3 Techniques for Dealing with a Difficult Witness in Internal Investigations

Effective interviewing techniques when encountering a difficult witness can make a significant difference in the outcome of an investigation.  Best practices include maintaining professionalism, a calm demeanor, and direct questions to manage the situation and advance the investigations. Consider the following example:

Toni, a teacher’s aide, enjoyed working with children and hoped to one day become a full-time elementary school teacher. Phillip, the assistant principal, was identified by Toni as making inappropriate comments regarding Toni’s gender.  Over time, Phillip’s comments became increasingly frequent and hostile, which led Toni to file a complaint with the school district. Acting on the complaint, the school launched an internal investigation.    

Beverly, the lead investigator scheduled an interview with Phillip. Phillip having already learned of the investigation insisted that all questioning take place in his office, during the school day. Fifteen years of investigatory experience positioned Beverly to employ three techniques during the interview.  

1. Control the Environment

After Phillip insisted Beverly conduct the interview in his school office, Beverly understood that Phillip may use distractions to derail the interview. Upon entering Phillip’s office, Beverly surveyed the setting and insisted Phillip move from behind his desk, to the neutral ground of a conference table.  Beverly sat at the head of the table, with Phillip in a chair to Beverly’s left side.  Beverly’s assistant was out of Phillip’s view to avoid being a distraction.

2. Style of Questions

Beverly began with a set of questions meant to put Phillip at ease. Beverly knew that an investigator’s role was to objectively listen to all witness statements. Beverly began her questions by discussing Phillip’s tenure at the school and his interactions with support staff.

Beverly: “How long has your school used teacher’s aides in the classroom, and are you regularly in the classroom when aides are present?

Phillip: “I am never alone with the aides. My job is to supervise teachers and assist with student curriculum.”

Three to four questions into the interview, Beverly realized that Phillip was being non-responsive and refusing to provide direct answers. Phillip was being evasive. Upon reviewing her notes, Beverly also realized she was posing compound questions that allowed Phillip to be evasive. By rephrasing questions and covering only one topic at a time, Beverly was able to ascertain whether Phillip was intentionally being evasive or taking advantage of unclear questions. Presenting simple open-ended questions allows investigators a true assessment of a witness’ willingness to cooperate.  If the witness continues to be evasive after an adjustment in the investigator’s style of questioning, remain professional and return to all unaddressed issues.

3. Summary of Supporting Evidence

Beverly obtained staff statements, emails, and text messages between Phillip and Toni. As Phillip continued to evade questions, Beverly presented the dates, times, and summary of the text messages to elicit more effective responses from Phillip. When an investigator has emails or other statements at their disposal, an evasive witness must decide whether to admit or deny the allegations. By limiting the witness’ opportunity to challenge questions, investigators are provided with the chance to lock in a witness’ story and access credibility.

A difficult witness does not mean the end of an investigation. An evasive witness is not grounds for a tense exchange between investigator and subject.  Instead, investigators should identify the witness type (i.e. evasive, combative) control the interview setting, use one simple topic question and present a difficult witness with a summary of relevant documents to elicit responsive answers.