The Fair Work Amendment Bill 2013 has just passed in the Senate, and come January 2014 HR managers will have to consider more carefully how their organisation responds to complaints of bullying.
The primary source of information in any complaint is the people involved; the complainant, the accused and co-workers who may have witnessed the events or tried to manage them.
Developing effective skills on how to ask the right questions for an investigative setting is critical to the accurate determination of bullying complaints.
Interviews conducted by HR managers are often too short to really get to the issues at hand. Managers who have had prior dealings with the complainants often assume they know the events that are involved, but in reality they are just another witness and should be considered just as critically as other witness statements.
An investigative interview is not the same as interviewing for selection or recruitment; critical differences can often trip up even experienced HR professionals.
Planning your investigation and preparing for every interview is critical to success. Too much preparation, however, and you run the risk of conducting an overly-controlled interview, which doesn’t allow for fluid and interactive conversation.
Here are six common pitfalls that HR professionals should avoid to ensure the integrity of the interview and, potentially, the whole investigation:
1. Leading an interviewee to give specific answers where a predetermined decision has already been made, commonly called “confirmation bias”
- For example, a senior manager conducts their own “quick” investigation after an incident, and says: “You see, what we think really happened is …don’t you agree?” It’s more common than you might think!
2. Using personal characteristics or stereotypes to assess credibility, rather than assessing the reliability of an interviewee’s evidence
- You’re told the person you’re about to interview is a “bit dodgy”. They’re red-eyed, shifting in their seat and sniffing frequently. You interpret that as a drug habit – and don’t attach much weight to their account – only to find they suffer acute hay-fever and witnessed the whole incident!
3. Failing to ask for specific details of an event:
- “They yelled and swore at me in front of everyone in the meeting!” If you don’t ask for specific words, they probably won’t tell you exactly what was said or what happened in detail. What was it that made the person feel intimidated?
4. Asking for irrelevant information
- It can be easy to let an interview wander off topic and/or confuse an interviewee with irrelevant history between two parties. Sorting out the wheat from the chaff can be challenging, but if you want the evidence sometimes you have to listen to the chaff and sort it out later.
5. Failing to ask questions about inconsistencies in accounts;
- Be alert to differences within an interviewee’s account. Questioning them about these may reveal critical information. Also note inconsistencies in accounts between interviewees, and use the opportunity of subsequent interviews to clarify.
6. Using affirming comments and gestures during an interview which can be interpreted as bias on the part of the investigator
- “Thanks for confirming that. That’s great. I’m pleased we can now confirm what happened.” Such comments may persuade an interviewee that you believe their version of events causing issues later if no apparent action is taken.