A recent article on incident investigation prompted an interesting debate. IOSH thought leadership manager Chris Jerman CFIOSH attempts to expand the discussion further by asking some questions about interview techniques.
During the nightshift, the telephone in the security building rings. It’s the dispatch clerk calling for an ambulance. A large goods vehicle has rolled away from the dock injuring its driver in the process. Some of the incident is captured on CCTV but other than the driver, there are no physical witnesses to the event itself, only those who were in the vicinity engaged in loading and unloading activities in the warehouse.
The vehicle hit the perimeter fence and broke through, coming to rest across the main access road to the industrial estate. Whilst quiet at the time, it would be busy with vehicles from the approaching shift change in only a few minutes.
Two first aiders attend the injured driver at the scene while waiting for the ambulance to arrive. The local fire and rescue service has to extract the casualty from beneath the tractor unit before transporting him to hospital.
So what does the incident investigator need to consider and how should this knowledge affect how they conduct that investigation, particularly in the interview stages? How should the investigation be structured to answer the following questions:
- Did the organisation have knowledge that this could happen?
- What was in place to minimise the potential for this incident to occur?
- How did the existing controls actually function in the lead up to this event?
- What, if anything, needs to be done to make sure that controls work more effectively in the future?
The reason for conducting interviews, especially those associated with incident investigations, has been well covered over the years, detailing the necessary preparation, environment, questioning techniques and note taking. But just how well prepared are interviewers in relation to the individuals they will meet and how will they be able to judge the situation on the day in order to tailor the session for maximum empathy and benefit all round?
However, in this incident scenario, the OSH professional must ask themselves just who will need to be interviewed and about which part of the incident. Clearly the driver will need to be interviewed when they have recovered sufficiently, but what if they are unable to give very much detail? What will the teams on the loading bay be able to offer and what of the depot manager who is after all the one responsible for the conducting of safe operations at the site? A key question to unlocking some of this is: was this the first time that such an incident had occurred and if so, what had been done, by whom? How traumatised will they be and when would be the best time to talk to them?
In a recent article published by IOSH magazine, there was a suggestion that on some occasions, a witness might be less than forthcoming. To deny that this situation might arise someday would surely be unrealistic. Perhaps what the article didn’t expand upon were some of the wider reasons as to just why a witness may appear reluctant, uncooperative, guarded, protective or otherwise about that over which they might be questioned.
This article attempts to expand the debate a little further and highlight some of these key factors that must surely be considered when designing learning packages for interviewers who will undoubtedly face a wide range of individuals and situations in the course of their work. Yes, it is important to create an open, trusting and transparent organisational culture, but there is a responsibility to be wary of whether accurate information is being volunteered, whether deliberately misleading or not.
Traditionally, interview training tends to focus on the interview itself – perhaps a little more than it does on the witness. While understanding how to use direct and indirect questions, the value of open and closed questions, setting up a room etc, perhaps there is some scope to start looking a little closer at the person sitting opposite. Consider what is going on inside their heads in what could be a very pressured and anxious time for them.
Naturally, an interviewer would like to be able to believe everything that they hear, but as we know interviews can be difficult and there’s often little time for a great deal of analysis of the intelligence collected. It’s hard enough keeping the interview on course without having to make determination over all of the evidence offered.
In a short article such as the one published in IOSH magazine the full range of issues is simply too great to cover in detail and for the sake of brevity it deliberately does not attempt to cover those situations that are at the extreme ends of witness spectrum such as those who are severely traumatised, vulnerable or suffering from mental illness and other clinical conditions that might require very specialised interviewing techniques or support.
Where current thinking might be lacking is in the recognition of the emotional environment where each witness is afforded the same level of treatment, respect and empathy; but applied individually taking into account their personality, character and state of being at the time.
Of course these more complex situations do arise, but for most safety professionals it is fortunate interviews are rarely in that category and therefore focusing on the least likely is perhaps not the most benefit to readers.
Common causes of what might be termed inaccuracies during interviews
Being genuinely mistaken/in error
While the human brain is clearly a wonder of biological engineering, it does misfire occasionally and individuals can be convinced that something they heard, saw, smelled or felt at the time was real. Sometimes to the point that even when faced with conclusive proof such as video, they still fail to accept what is in front of them as the truth. This can be a quite troubling experience and leave the individual quite shaken and doubting their own convictions. Pointing out that the witness is ‘wrong’ is not a good way to continue the interview process.
Everyone is different and whilst some individuals may feel compelled to recount their entire life story, regardless of whether that is required, others will tend toward only answering the questions that are asked, offering little by way of illustration, examples or supporting evidence. Being somewhat tight-lipped is not necessarily a failure to cooperate and must not automatically be seen as obstructive. It has to be accepted that some people as simply not as effervescent as others and it is the role of the interviewer to adapt their approach in order to extract what it is that they need from the exchange without pressuring the witness.
Memory retrieval and recollection
There is a temptation to treat someone who says that they can’t remember or don’t know, with a degree of suspicion. How could they not know or recall something? This is a case of the interviewer imprinting their position onto that of the witness. Some people have incredible memory and recollection, but some people are habitually forgetful or absent minded. Add in the factors relating to trauma, shock, fatigue, confusion and the relative discomfort of the interview itself and it’s easy to understand why people may have issues remembering. Also be prepared to realise and accept that they may simply not know the answer and hounding them is not going to change that position.
Despite a desire to do the right thing, cooperate and assist the interviewer, there may be pressures real or perceived that the witness is under which are driving their responses; or lack of. Despite all assurances to the contrary, witnesses may feel that their duty lies somewhere outside the interview room. There may be personal drivers such peer pressure, organisational culture, personal threats, intimidation, fear of consequences or the implications for someone else involved in the incident to suffer due to any statement given by the witness.
Even the most basic interview training covers the importance of not leading the witness, creating an environment that is conducive to the session and certainly not to pressure a witness into answering any questions. It would be unfortunate for a witness to feel that the only way they could get through the process was to give the answers that they believed the interviewer was seeking. This is of course why all potential witnesses should have explained to them the process and their rights to have support either moral or legal during the interview.
Lack of clarity/crossed wires
It is important to consider that if someone appears not to understand what is being asked, the problem might possibly lie with the interviewer. Language, accents, colloquialisms, jargon, technical language and cultural differences could all be reasons why the witness seems unable to respond. It may be that they simply don’t understand the question. This is going to add to the tension in the interview and make matters more difficult. Clearly in cases where there are major language barriers, help should be on hand to interpret the questions. This could introduce even more variables into the conversation therefore it will be important to consider the phrasing of questions to ensure they are relayed accurately to the witness.
Lastly there is the question of whether a witness might either avoid answering questions directly or even lie. The fact remains that not everyone interviewed will wish to cooperate in the manner outlined in the previous sections especially if their answers would point to their own failure. Whilst undoubtedly interviewers must be attuned to the possibility, it is likely to be a rare occurrence and given the frequency on which they would conduct such interviews, probably not something that many individuals would encounter.
Let’s not forget the interviewer.
The interviewer will be one of the constants throughout the investigation process and it’s important not to overlook the fact that they will not be impervious to all that they see and hear during the course of their work. Conducting good investigations is not easy and there will be undoubtedly pressure upon these individuals to collect solid intelligence on the incident in question. That expectation to perform coupled with the witness testimony collected could well take its toll on an individual.
There have been suggestions that some form of assessment could be performed in advance to determine witnesses’ mental state and therefore suitability for interview. This would be a largely impracticable step for a ‘typical’ witness and probably cause more angst that the interview itself. However, given what is known that interviewers may face and the amount of time they will likely spend within the investigative process, assessing and monitoring their overall well-being including mental well-being is surely something that could and should be considered by their employers.
It is hoped that all interviews are conducted in a spirit of co-operation with a desire for all to seek clarity on exactly what happened but more importantly how it was able to happen so that preventative steps can be considered for the future. There is a drive for zero incidents and zero harm but what must be understood is that risk assessments (in whatever format) are themselves predictions of incidents. This means that whilst ever there are predictions, there must be some degree of residual risk and the question must be asked as to whether elimination of each incident is actually realistic. Therefore, the mantra that investigations are about prevention of future incident is in reality only part of the story.
It is often said that investigations are not about apportioning blame. In a just culture this is of course true, but it does not mean that people should not be accountable and indeed held liable for their mistakes. Just culture does not exonerate individuals for their actions; it merely seeks to better understand why they made those choices or took those decisions at the time.