Dealing with Difficult Respondents in Workplace Investigations

Workplace Investigations Difficult Respondents – What can or should you do? – Remain calm and professional,  do not engage in arguments and stick to your interview plan/process.

At times during a workplace investigation, you may have to deal with difficult respondents. This can occur in a number of ways:

  1. The respondent refuses/declines to attend an interview to discuss complaints/allegations made against them.
  2. The respondent refuses/declines to answer questions or discuss complaint/allegations made against them.
  3. The respondent provides ‘no comment’ answers during the interview to questions about the complaints/allegations made against them.
  4. The respondent is argumentative or aggressive toward you during the interview.
  5. The respondent argues that the process is flawed or unfair.
  6. The respondent attempts to take control of the interview.

My advice and my process in relation to difficult respondents is:

  1. If the respondent refuses/declines to attend an interview to discuss complaints/allegations made against them, I will advise them in writing that the investigation will proceed to a finding based on the information/evidence I have on hand at the time.  At this time, I will provide a further opportunity for them to attend the interview should they wish to do so.
  2. At the start of the interview I advise all interviewees, complainants, witnesses and respondents that;
    “You do not have to answer any of my questions, however if you choose not to answer some or all of my questions, my report will not be able to represent your account of the events. Do you understand that?”
  3. If the respondent refuses/declines to answer questions or discuss complaints/allegations made against them or provides ‘no comment’ answers, I will remind them of point 2 and that the investigation will proceed to a finding based on the information/evidence I have on hand at the time. I will ask if they wish to provide any or further answers.
  4. If the respondent is argumentative or aggressive toward you during the interview, remain calm and professional.  Do not engage or become argumentative towards them. I have found silence to be an effective means of dealing with an argumentative or aggressive respondents.  Stick to your interview plan & process. If the interview is being recorded it can provide good evidence. Please note the fact that a respondent is argumentative or aggressive toward you during the interview does not in of itself provide evidence to support an allegation. If the situation become untenable, stop the interview.

    This can be the case during internal investigations where the respondent knows the interviewer, perhaps the interviewer lacks the experience or skill to deal with difficult interviewees, and the respondent is attempting to intimidate the interviewer.

    My advice: outsource. Many eternal investigators are former police officers who have the experience and temperament to deal with difficult interviewees. Also in my experience, difficult interviewees don’t usually “try not on” with external investigators. They do tend to look me up, and I have even had some interviewees present me with a copy of my LinkedIn profile, which I find amusing and never intimidating, as it seems to be intended.

  5. If the respondent argues that the process if flawed or unfair, firstly make sure you have adhered to procedural fairness and the policies of the organisation. Assuming you have, simply remind the respondent that they are being afforded procedural fairness, you may have to explain procedural fairness to them.
  6. If the respondent attempts to take control of the interview, remain calm and professional. Do not engage in arguments. Remind the respondent of the purpose of the interview and their role in the investigation. If things become untenable see point 4.

Further advice 

Plan – make sure you have an interview plan.  You don’t need to plan every question but know where you are going and what information you need.

Know your limitations – If you don’t have the skill, experience or confidence to investigate and interview difficult people, consider outsourcing. AWPTI can assist – details here

Allow us to take away the stress and difficulty of conducting a workplace investigation.

Make sure that any investigator you engage is licensed and experienced. These articles may help:
Workplace Investigator licence
Choosing a workplace investigator
Workplace investigations and investigators

Consider workplace investigation training – AWPTI can assist

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