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Assessing Credibility in Workplace Investigations

May 13, 2022
Rebecca Trotsky

HR Acuity’s CEO and Founder, Deb Muller, recently moderated our expert webinar, “Making the Call: How to Assess Credibility in Workplace Investigations.” Our guest, Beth Gramigna, an employment attorney and the Founder of Tribu Partners, discussed in detail what to look for when trying to determine who is telling the truth in a workplace investigation. 

Using a fictional case, Beth walked our near-record number of attendees through the various stages of the workplace investigation, including interviewing the fictional complainant, her manager and several witnesses, and the findings that resulted from those interviews. This juicy case sparked much engagement with our attendees who asked interesting, thought-provoking questions that Beth answered throughout the webinar, as well as offering her some “takes” of their own!

Here are three highlights from the webinar, but we encourage you watch the entire replay of the webinar here: 

  • Workplace investigations aren’t just about fact-gathering. The investigator’s role is to assess credibility based on all workplace investigation interviews so that the decision-maker can make an informed decision. The analytical standard for assessing credibility takes the following into account:
    • Is there a preponderance of evidence based on corroborating information?
    • Did the event more than likely occur?
    • Does the evidence presented on one side outweigh what’s presented on the opposing side?
    • Is there a greater than 50% chance that a proposition is true

Insufficient evidence is almost always the factor leading the investigator to conclude it’s impossible to make a call – the very thing that is most needed. That’s when the investigator needs to go back and ask more questions.

  • Pitfalls in determining credibility: 
    • Confirmation bias – you know the parties, or you stop investigating because of investigator bias – you’ve decided that you think something happened in a certain way. There may also be internal bias to get the investigation completed. 
    • Making a determination too soon – without having sufficient information. 
    • Failing to make a determination – also a case where you haven’t obtained enough information. You will need to ask more questions or talk to more witnesses. 
  • The most reliable credibility factors (Gold Standard) when you’re struggling to decide who is telling the truth: 
    • Corroboration – witness testimony, text message or email exchanges, video or photo evidence, also assessing reliability of testimony with a witness’s recollection of events  
    • Consistency – Is there witness testimony or physical evidence that is consistent with the complainant’s testimony? Or are there inconsistencies that make you doubt credibility? 
    • Inherent plausibility – Does the testimony make sense? Which version of the events seems more plausible? Is there a plausible reason for inconsistencies (ex., an employee tells a manager one story because the manager is really the issue in the investigation)? 
    • Motive to falsify – Is there motivation to lie (fear of retaliation, a witness who wants to protect someone, etc.)? 
    • Material omission – Did someone omit something that was important, despite having an opportunity to provide the information? 

Workplace Investigation Interview Tips

Conducting interviews is perhaps the most important element of any workplace investigation. This means it’s critical that HR professionals use strong techniques and maintain the proper atmosphere during these interactions. With that in mind, here are a few tips investigators should keep in mind when performing a workplace investigation interview:

  • Keep questions simple — The more complicated the question is, the more likely the interviewee will become confused and give compromised testimony. Questions should be short and aimed at collecting one detail at a time. Asking a number of relatively simple follow-up questions will yield better results than trying to have a witness tell the entire story in one chunk.
  • Avoid leading questions — Questions that begin with an assumption of guilt or innocence can lead to trouble down the line. Rather than asking a question such as, “Did you overhear your coworker use a racial slur?” use a neutral phrasing. For example, “What do you remember your coworker saying?”
  • Keep your body language and mood neutral — Without knowing it, investigators may compromise their workplace investigations through the way they conduct themselves during interviews. They should avoid nodding, smiling, frowning, or otherwise giving off signals that they approve or disapprove of what the interviewee is saying. Some employees may unconsciously alter their testimony if they feel the interviewer is on their side or not.
  • Keep interviewees comfortable — A workplace investigation needs the full cooperation of witnesses to be successful. This means it’s up to the interviewer to ensure all those being interviewed feel comfortable to speak freely and answer questions as truthfully as possible. They can do this by making small talk at the onset of the interview and keeping the questioning as simple as possible. By avoiding complex questions, it’s easier for interviewees to stay focused on delivering accurate testimony.

These are just some of the highlights of the webinar, but you’ll want to watch the complete webinar on-demand here – everyone can use a refresher on the topic of how to best assess credibility in workplace investigations!  

 Related resources: 

Rebecca Trotsky
Rebecca is responsible for HR Acuity’s talent acquisition and retention strategy as well as driving employee relations capability and effectiveness across customers, prospective customers and employees with the goal of elevating the impact of employee relations.

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