Q: We have a very messy situation we need to investigate involving 12 and possibly more employees at two remote locations. Nine months ago, we laid off our human resources officer. The accounting manager and I inherited many of her duties. Both of us have investigated minor issues in each of our departments, and our former human resources officer left a good protocol for conducting investigations in her file.
The protocol calls for bringing involved individuals into the Anchorage office to interview them. In the past, we spent considerable money flying employees in from the field for interviews. We lack the financial resources to do that this time.
Also, while we know who was immediately involved in the situation, we won’t know which other individuals we may need to interview until we conduct the first interviews. Making last-minute decisions to interview additional individuals in Anchorage would involve complicated plane and work schedule changes and result in a huge delay. Some of these individuals live in the Lower 48 and others fly in from rural Alaska. We may need to interview them when they’re off-shift.
We discussed me flying into the two locations; however, the individuals involved work a variety of shifts, and I can’t afford to be remote long enough to catch everyone in person.
Is it workable to investigate using videoconferencing?
Given the shift from in-person to virtual work environments and COVID-related travel issues, virtual investigations are becoming more common.
A few tips:
You need to be even more organized when conducting a virtual investigation. In many investigations, interviewees tell you what they want or what makes them look good and others look bad. You need to collect and assess relevant documents, including written statements, manager and supervisor notes, and employee files, emails, and texts, ahead of time so you have them when you conduct your interviews.
When you have these documents at hand you can ask, “You wrote a text to ‘S’ February 2nd saying ‘ABC.’ What was your intent with that text?” If you do use documents and want to catch a witness’s first, honest reaction, make sure you’ve practiced the share screen function.
Learn your video conferencing platform’s security feature, including private meeting rooms, access codes and how to control who enters the meeting and how you can monitor meeting participants.
When you interview witnesses in-person, they may record the interview with a Smartphone hidden in their pocket. Some videoconferencing platforms allow anyone to record the interview just by pressing a button.
Off-site witnesses may even have bystanders sitting in on your interviews, just beyond the screen who slip them notes. To partially address this ask, “Is anyone in the room with you?” or “Is anyone able to hear you?”
Proactively address technology
Since you’ll be interviewing some individuals in their homes and/or rural locations, let your interviewees know ahead of time how to download and install the videoconferencing software you plan to use. Those with unreliable Internet connections may need to move to a different site or reschedule.
Recording the interviews
In Alaska, only one part to a communication must consent to video recording. In 11 other states, it requires everyone’s permission before oral communications are made.
In an in-person interview you would ask the witness “how are you today?” and other routine questions to ease the witness into the interview. Some individuals new to virtual investigations forget to do that or they ask fewer questions. Ask enough questions of each witness to ensure you’ve fully mined their perspective and recollection.
I like to conclude interviews by asking, “What should I have been wise enough to ask you?” and “What should I be wise enough to ask others?” After that you can ask, “Who else should I interview to fully understand this situation?” You may also want to summarize what you’ve heard and ask your witness to confirm the accuracy of your summary.
Your investigation summary
At a minimum, your investigation summary needs to outline the allegations and/or the conduct that led to the investigation, along with the date of the allegations and/or conduct and the date the investigation opened. You also need to list the names of those interviewed, the documents you reviewed, and the applicable employer policies and/or laws and regulations. Finally, you’ll summarize the facts collected and how they relate to the policies and/or laws and regulations.