When an employee is a witness to an incident that occurs in the workplace, what he or she witnessed becomes valuable information for evidence collection and finding and fixing the root causes.  Retrieval from memory is hard work, and when an interview is not set up properly, a witness will not remember important details.

The two short videos below are actors playing the role of interviewer and interviewee in a mock incident investigation interview for a General Motors incident investigation training module. They created one “good” interview, and one “bad” interview scenario.

Let’s take a quick look at the bad scenario, what not to do when interviewing.

Three mistakes to avoid:

  1. The interviewer did not communicate open, friendly body language during the greeting or try to “break the ice.” Notice that the interviewer appeared uninterested in the interviewee when she sat down, and he gestured with palms down which may convey to the interviewee that he already knows what happened. Soon thereafter, he actually says the words “I know what happened” and “I gotta ask you some questions so I can fill out this report.” At this point, the interviewee may feel like the interview is just a formality and he doesn’t need her information.  This mistake is a good way to completely shut the interviewee down right off the bat.
  2. The interviewer asked closed-ended, leading questions. “Was Larry wearing a seat belt?”  “Was Larry speeding?” “Was Larry out partying again last night?” The interviewer put the interviewee on defense with this line of questioning.  Also, these questions are limited to a “yes” or “no” answer and will not elicit much information, and they are leading. The interviewer already told her “I know what happened” so she may have been afraid at this point to say “yes” or “no” because it may not be the same thing the interviewer “knows.”  Overall, interviewees want to provide good information so when interviewers lead them into thinking they already have “the right” information, the interviewees may doubt what they witnessed so they can also give “the right” answer.
  3. The interviewer does not set up the cognitive interview properly and interrupts constantly. Interrupting when an interviewee is delivering a narrative (i.e., telling the story as she remembers it) is the worst mistake an interviewer can make because it causes the interviewee to lose her train of thought and valuable information she may provide.  The interviewer has already made the mistake of assuming the principle role with his “I already know what happened” attitude so the interviewee will wait for him to ask specific questions without volunteering anything.  The interviewer also said “I only have a few questions here.” This makes the interviewee feel like he is in a hurry so she should keep her answers brief.

How the interview could be improved:

  1. Begin the interview with a friendly tone to develop rapport.  This includes open body language (smile, eye contact, open palms).  Tell the interviewee about the purpose of the interview (to find the root causes of the incident so they can be corrected and kept from occurring again).  If the interviewee was injured or witnessed a tragic accident, ask her how she is feeling or how she is doing since witnessing the accident.  Be human. Research proves that the amount of information an interviewee remembers changes based on the tone established during the first few minutes of the interview.
  2. Save closed-ended questions to follow-up something specific the interviewee said. When the interviewee is telling her story (the narrative) of the incident and a question pops into the interviewer’s mind about what she said, don’t interrupt.  After the witness gives her narrative, try open-ended questions before closing in on small details with closed-ended questions.  This will keep the interviewee in memory retrieval mode for a little longer.  The interviewer should write down questions and ask them after the interviewee has completely finished her narrative, and the questions should pertain to the narrative. For example, “You stated that you were on Workstation 3 when the incident occurred. Is that your normal workstation?”
  3. Set up the cognitive interview.  There are three steps to setting up a cognitive interview. The first step is to tell the interviewee explicitly to assume the principle role.  “I didn’t see the incident, so I’m relying on you to tell me what happened.”  The second step is to ask the interviewee for the narrative.  “Picture, in your mind’s eye, where you were right before the incident occurred.  Think about where you were standing, what you were thinking and feeling at the time. Get a clear picture of your surroundings.”  The third step is to ask the witness to report small details. “Tell me everything you remember about the incident no matter how trivial.”  Then don’t interrupt!

Let’s take a quick look at a “good” interview.

Keep in mind that these videos were recorded for training purposes.  A true cognitive interview would last longer than 3 minutes, but this is a good example of a few good techniques to use. Kudos to these two actors and their efforts to make our workplaces safer.

Comment below on the techniques the interviewer used that made this interview better than the first as well as any mistakes in the first video that were not discussed above.

For more information about how to conduct an investigative interview, attend our 5-Day TapRooT® Advanced Root Cause Analysis Team Leader Training.