Prior to the pandemic, in-person interviews were generally considered the preferred method of conducting workplace investigations. They allowed the investigator to build rapport with the interviewee, the investigator could observe behaviors by the interviewee that might be relevant to credibility, and the investigator could know who was present for the interview and ensure a private meeting. But in March 2020, that all had to change. My Cornell colleagues and I wrote an article at that time, assessing the opportunities that videoconferencing offered as a virtual alternative to in-person interviews and identifying the caveats and precautions for which the investigator should be prepared.
Nearly two and a half years later, while employees have returned to their workplaces to varying degrees, I continue to conduct virtually all my workplace investigations by videoconference. Yes, it saves me a commute, but I actually like getting out into the world with people and I care deeply about ensuring the integrity of my investigations, so saving the commute would not suffice if it compromised my quality standards. Rather, over the period that remote interviews were the only viable option, I have come to appreciate some enduring advantages that they offer over in-person interviews.
Pre-COVID, one of the greatest challenges I faced when conducting in-person interviews was in securing a private location for those meetings. Most workplaces have shifted to glass-walled offices and conference rooms, many with little or no shading to afford visual privacy. I would strategically situate myself so that I faced outward, and only the interviewee’s back would be visible to passers by, but that afforded only a limited degree of anonymity. I would request to use a conference room or office that was off the beaten path, or at least in a different location than the coworkers of the people I would be interviewing – with mixed success.
For one investigation, I visited nearly every coffee house in a five-town radius of the client’s office. No interviewee felt comfortable that the office could afford privacy and each had a different idea, in relation to their own hometown, as to where our presence would go unnoticed. Investigation interviews can be conducted successfully in a coffee house or similar public space, but it requires the right mix of variables – other people conversing, so that my interview will not be a prominent sound in the space; a table spaced far enough from others such that it will be difficult for the people closest to us to eavesdrop; and frequent turnover or activity so that if we lingered longer it would not be noticed.
Videoconferencing spares me most of those logistical challenges. With the caveat that my interviews are generally conducted in areas where wifi access is abundant, I have extremely rarely had to shift from video to audio only interviews. Even employees who do not have a laptop or tablet are able to meet through their smartphone. The challenge with videoconferencing is that you never know who may be offscreen, just as you never know if your conversation is being recorded, so confirming the person is in a private place to speak sets a baseline expectation.
Keeping Everyone Safe
Videoconferencing offers the ultimate assurance of social distancing. While we may have moved past the worst of the pandemic, the need to quarantine or isolate due to exposure to COVID-19 can still arise at any time, and side-line plans for in-person meetings.
Videoconferencing also reassures all parties against exposure to other infectious diseases and milder ailments. Years ago, when I was conducting investigations internally as an Employee Relations specialist, I once came to work while fighting a bad head cold so I could proceed with the scheduled interview of the respondent, a relatively senior manager who had a very busy schedule. After the interview, I received feedback from the HR Business Partner that the respondent complained I had been sneezing throughout our meeting. Rather than being appreciated for my perseverance and commitment, I had made the manager uncomfortable by my physical presence. It was an interview that I should have postponed, or taken from the safer distance of a video screen.
More recently, I met in person to interview the respondent for a particularly sensitive matter. Having just recovered from COVID-19 and completed my 10 days of isolation, I was feeling unusually secure about meeting in-person. The day after the interview, I developed symptoms and tested positive for a rebound of COVID, and was put in the uncomfortable position of having to reach out to the respondent and others who had been present for that interview to advise them of their possible exposure. Meeting by videoconference ensures that the investigator, the interviewee, and any third-party representatives are all safe from infection.
Moving Things Along
One of the other benefits of videoconferencing is that it enables speedier coordination of meetings. Scheduling time to meet with individuals who travel frequently or work in multiple locations is much simpler when they can join via videoconference from virtually anywhere.
Notwithstanding these benefits, there still are times when videoconferencing may not be an ideal option. In particular, videoconferencing makes it slightly more challenging to build rapport and make the interviewee comfortable enough to provide the investigator with responsive information. For that reason, when conducting interviews of individuals who report having experienced traumatic situations, such as sexual assault, in which building and maintaining that rapport and comfort is essential, the benefits of meeting in-person may outweigh the challenges.
There is no one right way to conduct workplace investigation interviews, provided there is a considered process behind decisions that are made. Videoconferencing offers advantages, and my old bias toward in-person interviews has given way to a new reality.
In this Workplace Investigations blog series, I will be exploring considerations that arise from our firm’s experience conducting workplace investigations and my work as an educator with Cornell University ILR school’s professional certificate programs on conducting effective workplace investigations.
By Tracey I. Levy