As an employer, you have a responsibility to maintain a safe work environment for your employees. Unfortunately, even when you have a great team and strong anti-harassment and discrimination company policies in place, you will likely receive complaints from time to time.
When you receive sexual harassment complaints or other allegations of wrongdoing in the workplace, it is important to conduct prompt and thorough investigations. You’ll need to collect as much information as possible to come to a fair determination regarding the complaint and take corrective action if necessary. One of the best ways to collect information and evidence for workplace investigations is through interviewing.
Many managers and human resources team members find conducting investigation interviews daunting. However, as long as you are well-prepared and ask the right questions, you’ll be able to successfully navigate the investigation process and collect the information that you need to make a determination. To help, we’ve provided a list of workplace interview questions to ask and some interviewing best practices.
Best practices for workplace investigation interviewing
Before you start conducting interviews, there are a few workplace investigation best practices to consider in order to get the most out of these interviews.
Choose the right setting
It’s best to conduct interviews in a quiet, private setting that will make the interview subject feel comfortable. Some employees may not want their coworkers to know that they spoke to human resources and are participating in a workplace investigation, so it’s also a good idea to choose a setting that won’t draw too much attention.
Ask open-ended questions
Asking open-ended questions when interviewing involved parties or witnesses can help you extract more meaningful information. Avoid asking yes or no questions unless you feel that someone is specifically avoiding answering your question.
It’s also a good idea to avoid cutting off long-winded answers. Open-ended questions can lead to long answers, but there are two things to keep in mind when this happens. The first is that workplace investigations can be very emotional, particularly for a complainant that has reported harassment or discrimination. Cutting them off may make them feel less comfortable opening up to you. It’s also possible that something that comes up in tangent or seemingly irrelevant response may prove to be relevant information as you get further into the investigation.
Use neutral language
Try to remain impartial with your tone and phrasing throughout the investigation interview process. Also, avoid asking leading questions that may introduce bias into the interview. When speaking to the subject of the complaint, avoid using an accusatory tone that could make them feel uncomfortable or defensive,
Ask follow-up questions as needed
A key part of being a good investigations interviewer is knowing when to dig deeper. It’s important to be aware of the fact that your interview subjects will likely be nervous and hesitant to speak with you. If you get the feeling that they are not being forthcoming or that they are hesitating and may have more to share, feel free to divert from the script and ask some follow-up questions to dive a bit deeper into particular answers. Be sure to maintain a calm and non-accusatory tone when asking for additional information.
Workplace investigation questions to ask the complainant
Many workplace investigations start with an interview with the complainant who filed the report or brought the matter to your company’s attention. The purpose of this interview is to get a full account of what occurred from the complainant’s perspective and how it impacted them.
Workplace investigations can cover a variety of topics such as alleged harassment, theft, or discrimination. In instances of alleged workplace harassment or inappropriate behavior, do your best to be empathetic and make the complainant feel comfortable.
Here are some useful questions to ask:
1. What occurred?
This is where you start taking down the complainant’s account of what happened. Encourage the interviewee to be as detailed as possible. Feel free to ask clarifying questions, but avoid cutting off the interview subject or making them feel rushed. Since this is likely the first account of the incident that you will hear, don’t be afraid to ask some clarifying questions if needed to help you better understand what occurred.
2. When did this happen? Were there multiple instances? (If yes, is it still occurring?)
Encourage the complainant to be as specific as possible. However, you should be understanding if there is some degree of uncertainty regarding specific dates and times. If they cannot recall, there are a number of ways that you can narrow down the date. Ask them whether it was before or after a recent holiday or work event. Inquire whether they texted anyone about it and give them time to privately search their messages.
It is important to get an idea of when this occurred so that you can properly look for relevant communications or other reports. It will also help you provide witnesses with clarification on the specific event or date that you are asking about when you interview them.
3. Where did this take place?
Verifying the physical location (or the electronic platform) where this alleged incident took place can help you better understand what occurred. Additionally, you may possibly find additional physical evidence, potential witnesses, or recorded video (if areas of your workplace have security cameras).
4. Are there any electronic records related to this incident or behavior?
It is not uncommon for workplace harassment to occur over instant messaging tools like Slack or Teams, social media, or email. Obtaining digital records can help your investigation and verify the complainant’s version of events. Even in cases that do not involve harassment, there may be electronic records or messages related to other violations of company policies.
5. Is there anyone that may be a potential witness to this incident?
You will want to interview as many witnesses as possible throughout the investigation to understand the full scope of what occurred. Having documented witness interviews also helps you prove that you conducted a thorough investigation and had all of the available facts prior to taking disciplinary action such as termination against the accused party should they try to challenge the decision later.
6. Have you reported the behavior or incident? Did you discuss it with anyone?
A report is often the basis for starting an investigation, but often a formal HR complaint isn’t actually the first time workplace issues have been reported. They may have informally reported the issue to a supervisor before going to HR. They may also have spoken to co-workers were can help corroborate their report.
7. How has this impacted you personally and professionally?
It’s also essential to assess the impact of the alleged misconduct. This helps you to understand the severity of the incident and what you need to do to support the complainant. If they feel unsafe coming to work, it’s important to take measures to correct that immediately. If unfair or discriminatory treatment from a manager resulted in a poor performance review and missed raise, HR can step in and re-evaluate that review after a determination has been made that it was completed improperly.
8. Is there anything else that you’d like to share?
End the interview by giving the complainant some time to share anything they feel is important that may not have come up during your questioning. This helps ensure that you don’t miss out on crucial information and allows the complainant to feel heard. Since this is often the first interview conducted, you may not know all of the right questions to ask as you’re still learning about the complaint, so provide ample time for the compliant to speak if desired and share what they feel is relevant.
Workplace investigation questions to ask the accused
You will also need to interview the respondent to the complaint that has been accused of misconduct. Do your best to be open-minded and impartial. This person may be accused of stealing from your business or harming one of your employees so it is natural to feel upset about that, but try to put your feelings aside during the interview.
1. What happened from your perspective?
There are multiple sides to every story, so start by allowing the respondent to walk you through the incident from their perspective. Encourage them to be as detailed as possible. Even though you’ve already heard the story, you still want to hear it again in full detail from the complaint respondent’s perspective.
2. When and where did this occur?
Again, you want as much information as possible regarding the time and place that the incident occurred.
3. What is your connection to the complainant?
Understanding how the respondent views their relationship with the complainant is helpful. Often they will just list their professional relationship to the complainant such as a co-worker, supervisor, etc.
However, you may start to uncover discrepancies in how the complainant and the alleged harasser view the relationship, which can provide key insights into the behavior that occurred. This is common in sexual harassment investigations where the alleged harasser may state that they are friends with the complainant or even imply that there was mutual interest or attraction while the complainant may view them simply as a co-worker.
This does not justify any improper behavior or the crossing of any professional boundaries, but it does provide some insight into the accused party’s mindset and the cause of the issue.
4. What led up to this incident?
If the incident revolved around an altercation or alleged harassment, it is beneficial to understand what led up to the incident. In some cases nothing will have led up to it or tensions may have been rising for a while.
5. Is there anyone that can corroborate your side of the events?
This is an opportunity to learn about additional witnesses who either saw the incident, were involved in the events leading up to it, or may have been present after the fact.
6. Do you have any physical records or electronic communications to support your version of events?
This question helps you collect additional evidence related to the respondent’s side of events. Relevant items may include messages between the parties, messages that the respondent sent to others regarding the incident, or any other documentation that supports what they say has occurred.
7. Is there anything else that you’d like to share that may be relevant to our investigation?
As with all workplace investigation interviews, it’s helpful to provide a few minutes at the end for the interviewee to share anything else that they want you to be aware of.
Workplace investigation questions to ask witnesses
You’ll also want to interview any witnesses identified through prior interviews. The questions are relatively similar to what you would ask the other parties, but you can still obtain valuable information from them.
1. What did you witness?
Allow the witness to take you through everything that they saw from their perspective. You’ll likely have heard the story several times now, but it’s best not to rush them and to take down the full story again.
2. Do you recall when and where this occurred?
Again, documenting the location and time can help you in your investigation. Witnesses also may bring up other incidents or conversations that you’ll want to add to your timelines.
3. Who was involved in the incident that you witnessed?
Verifying the parties involved is helpful in verifying the complainant’s and respondent’s version of events. It’s also important to verify and document the identity of anyone that the witness says engaged in wrongdoing for your records in case this incident ever becomes a legal matter.
4. Was anyone else present to witness the incident or behavior at the time?
Sometimes the complainant may not have noticed or remembered everyone that was there during the alleged incident. Asking witnesses who they remember seeing may help you locate additional witnesses to talk to.
5. What did you do after witnessing this incident? Did you file a report or tell anyone else what you witnessed?
Even if there were no additional witnesses to the incident, you can still collect additional information from anyone a witness talked to after the fact about the incident. A witness speaking with a coworker or reporting the incident to their manager can provide you with additional evidence and help verify what occurred.