Sexual Harassment Investigation

Sexual Harassment Investigation: Vital Tips And Techniques For Interviewing

By Mary Jo McGrath, Attorney at Law
Founder, McGrath Systems, Inc.

Interviewing is an art form, just like Olympic level athletics or masterful debating. Like any art form, perfection of the skill demands an appreciation of the basics of the discipline and constant practice. If interviewing is approached in this manner, there is a much greater likelihood of success.

Sound investigations are ones in which the interviewer gathers information that supports a fair and just decision. The quality of every interview conducted is critical for two reasons:

  • Accurate information will allow for the correct decision to be made; and
  • Impartial, clear and well-executed questioning will protect the investigator from claims of negligence or bias.

Investigation Mapping: Some of the Basics
When starting out as an investigator, it is important that you prepare thoroughly in advance of each interview. You must have a clear picture of the issues to explore with the witness and of the facts which are necessary to reach a conclusion. From this understanding you can create a “map” of the terrain you need to cover and be confident that you will not overlook obtaining essential information from a witness.

Know the Law and Procedures
Before you take any action, be sure you have a full understanding of the law, policy and/or guidelines which might affect the investigation. This seemingly obvious step can make or break an otherwise sound investigation. For example, I know of a case where a lawsuit was filed by the accused two days into the investigative process. The school district was sued for skipping over an informal resolution stage where it was claimed the matter could have been resolved quickly. Had the school district’s policies and procedures been reviewed prior to investigating, this situation may have been avoided.

Review of Documentation
After you have analyzed the law, policies and guidelines, review all existing documents which pertain to the case. Determine what issues arise from the documents and what answers can be gleaned from them. Also, ascertain when the document was created, who prepared it, why it was prepared, whether the document is the original, and if not, where the original is kept. Verify the accuracy or inaccuracy of any statements on the documents with the appropriate witnesses.

Prepare Key Questions
Before interviewing a witness, prepare a detailed outline of all key questions. Note the incidents this witness should be able to talk about by cross-referencing to your investigation map. Be sure to get details regarding each of the issues from this witness and ask whether they know of any other person who would have information about these matters.

It is important to ask a witness what he or she may have heard, even in the form of rumors. Often rumors function as a “bread crumb trail” to a witness with a firsthand account. A person may feel uncomfortable about giving you this type of information, but you can reassure them that it will be considered merely a lead that you will follow-up on, not hard evidence.

Questioning Parameters
As you begin to ask questions of the witness, start with open ended questions. It is usually helpful to begin by asking witnesses very general information that they are comfortable answering. This puts them in the cadence of answering questions and gets them used to your voice, mannerisms and speech patterns.

Since your role as an investigator is of a neutral party, you want the interviewee to feel you are non-threatening. Letting them answer autobiographical questions to which they know the answer goes a long way toward establishing rapport.

What’s Next?
The next article in this series will detail the different types of question formats that should be used in interviewing. We’ll analyze questions which elicit a person’s sensory recall of the events, creating “mental imaging” in the witness. We’ll also explore the use of hypothetical questions which challenge the basic assumptions the witness is using to answer the questions. These and other question formats will allow the investigator to probe deeply into the incidents in a manner which is neutral but thorough and incisive.

Again, it is important to keep in mind that interviewing is an art form and as such, discipline and practice are the keys to mastery. For prior articles in this series or on investigation techniques in general, contact McGrath Systems, Inc. on the menu below.

Editor’s Note: This is the second in a series of articles which address complaint management and investigative techniques. This article is general in nature and is not intended to replace professional legal advice by a specialist in education law.

Summer 1996

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