I learned a great deal about the importance of using a trauma informed approach to interviewing during my time as a Member of the Parole Board of Canada, interviewing offenders in what were often highly-charged and emotional hearings regarding their conditional release from prison. The goal of using a trauma informed approach is to avoid re-traumatizing (adding unnecessary stress or doing further damage) those being interviewed. A benefit of the approach is that you are likely to get better information, and the interviewee will leave the meeting feeling respected rather than victimized by the interview itself.

A trauma informed approach is not developed through following a checklist or a list of techniques, but rather by being constantly aware, paying attention, and being sensitive to the experiences of others.

Consider the following when thinking about a trauma informed approach to interviewing:

  1. Build some rapport. Neutrality is key to an investigation, but the person you are interviewing will not be as forthcoming if you begin your questioning completely cold. Begin with some simple questions regarding the person’s role or background that will allow them to observe your interview style before you begin to discuss more difficult topics. You might also ask how they are feeling about being interviewed. Acknowledging the difficult situation the person is involved in (without expressing your opinion) can also be helpful in building rapport.
  1. Give the interviewee a sense of control. Allow the person being interviewed some control over the interview. Ask them where they would like to sit. Tell them from the start that it is ok for them to ask for a break whenever they feel that it they need it. Tell them the topic areas that you will discuss, and ask them where they want to start. When interviewing someone who has been through a traumatic incident, allow them to tell their story without frequent interruptions. You can ask follow up questions once they have relayed the narrative in the most comfortable way for them.
  1. Choose your questions carefully. Where possible, ask open-ended questions. Avoid a cross examination approach. Don’t ask questions that sound accusatory or judgemental, for example, “Why didn’t you talk to your supervisor right away?” Don’t be afraid of pauses—quiet reflection may be important in terms of allowing the interviewee time to gather their thoughts.
  1. Be sensitive to differences. Be aware of gender and cultural issues that may impact the situation. Some cultural groups may be less comfortable responding to questions of a personal nature. Cultural differences might result in misinterpretation of body language or non-verbal cues. The person being interviewed might feel more comfortable with a support person of the same gender or from their cultural group.
  1. Consider what you are bringing to the table. Be aware of your own issues, experiences, and biases and how they might affect your questioning. Are you convinced that this person did something wrong? Does this person remind you of someone from your own life? Are you personally outraged or offended by the accusations? If you are reacting in a negative way during an interview, take a break and consider why this is happening.

When dealing with a serious workplace complaint of harassment or bullying, or if there are concerns about bias in conducting an investigation, an employer may want to consider engaging the services of an independent, third party investigator.  At Forte Law we provide third-party investigation services in the workplace, and use a trauma informed approach in doing this work.

This blog is not intended to serve as legal advice, and only provides general information.

Every situation must be considered on its own facts. Need legal advice? Contact me [email protected].

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