A consistently applied investigation process is key to ensuring a safe workplace environment, but what happens when you suspect someone is not telling the truth during an investigation? Harvard Business Review research shows that we all lie on occasion, and the average person lies twice a day. However, it's one thing to claim that you skipped dessert or completed your exercise session (when you didn't) — it's another thing entirely when your false claim may impact the work environment around you and your peers.
Interviewers should try to ensure that candor is a requirement of any conversation during the investigatory process. Someone's job and livelihood may depend on how things turn out, so it's critical that all participants adhere to honesty. When there are clues that an employee is not telling the truth, the following steps guide employers in the process toward an acceptable outcome.
Plan Questions Carefully
Step one: Start every interview by reviewing expectations regarding the need for integrity when answering questions — and the consequences for not doing so. Making this the starting point of the process for all employee interviews, not only sets the guidelines but sends a message that everyone is being held to the same standard.
The role of the investigator isn't to interrogate witnesses and participants — this isn't a courtroom. Instead, the focus should be on asking well-crafted questions to determine if answers are truthful or not. Credible answers lead to better investigation outcomes, while half-truths and other falsehoods, if not detected, can quickly mess up any progress you make toward a resolution.
Part of the path to success is being strategic about the questions you ask. Asking "yes" or "no" questions doesn't allow you to collect pertinent details. Start broadly and then narrow toward the issue at hand. If you start out with "the big question" right off the bat you're more likely to have the employee respond out of fear or nervousness. Warm up with nonthreatening questions about work relationships and other salient points before jumping into the deeper parts of the conversation.
Examine and Verify the Facts
Asking follow up questions or rephrasing your questions helps to ensure a highly accurate response. This is helpful for documentation purposes but also helps to ensure the employee truly understands the issue and isn't changing the story midstream.
If you get conflicting information, it's possible the interviewee is being untruthful. For example, if key facts change and/or elaborate stories are used to cover up a shift in the narrative, those are red flags for falsification. Probe a little deeper with follow-up questions to make sure you have a clear picture and consistent (or inconsistent) details. If what you are told just doesn’t add up, do not confront the interviewee, but rather confirm the story with in its latest iteration. Your next step is to review the interviewee's story against other available evidence. For example, if there are emails, documents, witness statements or other types of information to corroborate or contradict the account, those pieces of evidence will be invaluable to the investigation outcomes.
Follow the Process
If you run across an individual that might not be telling the truth, they shouldn't get a different technique or approach than the rest of participants. For every interview, the goal is to gather information and paint a picture of what happened. If someone is being untruthful and it comes to light, there will be an appropriate time to deal with that.
If you suspect false statements have been made, conduct a follow-up interview. The purpose is to collectively examine the interviewee's original statement and offer opportunities for explanations to the inconsistencies based on new evidence or information you may have uncovered. Your role is to determine if the conflicting statement was actually the interviewee lying or the result of some other reason such as a difference in perception or perhaps an extenuating circumstance. For example, you may find that an original false statement was made due to a concern about retaliation.
Make a Decision and Take Action
What should you do if you confirm the employee is being dishonest? After the investigation is complete, turn your attention to dealing with the problem at hand. Just like any performance issue, the conversations you have and the actions you take should be comprehensively documented.
The next step is to consider appropriate disciplinary action. While it may seem plausible to take an extreme response, be sure the punishment fits the circumstances. Depending upon the extent of the deception, termination may be the right course of action. However, there can be situations when a written reprimand, or even a short suspension to reinforce the notion that dishonesty is not something to be taken lightly, is more appropriate. This needs to happen after the fact and should be thoroughly documented to avoid any appearance of impropriety or retaliation.
There's always the chance that you'll encounter people in the investigatory process that are not one hundred percent truthful. If and when that happens, the steps above will help guide you toward a fair and appropriate outcome.
Deb Muller is the CEO of HR Acuity, a technology solution that combines documentation, process, and human expertise so organizations can meet the challenge of managing employee relations in the modern world. Be proactive. Manage risk. Create a safer workplace.