make the witness more comfortable and lead to better responses to substantive question.

 

  1. Treat those interviewed with dignity, respect, and courtesy. Don’t treat witnesses as subjects to be interrogated; and never intimidate or make threats. Witnesses are mostly those that are neutral on the matter being investigated. Their cooperation is needed and should not alienated by an investigator’s bad manners.

 

  1. Be professional. It is important to dress and act professionally at all time, including demeanor and tone. Avoid investigative jargon picked up from movies. A witness will offer much more meaningful information if they trust the interviewer’s professionalism.

 

  1. Interviews are conversations with a purpose. Successful interview conversations require maintaining eye contact and responding to what is being said, as you would do in any conversation. It also means avoiding distractions which can be caused by referring to notes, reading questions, or taking extensive notes.

 

  1. Ask short, simple questions. Avoid the long, unfocused questions typical of an inexperienced or unprepared investigator. Cover a topic by asking short, simple, and direct questions which easy for the witness to understand. It also allows for better evaluation of the answers and provides opportunity to seek clarification or elaboration.

 

  1. Open-ended questions. Use open-ended questions that permit the witness to tell what they know in their own way. Witnesses will often in their narrative address many of the questions that are on the interviewers list. Also, it may also open new lines of inquiry or issues that were not previously considered.

 

  1. Don’t accept what the person says as facts. What is being said may be colored by several factors, such as knowing the people involved, concerns about personal involvement, and simply the fog of memory. In some cases, the person may not be telling the truth, whole truth. Therefore, responses must be substantiated before they can be accepted as fact.

 

  1. Talk less, listen more. During an interview the investigator should talk about 20 percent of the time and the person being interviewed 80 percent. Therefore, questions should be brief and, whenever possible, elicit a narrative response. Avoid interrupting a witnesses’ answer unless they don’t understand the question.

 

  1. Insist on complete, responsive answers. Think about the answer to a question before asking the next one to be sure it was answered completely. Often even well-intentioned witnesses stray from what is being asked. Stay on an issue and seek clarification until fully answered.

 

  1. Ask, not answer question. Don’t lose control of the interview by answering witness questions, stay in control of the process. Many inexperience investigators will give out more information at witness interviews than they receive.

 

  1. Never offer any opinions relating to the investigation. Inexperience investigators may leak out their opinion on matters under investigation or respond to witness questions in a way that suggests their opinion. This can create a host of problems later.

 

  1. Press for details. Follow the journalistic “who, what, where, when and how”. Always get dates of key events, persons present at important meetings, what was said by whom, whether any record of the meetings, exist, and so on. Don’t be afraid to ask sensitive questions directly.

 

  1. Basis of witness knowledge. The focus needs to be on obtaining direct knowledge of facts. Therefore, witnesses need to be asked about how they became aware of their information. This is to assist in evaluating reliability of the information and to expose possible uncorroborated information from a third party.

 

  1. Recapping the interview. In concluding the interview, the investigator should recap the information with the witness to ensure accuracy and to permit additions and clarification.

 

  1. Close out of interview. In bringing the interview to a close, the witness should be asked if there was anything not covered; whether they know of others that might be able to add useful information; that there may be a need to recontact them later to clarify points; and request they contact the investigator should they think of anything.

 

  1. Promptly prepare a memo. Take only limited and abbreviated notes during the interview to avoid distractions and losing the conversation tone. However, immediately upon conclusion, a detailed set of notes should be created before memory begins to fade.

 

Richard Kusserow has over 40 years investigative experience including eleven years as HHS Inspector General and twelve years with the FBI. He authored “Conducting Internal Investigations in Health Care Organizations (ISBN 979-1-936230-60-8). His firm provides investigator training for clients.

Connect with Richard Kusserow on LinkedIn.

Subscribe to the Kusserow on Compliance Newsletter

Copyright © 2019 Strategic Management Services, LLC. Published with permission.

Kusserow on Compliance: Successful investigation interviews require proper preparation

Proper preparation is the number one factor for a successful interview. Do not rush into an interview until you are fully prepared. It is important to examine and understand all the facts known that relate to the matter under investigation. It is also critical to understand what information is needed to advance the investigation and to determine what the person being interviewed can contribute to this. The following tips will help ensure best results:

  1. Develop an investigation plan. Before any interviews, it is important to (a) set investigative priorities/objectives; (b) review what is known; (c) obtain needed documents; and (d) identify those people that should be interviewed, in what order.

 

  1. Master the known facts of the case. Review all the available facts and evidence; and decide what you need from witnesses to prove the offense or fill gaps.

 

  1. Properly prepare for each interview. A successful interview includes knowing who should be interview, their background, what information they may have to advance the investigation, and what documents are relevant to their interview.

 

  1. Develop an outline for each interview of the points to be covered in a logical manner. It should be in an abbreviated form, serving as a road map to keep things on track by addressing different topics to be covered. However, rigid adherence to an outline or detailed questions is not advisable, as it will tend to distract the interviewer from carefully listening to the witness’s answers and generating useful follow up questions.

 

  1. Schedule interviews as quickly as possible. Interviews of witnesses should be scheduled in a logical order to build a case, as soon as possible, before memory fades or is influenced by events.

 

  1. Have relevant material on hand during the interview. Have only documents present that are relevant to the interview. As appropriate, show the witness the relevant documents and let him or her review them before answering. It may assist in refreshing memory of events.

 

  1. Use copies of original documents for interviews. As a rule, it is best to keep original evidence secured in a controlled access location. Using copies will ensure that original ones are not lost or compromised.

 

  1. Take care in selecting the location and setting for the interview. Schedule interviews away from the persons work station or office. The setting for the interview should be in a place where it cannot be overheard or where there are distractions in sight and sound. As such, the person should not be near a window. It is also advisable to avoid barriers with the interviewee, such as table and desks, that may be viewed as overly formal and threatening.

 

  1. Allow adequate time for the interview to be conducted in an appropriate environment. Most interviews in complex cases take much longer than the witness anticipates. Conduct the interview in a professional environment; do not attempt to interview an important witness at lunch or in another social setting.

 

  1. Review policy regarding rights of employees during an investigation. Check with HR before conducting employee interviews to determine if employees who decline to cooperate could/would be considered insubordinate, as well as whether employee rights exist that may restrict interviews. For example, members of unions may have the right to be present and to take independent notes and/or record the meeting.

Richard Kusserow has over 40 years investigative experience including eleven years as HHS Inspector General and twelve years with the FBI. He authored “Conducting Internal Investigations in Health Care Organizations (ISBN 979-1-936230-60-8). His firm provides investigator training for clients.

Connect with Richard Kusserow on LinkedIn.

Subscribe to the Kusserow on Compliance Newsletter

Copyright © 2019 Strategic Management Services, LLC. Published with permission.

Kusserow on Compliance: First steps in conducting witness interviews

Witnesses are key to most investigations and are most often neutral third-parties from whom information is desired. Obtaining useful information and cooperation from witnesses is a critical part of any successful investigation and nothing can derail that faster than not properly engaging the witness from the outset. The following are tips regarding the proper protocols to initiating witness interviews:

  1. Identify self and any others participating in the interview
  2. State the reason for the interview
  3. Explain your authority to conduct the inquiry
  4. Explain why they were selected to be interviewed
  5. Remind the witness of their duty to provide complete and accurate facts
  6. Politely ask for their cooperation
  7. Remind them that they will be protected against any retaliation
  8. Clarify that the interview is voluntary and can be ended at any time
  9. Explain that it is important they be open and candid
  10. Note their comments will be confidential to only those with a need to know
  11. Request them, in return, to keep the interview confidential (“street runs both ways”)
  12. Before questioning, ask if they have any questions
  13. Work to establish rapport and to relax the interviewee
  14. Before substantive questioning, ask simple ones about their duties, who they report to, etc.

 

Richard Kusserow has over 40 years investigative experience including eleven years as HHS Inspector General and twelve years with the FBI. He authored “Conducting Internal Investigations in Health Care Organizations (ISBN 979-1-936230-60-8). His firm provides investigator training for clients.

Connect with Richard Kusserow on LinkedIn.

Subscribe to the Kusserow on Compliance Newsletter

Copyright © 2019 Strategic Management Services, LLC. Published with permission.

Kusserow on Compliance: Preparing for compliance investigations

Most compliance officers are not professionally trained investigators and are unsure how to decide whether an issue warrants a formal investigation. Also, the great majority of issues presented to compliance officers can be resolved relatively easily without need of an investigation.  However, when situations arise warranting an investigation, it is important to know what needs to be done and how. At every step in an investigation, there are rules that must be followed regarding how things must be done—working with other internal or external parties, determining how to manage the records of investigations, and so on. It is important for anyone who may be called upon to investigate, to take time to learn some of the fundamentals of the process. The first step for any investigation is taking time to analyze all known facts upon receipt of a complaint, allegation, or information suggesting a potential wrongdoing. After this, the next step is to decide upon a course of action, such as:

  1. Closing the matter without the need of further action
  2. Having enough information to take adverse or corrective action on the issue
  3. Need to investigate to clarify issues
  4. Referring the matter to legal counsel
  5. Disclosing a violation to a duly authorized governmental authority

The following should be considered when the decision is to investigate:

  • Knowing who the deciding authority is and what they will need to make a decision
  • Development of the investigative plan
  • Establishing the scope of the investigation
  • Who is the person best qualified to conduct the investigation?
  • Whether the investigation should be under direction of legal counsel

Time is a major enemy and is a force with which to contend in any internal investigation. There is a lot involved in even a simple investigation.  It includes two key elements: documentary evidence and conducting interviews. Knowing what documents are needed is important but knowing how to properly conduct interviews requires some training and skill to produce optimum results and reduce the risks of losing valuable information and time. Writing reports of interviews and the final Investigations Report is also very important. There is both a right and wrong way to do these things.

Conducting successful compliance investigations requires professional competence and friendly persuasion, not upon the authority and power of a government agency backed by the courts. One of the most common and costly mistakes is for individual to conduct investigations without having proper training and experience. It is advisable to engage an expert to teach basic investigation fundamentals on how to: (a) conduct interviews, (b) gather evidence, and  (c) file and store documents and evidence. A few hours of training will not create a professional investigator but may provide enough guidance to ensure that proper steps are followed to avoid costly mistakes. It is also advisable to have protocols in place and in advance of being confronted with an investigation to provide guidance on how to proceed.

 

Richard P. Kusserow served as DHHS Inspector General for 11 years. He currently is CEO of Strategic Management Services, LLC (SM), a firm that has assisted more than 3,000 organizations and entities with compliance related matters. The SM sister company, CRC, provides a wide range of compliance tools including sanction-screening.

Connect with Richard Kusserow on LinkedIn.

Subscribe to the Kusserow on Compliance Newsletter

Copyright © 2019 Strategic Management Services, LLC. Published with permission.