Interviewing is a directed conversation with a purpose. In the case of interviews for potential dishonesty the purpose is either to gain information important to resolution, to limit the suspect list by determining who was not involved, or to gain an admission from the responsible parties. Intuitively it can seem that some cases are easier than others or that because we have the “right” to engage with our employees in “business” discussions that there is little harm in having a “who dunnit” conversation. In truth, dishonesty interviews can create potential liabilities for a company. Whether those liabilities are as grand as wrongful termination suits or false imprisonment or as small as general “unhappiness,” a company does well to consider that interviewing is not only a conversation, but more importantly a “directed” conversation.
Inexperienced or untrained interviewers can complicate an incident because they do not understand how to “direct” the conversation. In lacking that skill they can create one of the three liabilities that endanger both the interview and the well-being of a location’s operations.
1. Resolution - If there is a single most important purpose to dishonesty interviews then that purpose is to gain an admission from the responsible individual(s). There are no soft-balls in dishonesty interviews and the only method to achieve an admission is to have the correct conversation. There is little margin for error and experienced interviewers understand that even a single misstep like using the word “steal” or getting the facts wrong, can undermine the chances for success. When the inexperienced interviewer steps into the ring they can make the possibility of resolution remote if not impossible. Sending a dishonest associate back to the floor creates a series of problems. The first is that the individual is still on the payroll and still capable of creating future losses. The second is that the individual now possesses more information about our investigative process - or lack thereof - than before they began stealing. In addition, honest associates are left dumbfounded. If our checks and balances can’t apprehend the most obvious, then why would they have faith or commitment in any of the other processes we decree help reduce losses. We can’t apprehend every dishonest associate and we certainly won’t obtain an admission every time, but when professionally handled we can limit liability by leaving the conversation in the right spot, with hints as to the on-going efforts, and with the proper warnings on potential future behavior.
2. Accusation - There is a fine line between accusations and assumptions. An experienced interviewer makes the former only in the rarest of cases and under the correct conditions. A direct accusation such as “I know you stole,” can turn even the most pleasant, easy going employee into a raging future lawsuit…especially if the accusation is incorrect. It might seem the direct accusation is best especially if you have the individual on video. There they are, clearly stealing, so why not just call them out on it? You do have the video evidence right? You certainly have a video, but there are plenty of fall back positions for the employee - “Sure I put it in my pocket by mistake, but I removed it later in the stock room.” In one case I had an employee look at a video tape - I was young and it was a last resort - and she stated “that’s not me.” It was her and she changed her mind when the police showed up, but it demonstrates that dishonest people will say just about anything. Making an accusation is the last resort and one employed only under certain conditions. When accusations are used as the result of interviewer emotions such as anger and frustration they hinder resolution and can result in placing the interviewer and the company on the legal defensive.
3. Morale - If handled properly and, in my opinion with the Wicklander-Zulawski method, a professional interviewer can talk to thousands of innocent employees, obtain helpful information, ask them if they’ve ever created a loss, and send them back to the floor without ruffling any feathers. If handled incorrectly, the interview has the power to destroy, in a single afternoon, the morale of an entire location. Those not involved in theft become allies of those who were involved because the innocent assume that if they were accused and didn’t do it…well then that nobody else did it either. Interviewing isn’t about making friends, but it’s also not about deep six-ing every relationship in the store. It’s also not about placing witnesses in bad situations. Accidental or purposeful slips such as “well Mary saw you do it” creates problems for helpful employees and reduces if not eliminates future assistance.
A professional interview is like a surgical extraction. We want only the bad part out, we don’t want to extract the all the healthy parts of the store organism to get to it. And much like the medical oath, when done properly we limit liability because we’ve done no harm.
Check out the other articles in this series: