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Guidelines on Interviewing Techniques
The first step -- before you schedule the interview -- is to collect as much information on the topic as possible. In preparing your CIP, information has been gathered from a variety of sources. This information must be analyzed to provide a logical scenario. Outline the facts you already know, and particularly the facts you think you know but about which you are unsure. From the outline, identify the "holes." They will provide obvious questions for the interview not previously identified in your CIP. This will also provide an opportunity for you to identify those facts which need corroboration.
After your preliminary research, write out the questions, in logical order, that you will be asking during the interview. Combine them into related areas so that you have no more than 10 general questions. Each general question may then be subdivided into three to five more specific questions that you will use to direct and control the interview.
1. Putting Yourself at Ease
Some investigators have expressed concern about how to lessen the build-up of anxieties before and during various interviews which tend to interfere with their investigative skills. Although it may be impossible to do away with feelings of anxiety completely, in this situation there are certain techniques which might minimize their disruptive effects.
2. Introduction and Framing Perhaps one of the most crucial steps in conducting an effective investigative interview is to clearly identify yourself as a professional to the interviewee and to explain carefully the purpose and process of this investigatory interview. Although these skills might seem elementary to some investigators, without their mastery, the task of gathering needed information from the interviewees might be very difficult.
(a) INTRODUCING YOURSELF TO THE INTERVIEWEE
There is no prescribed way in which an investigator should introduce himself or herself to the interviewee. Each interview situation as well as each interviewee will be somewhat different and may require a slightly different approach. One has to remain flexible. There are, however, some basic steps some investigators have found helpful in introducing themselves to the interviewees.
(b) FRAMING THE INTERVIEW FOR THE INTERVIEWEE
Skilled investigators believe that in order to keep interviewees focused on the objectives at hand, it is helpful to outline briefly how the interview will be conducted with some indication of the agenda to be followed. The interviewee feels more at ease when he or she has a clear map to follow. This might include some of the following types of questions:
"We are going to discuss how you heard about this program. Also how you were selected to participate in the program. You may also be able to clarify for us the kinds of support (e.g., financial, counseling) services you have been receiving since you joined the program."
"We are going to discuss how participants are selected and how they are matched to job sites. Also we would like for you to describe why this training program is being offered and what assurances you have from employers for hiring your participants. In addition, we would like to know the criteria for sending trainees to the various training components."
"We are going to discuss how training slots are filled throughout the program. Also we would like you to describe how an applicant usually obtains a slot. You also may be able to clarify for us the kinds of training you offer."
"We are going to talk about how you came to work for this employer and what kinds of changes you may have seen since you were hired. We are also going to talk about your recent promotion."
"We are going to talk about how you select and interview employees for your department and if this process is the same throughout the organization. Also we would like for you to describe how employees are promoted in your section and if that process has always been the same."
3. Some Helpful Hints
4. How to Listen Effectively Many investigators experienced in interviewing say the most important responsibility of the EOS in an interview situation is listening. Interviewees will get an impression of what they should tell you by how you listen and by the tone of your questions and remarks.
Listening patterns that you already demonstrate in your daily life carry over into your interviews. Some of you are skilled listeners; others are less adept. Listening skills, like all skills, vary from person to person and can be developed through practice. Here are some tips on listening cited by some investigators skilled in interviewing.
(a) LISTEN WITH PURPOSE
The first element to listening effectively is to keep in mind specific information you need to verify or refute the problem/potential violation you are considering. Direct your questions to these specific points. You should also maintain good eye contact with the interviewee (although do not overdo it and stare, causing discomfort to the other person). If you are taking notes, make sure you frequently took up at the interviewee. By listening with your specific objective in mind and maintaining good eye contact you will:
(b) SUSPEND JUDGMENT INITIALLY
An investigator stops listening well when he or she has already formulated an opinion in an interview. For example, an investigator might presume a respondent is aware of the discriminatory nature of his or her policies, attitudes and/or remarks when that may not be the case at all. Holding this already formulated opinion, the investigator tends to hear what he or she wants to hear from the respondent. He or she picks out of the conversation those comments or remarks which support his or her opinion, and tends to ignore those that contradict those beliefs. His or her listening, in this case, is negatively affected by this prejudgment and the information obtained will likely not be sufficient or accurate.
When you are in an interview it will be helpful if you can be aware of the tendencies in you and in most people to judge or evaluate quickly and to jump to conclusions and make faulty inferences. Resisting these temptations will increase your listening ability.
(c) DO NOT TALK TOO MUCH
Experienced investigators say this is one of the hardest and most important things to practice in order to be a good listener. Skilled interviewers resist the temptation to interrupt the other person (unless he or she is too talkative or strays too far from your objectives in his or her replies). They generally talk much less than the interviewee and do not jump in with a question or comment every time the interviewee stops talking. They even find that silence is frequently conducive to getting the information they desire as interviewees sometimes need time to sort out their thoughts.
(d) USE FEEDBACK CHECKS WITH INTERVIEWEE
Skilled investigators make sure that no language difficulties on either side inhibit mutual understanding. They try to keep their language simple and clear. They try to avoid program jargon.
When you are unsure about something you have heard, you can check out your understanding with the other person. Questions like the following might be helpful:
At various times in an interview it will be helpful for you to check in with the other person to make sure you have heard him or her correctly. Rephrasing in your own words the content of what the interviewee says, to his or her satisfaction will aid you in obtaining pertinent, correct information. It will also help you organize the information you are hearing so that you will be able to see if it corroborates or refutes the problem/potential violation you are considering.
The following phrases and/or questions are examples of ways to begin giving this summary feedback to the interviewee:
5. How to Distinguish Statement of Fact From Opinions and Hearsay
Many investigators have discovered that during their investigative interviews with EO Coordinators, supervisors and employees, they must distinguish between statements of fact, opinion, and hearsay. Without the ability to distinguish between these types of statements, the information gathered is not useful because it has not been verified. Also the summary of findings from the information received could be misleading. Remember, the reason for conducting the interviews is to support or refute your allegation that a potential violation exists.
It is important to listen to the interviewee and determine if the person is making statements which he or she is offering as fact or opinion. Sometimes the investigator can accept a statement of fact as fact. However, most times you will need to verify all statements since they may be given as fact or opinion.
One way for investigators to effectively label information as it is given might be to indicate in one of the margins of their notes whether the statement is a fact or opinion. Another way is to take notes using the actual words (see verbal cues next page) the interviewee uses.
In some cases, a particular employee may only be able to give the investigator hearsay or opinions about processes. These opinions might be quite important and alert the investigator to ask about certain patterns. At the same time, the information should be labeled properly, and if possible, verified. Hearsay can sometimes be a cue to the investigator about possible problems of violations and can lead to other information. Again, however, the information should be labeled properly.
(a) DEFINING THE TERMS
A clear definition of these three types of information might be helpful for the investigator.
There are some verbal cues which might help the investigator more easily distinguish among these three types of information.
FACTS are often introduced with eyewitnesses statements:
OPINIONS, on the other hand often are interpretations of occurrences and tend to be expressed:
Or by very general adjectives:
Or by certain conditional verbs:
HEARSAY is often expressed as a third-hand observation. Usually the observer is not even identified.
(b) HOW TO VERIFY THESE STATEMENTS
This information will be more worthwhile to the investigator if it can be verified or corroborated by another or better source. Try not to ignore information offered by interviewees or prejudge statements as insignificant, hearsay, or mere personal opinion until you have had the chance to verify the information. There are various ways in which to do this. Subsequent interviews with the EO Coordinator, various supervisors and certain employees or participants can, at times, offer corroborating evidence to verify certain previously acquired information. These occasions are described below in some detail.
If the investigator is given information by the EO Coordinator he or she suspects is opinion, there are many ways in which he or she can verify it as fact. He or she may use personnel files, copies of personnel policies, job qualifications, performance evaluations, and other written material. The investigator may also ask the EO Coordinator for documentation. Also he or she can interview other managers, supervisors, employees or participants to corroborate the EO Coordinator's statement.
Again, the investigator can often verify whether personnel policies described by the supervisor exist by examining policy statements, personnel files, training records, termination statements, wage and salary reviews, and other written materials. Corroboration may be possible by interviewing specific employees who operate under the particular supervisor interviewed or by questioning other supervisors in similar job titles.
To verify statements given by protected group members, select a non-protected group member and ask specifically how some employment policy has affected the groups.
To corroborate statements by a non-protected group member, select other non-protected group members, as well as a protected group member to question. Ask them to describe the specific employment policy, mentioned by the first employee and how it works generally. Any discrepancies should become readily apparent.
To verify statements given by the Administrator, check the recipient's policies, minutes of meetings, and planning council members or other policy groups involved. Often community based organizations are knowledgeable of a recipient's policies. In some instances, participants or other State members may be able to corroborate statements made by the Administrator.
To verify statements given by a participant, discuss the issue with other participants, particularly those not working in close proximity to one another. Be sure to get a cross section of participants. For example, non-protected group members and protected group members who are participants should be interviewed.
(c) HOW TO PROBE EFFECTIVELY
Two of the chief objectives of an investigative interview are (1) to get an accurate picture of how an employment/training process operates, and (2) to discover the major distinctions concerning key selection criteria that make a difference in employment/training decisions. This is a difficult task since many managers and employees have trouble articulating their own experience and how processes work in general. Investigators who are successful in obtaining this information are skilled in the art of probing.
Probing is asking questions about a given interview response to identify and obtain more specific information that the initial response often has behind it. There are many clues as to when probing is appropriate -- here are some:
As we said above, probing is an art. Probing can have both positive and negative effects. The positive effects are:
The negative effects are:
How you probe can make the difference between a positive and negative effect. Here are some do's and don'ts with regard to probing:
Likewise if you have provoked a negative emotion, e.g., anger, hostility, blocking, fear, one way of letting the emotion defuse is not to push but to go back to the subject again later once the interviewee has gained composure. It is important that you not drop the topic completely, if you choose this tactic as opposed to acknowledgment of feelings (see section on Negative Response), you should go back to it later and try again. Remember your goal is to get the best and most complete information possible.
6. Asking About Comprehensive Procedures
Asking someone to describe complete systems/procedures, e.g., the selection process, seems like a straightforward matter but often is not. It is hard for the person you are interviewing to give you the kind of information you want organized in a way that is most useful to you. The ordinary tendency of not being able to give a factually and complete reply is made worse by the perceived fact of the adversary relationships between the investigator and the program administrator. The investigator must work to minimize these problems in order to get the information he or she needs to conduct the investigation.
The simplest and most frequently used beginning question to obtain a description of a given procedure, e.g., the selection process, is the obvious direct one:
The virtue of this question is that it is simple and straightforward, easy to remember and is probably readily understood by most of the individuals of whom it is asked. Its disadvantage is that it puts the entire burden of retrieving, selecting and organizing a response on the person being interviewed. It does not provide any hints of what kind of description would be most useful to the questioner, nor does it give the person being interviewed any framework to aid in organizing his or her thoughts and description. Some investigators have dealt with this problem by using a different question:
This question tries to make it easier for the person being interviewed to answer by giving him or her a way of thinking about and organizing a description, i.e., what would actually happen first, second, third, etc., to a person who went through this process. Some investigators try to maximize the concreteness of the description they get by asking for an actual "walk-through" of the process. For example:
Investigator: If I wanted to apply for training here, what would I have to do?
Program Administrator: You come in and fill out an application.
Investigator: Where would I get the application?
Program Administrator: From our receptionist in the lobby.
Investigator: Could we walk down there?
Investigator: If I came in and said I wanted to apply for training, what would you do?
Receptionist: I'd ask if you were interested in GED or skills training. I can usually tell without asking.) If you want skills training I'd give you an application and ask you to fill it out and leave it with me.
Investigator: What if I want to enter a GED program?
Receptionist: I don't have the GED applications. The lady at the front desk has them. I send GED applicants out there.
Investigator: (Finishing interview with receptionist, then saying to the Administrator) "I'd like to walk out to the lady at the front desk, then come back and talk to the person who gets the training applications from the receptionist.
You can see by talking directly to the person who actually handles each part of the process, the investigator is getting a very concrete description from the person with the best knowledge of it. Notice also, that this "walk-through" technique tends to result in a description of what actually happens rather than of what should happen. (A description by a single source (EO Administrator) sitting in an office is likely to drift away from what actually happens to what's supposed to happen). The disadvantage of a "walk-through" interview is that it can be time consuming and can be stymied if key people are not available. Nevertheless, it is an available way of getting a more concrete best-evidence description of a given selection process.
7. How to Deal With Negative Reactions
During the course of your interviewing, you will no doubt be confronted with people who display some emotion, be it anger, hostility, fear, defensiveness, frustration, guilt, etc. They may come into the interview with these feelings or they may develop during the course of the meeting. These negative emotions can interfere with your interview objective -- obtaining certain information. It will be to your advantage to be able to recognize behavior on your part that may contribute to these negative reactions, and to know how to deal with them when they do occur so that you do not hurt your chances of meeting your interview objectives.
There are certain behaviors that tend to predictably result in less than friendly feelings and behaviors. (Of course, personality types do differ and what may provoke one person will not bother another.)
In interviews with administrators and managers, investigators report negative reactions to the following behaviors:
The above behaviors can either be avoided entirely or handled in such a way that the investigator not only maintains a good relationship with the interviewee but meets his or her objective for the interview as well.
In some interview situations, the investigator is faced with an interviewee with a negative emotion before the meeting even begins. Employees in general, approach the interview situation with some apprehension and fear. Trainees, especially, can be intimidated when told that someone from the government wants to talk to them. They are frequently concerned about why they specifically were chosen, and if they are in trouble or if they are going to get into trouble. Some might say, "I don't want to be here," or "I'm not going to answer any questions," and totally resist giving you any information.
As was previously mentioned in the section on the introduction, it is helpful initially to try to put the person at ease by being friendly and informal and telling him or her that you are from the Federal Department of Labor. Go on with the explanation that you are investigating a complaint of discrimination. You can further explain that as part of this process, you are required to interview many people and he or she was one of those chosen. Emphasize the voluntary nature of the interview and ask if the person has any questions before you begin your questions.
By eliminating the pressure and leaving the interviewee space, investigators report a lessening of resistance and blocking of information. The other person is much more likely to give them the information they are seeking.
Occasionally investigator's report they encounter an employee who is quite distressed and agitated and wants to talk at length to the investigator about how he or she is being treated unfairly. One way of handling this is to let the person talk, jotting down the pertinent facts and then dismiss him or her by saying you will be in touch prior to completing the investigation. Later, the investigator can interview another person to either corroborate or refute the person's allegations and then take the necessary follow-up actions.
Here are some tips on relating to people in interview situations so that negative emotions do not intrude on the successful outcome of the interview.
8. How to Take Clear and Precise Notes
The purpose of your investigative interview is to obtain and accurately record specific information about events, policies, and processes and, as such, note taking should help, not hinder these efforts. Choosing the specific type of note taking that will be the least disruptive to the interviewee, yet help you record the pertinent facts, is very important. Therefore, each investigator should decide before the interview exactly the kinds of information he or she needs to test the allegation(s) and validate information uncovered during the investigation. With this purpose in mind, the investigator will want to compare the appropriateness of various types of note taking, noting whether they might jeopardize his or her rapport with the interviewee or interfere with the ability to listen attentively. Although laborious note taking may provide detailed information about the personnel system, it usually distracts interviewees, makes them feel neglected, or even makes them hostile.
Some investigators feel that interrupting the interviewee always is justified so that they can be assured of getting the information down accurately even though they risk possibly upsetting the interviewee or disturbing the flow of information. After all, they insist, the purpose of the interview is to gain accurate and complete statements of what is going on. Asking the interviewee to repeat, explain, or slow down is sometimes unavoidable. However, investigators need to be aware of possible negative responses and keep the interferences to a minimum. Essential information will include the following:
Since the investigative interview focuses on information gathering, often the investigator uses open-ended questions and allows the interviewee's responses to flow uninterrupted so that the pattern of responses is not changed. If this type of questioning is used, it is better to use notes on specific points or paraphrased notes on relevant data rather than try and record the entire interview verbatim.
NOTE: The use of too many open-ended questions usually produces very little usable information. Left to his or her own meandering, the interviewee often will describe a great number of colorful episodes but little else. The investigator should not feel at all uncomfortable interrupting the interviewee to refocus him or her on the task at hand or to obtain some accurate statement to record. This is essential.
(a) SOME NOTE TAKING TIPS
NOTE: There is no prescribed shorthand method for investigators but whichever one is chosen should be used consistently and should be easily understood. Certain abbreviations, acronyms, and omissions (articles, etc.) are fairly standard and minimize the number of words written.
(b) SOME HELPFUL ITEMS
Some investigators feel that use of the following items is very helpful when taking notes during an interview:
(c) HOW TO SUMMARIZE FINDINGS FROM NOTES
For several years many investigators summarized their finding from each interview after they had returned from the on-site investigation. These summaries were often a brief account of the pertinent facts (one or two paragraphs). Since there was some time lag between the interview and the summary, it was important that the notes be legible, understandable, and that the use of jargon, and abbreviations be kept to a minimum.
By using the Tab Analysis System in this manual, you may avoid this lengthy and time-consuming process. Each statement or document will have a Tab Analysis sheet outlining what is important to preparing your IDR.
(d) SUMMARY STATEMENTS ON-SITE
Recently, it has been suggested that the investigator summarize each interview on-site, especially when there seems to be the likelihood of a serious violation present. If this is the case, take a supply of Tab Analysis Forms so that you may efficiently tab statements and documents as they are collected.
NOTE: investigators must be careful to record the interviewee's version of the facts, not the investigator's perception of the case. Investigators should carry copies of Appendix __ so that statements can be written-up on-site and signed on the spot by the witness. This practice increases your own efficiency and the credibility of the investigation.
9. How to Obtain a Signed Statement
In general, only witnesses sign statements. Most management officials will not sign such statements but it is worth asking. The investigator can note the race/sex on the interview statement (by initial only) afterwards. If you know you will be asking witnesses to sign a statement, plan ahead for the 3 to 5 minutes it will take you to write up the summary. If possible, bring a few magazines to the interview room. Most of the time it does not work to ask the witnesses to come back to sign a statement, it is better to keep the witnesses there while you write up the statement. One highly skilled interviewer gets signatures using the following steps:
Note that the investigator has not mentioned until Step 3 that a signature is involved. The track record for signatures with this technique is excellent. However, this is merely one way of obtaining a witness' signature; there are other approaches as well.
Remember, the purpose of getting a signed statement is to verify that the written account of the interview is accurate. It is not to provide a written document to be used in legal proceedings. An investigator should never bring up the subject of legal enforcement or potential court proceedings during an investigative interview.
This page was last updated on February 07, 2001