by John D. Thompson

Tips for Honing the Auditor’s Interviewing Skills

Feb 27, 20085 mins

Investigative skills are vital to anyone conducting an investigation when misconduct concerns arise; inexperience could lead to costly mistakes.

If you stack a pile of papers in front of just about any auditor, he or she will find the proverbial needle in the haystack, especially if you’re looking for some missing cash. One area in which many auditors could improve is in their preparation for and execution of interviews with witnesses.

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The Planning Phase

First, plan the investigation at the outset. Sit down and consider all the issues before commencing the investigation.

  • Witness intimidation. How will you ensure that witnesses are free from intimidation by wrongdoers trying to interfere with your investigation?
  • Investigative team. Who is going to interview the witnesses? Will you have two interviewers? What characteristics should they have?
  • Time frame. How long is this investigation going to take? You will need to advise people as to when to expect an outcome.
  • Confirmatory memorandum. If someone brings a complaint to your attention, will you want to confirm the elements of their complaint in writing with them? What form should that confirmation take?
  • Relevant documents. Identify and collect all relevant documents.
  • Special investigative techniques. Beyond auditing techniques and witness interviews, what other investigative methods would be fruitful?
  • Interviewee issues. Based on an initial review of the situation and the documents, who should you interview, where and in what order? What are you going to say to the witnesses at the opening of your interview? At the close? Prepare a set of common questions to ensure the same issues are addressed with all the interviewees. It is important to be consistent.
  • Written statements. Are written statements appropriate in this matter? If so, you must become familiar with the process and pitfalls of obtaining such statements.
  • Note taking. In the course of litigation, the investigation process comes under intense scrutiny. Your notes, including thoughts about planning the investigation, can become critical evidence. In considering the above issues, make notes about why certain approaches were or were not taken so that the documentation shows how thoughtful the process was.

Conducting the Interviews

Be prepared to address a variety of issues during the interviews themselves. Failure to address the following issues can lead to legal liability, low employee morale and a failed investigation.

  • General description of the situation. This must be carefully scripted and must not reveal too much. What is the purpose of the investigation? What organization policies are implicated? How serious is this issue?
  • No conclusions reached. Make clear that no rush to judgment has occurred. Do not discuss your opinions or conclusions. Do not divulge information unnecessarily.
  • Assessing demeanor. Do not throw up your hands just because you confront a “he said, she said” situation. Frequently, you can and should make credibility assessments; this can be done by evaluating the witness’s demeanor.
  • Questioning techniques. Begin by asking open-ended questions that allow the witness to talk expansively. Then press for details. Details are often important to corroborate or disprove allegations. Identify hearsay and rumor.
  • Confidentiality issues. To the extent possible, mandate that the interviewers keep the contents and facts of the interviews confidential. Advise the interviewees what information you will share about the interview and about the ultimate result of the investigation.
  • Describe the interview process. Outline the investigative process in general, but make no promises as to an outcome.
  • Penalties for noncooperation or providing false information. Remind the witnesses that their cooperation and truthfulness is essential. Again, if the interviewees are employees, explain the potential ramifications of noncooperation or lying.
  • Protection from retaliation. All interviewees must understand that the organization will not retaliate against them for their participation in the investigation. Instruct all witnesses to contact you immediately if anyone takes retaliatory actions.
  • Identify more witnesses and documents. In the course of interviewing witnesses, always press them to identify additional potential witnesses and potentially relevant documents.

Tricky Issues

Be prepared to handle tricky issues that might pop up in certain situations.

  • Recording interviews. Should you record the interviews? What if the witness wishes to record the interview?
  • Attorneys. What if the witness wants to have his or her attorney present for the interview? What if the witness wishes to have some other third party present? What if it is a union environment?
  • Nonemployee interviews. How should you treat the witness differently if he or she is not an employee?
  • Requiring the cooperation of employees. What if the employee refuses to answer questions? What if the uncooperative witness is also the alleged victim?
  • Privacy considerations. What if the events at issue took place outside the workplace? Where does the organization’s legitimate interest end and the witness’s zone of privacy begin?

The above issues are some of the more important issues that auditors will face in any significant investigation that involves witness interviews. The auditor can anticipate many of these issues and plan accordingly. Witness explanations of documents can be every bit as important to an auditor’s investigation as the documents themselves, and the successful auditor will master both.

John D. Thompson, a nationally recognized expert in the area of corporate security, legal risks and employment law, has served as a consultant on workplace violence, legal issues training, litigation services and related security problems to numerous Fortune 500 and smaller companies, as well as federal, state and local governments. He currently practices law with Minneapolis-based firm Oberman Thompson & Segal, LLC. Thompson is a content expert faculty member with the Security Executive Council founded by CSO magazine, and is the author of a series of books guiding nonsecurity professionals through misconduct investigations. For more information about the Security Executive Council or Thompson’s book series, please visit