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Internal Investigations: Questioning techniques in interviews

In the context of internal company investigations, the planning and preparation of employee interviews are particularly important in addition to proper execution. The investigative/interview team should be clear in advance about the strategy and questioning techniques to be used in the interview. The interview approach results on the one hand from the specific objective of the interview and on the other hand from the general investigation conditions.


Preparing for the interview

When preparing for the interview, the first priority is to determine the purpose or objective of the interview. Based on this objective, the interview structure is developed in the form of an interview guideline. This serves above all to ensure that nothing important is left out in the conversation without the guide being treated like a rigid catalogue of questions during the interview.

Case study:

Two employees from the purchasing department are talking in the break room about how they “negotiate” favours with suppliers; they are overheard by a colleague. The colleague reports the facts of the case, investigations are started, in the course of which interviews are also conducted with the purchasing employees. If, as is the case here, the objective of the interviews is to determine the group of potential people involved, the questioning of the individual employees from purchasing should be preceded by consideration as to the extent to which other employees from other departments might be involved, if applicable, and which tensions exist between the departments as part of the purchasing processes. The interview structure and the order of the interviewees are mainly based on the interviewees’ area of work.

The second step should be to review whether there are specific internal policies or other internal rules governing the conduct of internal investigations and interviews, and if so, how they are applied. This is necessary to ensure that company-specific requirements or practices are complied with or taken into account, provided they are not contrary to the purpose of the investigation or even the applicable law. This also includes the preliminary clarification of the responsibility for conducting interviews within the framework of internal investigations and the question of who should be involved (in advance) if necessary, for example the works council. It should also be confirmed in advance whether and to what extent (legal) instruction is to take place at the beginning of the interview and which other legal framework conditions are to be observed (e.g. legal counsel for the interviewee or the involvement of a trusted person from the company).

In addition, it must be clarified which other functions (e.g. compliance officers) should participate in the interview. This naturally applies to the staffing of the whole investigation/interview team and their roles. The prerequisites for possible protection against seizure must also be taken into account here. In principle, it seems advisable that the interview team does not consist of more than three people. If necessary, a native speaker should be called in to overcome any linguistic barriers for the interviewee. This helps to avoid misunderstandings and promotes to create the most comfortable interview situation possible.


Conducting the interview and questioning techniques

When conducting the interview, it should be noted in particular that it is merely an employee interview and not an official interrogation; the investigation/interview team has no sovereign power  under the law in the context of an internal investigation.

Although both methods serve the purpose of establishing the truth, they differ in atmospheric and legal respects: with the employee interview, unlike the group of people specified in Section 53 of the German Code of Criminal Procedure, the employee or relative has no right to refuse to testify, in contrast to the accused themselves, according to the dominant, albeit controversial opinion.

Generally, care should be taken during an interview to ensure that the employee being questioned as a witness is interviewed in a relaxed atmosphere, as a good atmosphere for discussion is fundamental for the employee interview to run positively and constructively. To create and maintain a positive atmosphere, it is therefore advisable for the interviewer to express calmness and composure, especially through their voice and intonation. To create a relaxed atmosphere, it may also be helpful to offer the interviewee a drink at the beginning of the interview to indicate interest in their well-being. The situation may be different when interrogating the accused: a tougher stance may lead to success depending on the evidence.

When conducting the interview, the so-called “80:20” rule should be observed: The interviewee speaks most of the time, while the interviewer actively listens and consciously observes the interviewee’s answers and behaviour, including their body language.

Another important aspect in conducting the interview is asking specific, target-oriented questions in the respective context. Just one question should be asked at a time to get clear answers. The questions should correspond to the content of the interview objective. A distinction is made between open and closed questions. Closed questions usually only produce a “yes/no” answer. Open questions, on the other hand, serve as broader prompts that the interviewee can respond more freely and descriptively to. The amount of information received in response to open questions is therefore usually much higher than for answers to closed questions. A combination of both question types is possible and useful, and how successful the interview is proceeding can be evaluated by whether the employee is speaking freely, coherently and in detail in their answers to open questions. My personal motto is: “Walk the talk and let the interviewee talk the walk”.

Depending on the duration and course of the conversation, it may be useful to take breaks. The deliberate interspersion of longer breaks between definable topics to be clarified may be helpful to give the interviewee time to rest and to encourage them to mention or contribute more information to clarify the issue. On the other hand, care should be taken not to interrupt the conversation for any apparent reason. For this reason, breaks should be communicated explicitly and in good time. The focus should always be on keeping the conversation flowing and an opportune momentum should not be interrupted, not even by breaks. This applies in particular to controversial interviews, e.g. of the accused.

At the end of the interview, the interviewee should be thanked for taking part in the interview, thus expressing appreciation for their hopefully open participation in the interview. If possible, the employee should leave the interview with a good feeling. They should also be reminded that they can contact the investigative/interview team at any time if, for example, they subsequently come across any information that might help clarify the facts. It is not in the company’s interest if an interview leaves an unpleasant aftertaste.