Questioning Techniques to Use During Workplace Investigations: Tips (and a sandwich) for your Managers - Vista
workplace investigations

Questioning Techniques to Use During Workplace Investigations: Tips (and a sandwich) for your Managers

When we’re supporting our clients with their workplace investigations, we find that there are three things most managers struggle with:

• They aren’t clear about what it is they are actually looking in to
• Once they are clear – they don’t plan their questions in a way that enables them to stay on track if they get an answer they don’t expect
• How to structure an investigation – in particular how to open and close an investigation well

We wanted to share with you a framework that we know works well; to help managers and investigators establish what’s being investigated and planning those all-important questions. Please share it with your management team if it proves helpful.

To plan an investigation:
1. First, establish what is being investigated

Make sure you’re clear what is being investigated: Which incidents specifically? Whose behaviour exactly? This will help you stay on track if other allegations are made in the course of the investigation – you will consciously need to decide whether to include them in the remit, or not.

2. Next, identify what you’re looking for when you’re investigating

You will need to look for evidence relevant to:

a. What actually happened
b. What the relevant policies or rules are
c. What the relevant surrounding circumstances might have been

Once it’s clear what you need to look for – then it’s a matter of using questioning techniques to unearth the available evidence.

Questioning Techniques – A Few Tipsworkplace investigations

You will be well versed in the different questioning techniques available we are sure, but let’s put them in to a context and look at a practical way to determine what actually happened.

There are 5 main types of question:
– Closed
– Open
– Echo
– Leading
– Hypothetical

The first two of these is where you want to spend your time when investigating. Echo questions can be a secret weapon to clarify broad statements, for example:

Witness: “She’s been doing it for years!”

Investigator: “Years?”

Closed Questions

You may hear plenty of people saying that you shouldn’t use closed questions when investigating – but they can be extremely helpful in confirming what we call ‘uncontroversial facts’ or to clarify a point.

For example, the question: “Were you on site yesterday?” is an acceptable and useful closed question to use to establish that as an uncontroversial point. Why use up energy with “Where were you yesterday?”. Clarify and move on.

Open Questions

These are the backbone of your investigation.

Most people recognise open questions as being those that start with who, what, when, why, how and where. To these questions, you can add ‘question starters’ to make them more open, or more specific depending on what you need.

To make them more open try starting them with something like: “help me understand” / “tell me more about…”.

To make them more targeted try using “what specifically” / “who exactly” / “when precisely”.

We’re now in well-known territory – and we’ve created the famous question funnel. Now let’s go one step further.

The Question Sandwichworkplace investigations

We use this framework during our management workshops and within our digital learning tools – and we know it works well.

Take your traditional question funnel, and sandwich it between two slices of closed questions. Here’s an example:

If we want to explore a witness’s whereabouts, we could start with the closed question:
‘Were you on site?’

This would establish the basic position as we mentioned earlier. Wholly uncontroversial.
Then use your open question funnel as the ‘filling’ to your sandwich.

“Tell me what happened when you first arrived on site that day?”
“What happened next?”
“Who exactly was involved?”
“When precisely did this occur?”

Finish up with your final slice: a closed question to establish that you have covered everything you need to cover.

Something like: “did anyone say any more about it after that?”.

Or, a good default for this is:
“Is there anything else we need to talk about on this point?”

From there, you can move seamlessly on to your next sandwich to continue to uncover other bits of the story.

We like this technique because it provides a structured way to cover all the points required to be investigated and means that investigators are much less likely to stray off-piste when they receive an answer they don’t expect.

It also means that the investigation feels more like a natural conversation for both investigator and witness: Each ‘starting closed’ question will act as a signpost for the conversation, allowing the witness to understand the direction of the meeting, and each ‘closing closed’ question will then give them a final opportunity to contribute to that particular topic, before moving on.

Planning your next investigation

So, when you are planning your next workplace investigation, create a platter of these sandwiches. Each platter will contain questions tailored to deciding a) what actually happened b) what the relevant policies and procedures are and c) what the surrounding circumstances were.

Here’s the recipe in short:
• 1x closed question to begin with
• Half a dozen open questions – becoming increasingly specific in a funnel structure
• A couple of closed questions to finish off.

Now we have covered the main body of an investigation meeting, in order to get the most out of your witnesses (and give them a positive experience) it’s important to give due consideration to the opening and closing of that meeting. Take a look at this agenda, which provides a practical and easy to understand guide to opening and closing an investigation meeting successfully.

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Employee Relations Investigations Learning

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