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Assessing credibility: avoiding common pitfalls in workplace investigation reports

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Writing about credibility is one of the most challenging aspects of workplace investigation reports. As someone who reviews a lot of reports, I find that investigators usually have a good sense of who is credible and who is not, but they can struggle to write about how they assessed credibility. This is especially true of newer investigators.

We assess and write about credibility when making findings of fact (i.e., decide whether an alleged event happened). The issue is that a poorly written or reasoned credibility assessment may undermine those findings. This is why it’s important for investigators to learn how to write strong credibility assessments.

In this blog, I have explained some of the most common errors when writing about credibility in workplace investigation reports.

1. Glossing over the complainant’s credibility

Picture this. You have an investigation in which the respondent gives evidence that is inconsistent, vague, and difficult to understand. As a result, you don’t find the respondent’s evidence credible. You explain the respondent’s credibility issues carefully in the report, and you conclude that the allegations are substantiated. Done – pretty easy case, you think to yourself. Missing from the report, however, is any explanation about what evidence you are relying upon to find that the allegations are substantiated, and why you found that evidence credible.

Investigators sometimes forget that, to find that an event happened, they must have credible evidence upon which to rely. This means that, even if the respondent provides evidence that is not credible, there must still be credible evidence upon which to rely to find that an allegation is substantiated.

Going back to our scenario from above, let’s assume that the allegations relate to a series of one-on-one meetings between the complainant and the respondent – there is no corroborating evidence. To conclude that the allegations are substantiated, the investigator must find that the complainant’s evidence is credible. If the complainant’s evidence is not credible, then the investigator should find that the allegations are not substantiated because they have no credible evidence upon which to rely.

2. Failing to write about evidence that undermines the investigator’s credibility assessment

One of the most common errors that investigators make is failing to write about evidence that could undermine their assessment of a party’s credibility. Let’s once again revisit the scenario above. During the investigation, the complainant explained that they have some gaps in their memory regarding the one-on-one meetings with the respondent. The investigator decides, however, that these gaps are not sufficiently serious to undermine the credibility of the complainant’s evidence. The investigator explains in the report the reasons why they find the complainant credible but doesn’t write about whether they considered the complainant’s stated memory gaps in arriving at this conclusion. This is an easy way for the investigator’s work to be challenged, as it may seem, on the face of the report, that the investigator failed to consider evidence that undermines their credibility assessment.

Any issue that is sufficiently significant to undermine the conclusions in the report should be addressed head on. Often, a couple of quick lines is enough to explain that the evidence was considered, and why it doesn’t undermine the conclusion. (Tip: Using the words, “I have considered that…” is a good way to start the explanation.)

3. Using “credibility words” without an explanation

Investigators have a series of words that they use to describe whether a party’s evidence is credible or not – words like “candid,” “balanced,” and “straightforward.” Sometimes, a few descriptive words like these will do, especially when dealing with the evidence of non-parties (i.e., witnesses) or when combined with other credibility reasons.

However, too much reliance on these descriptors without anything further can result in a weak credibility assessment. This is because, without an explanation, these words can come across as an investigator’s superficial impression of credibility. I get especially concerned when investigators describe, without more, an interviewee’s evidence as “plausible” or as having the “ring of truth.” This is because it can come across as the investigator having decided, simply, that the evidence “sounded” true.

While there is ultimately no issue with using these credibility words, investigators need to demonstrate that their assessment of credibility was based on the evidence that they collected during the investigation. 

4. Inconsistent credibility assessment

Most of the reports that workplace investigators write involve multiple allegations. When assessing and writing about credibility regarding an allegation, investigators need to be mindful of how it jives with the remainder of the report.

For example, in the first allegation of a report, an investigator writes that, generally, they did not find the complainant credible during the investigation and concludes that the allegation is unsubstantiated. However, for several of the remaining allegations in the report, there is documentary and witness evidence that corroborates the complainant’s evidence; the investigator finds that those allegations are substantiated. This creates an inconsistency with the statement in the first allegation that the complainant was generally not credible. This is because the corroborative evidence supports that at least some of the complainant’s evidence during the investigation is indeed credible; it cannot, therefore, be said that the complainant is “generally” not credible.

Often, in cases where there are many allegations, we find that each party is credible on some, but not all, of the allegations. In these cases, we find it easier to assess credibility by allegation, by carefully examining the evidence for that allegation, rather than to make general or sweeping statements about a party’s credibility overall in the investigation. This generally helps to avoid inconsistencies.

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In sum, poorly reasoned or written credibility assessments may make the report vulnerable to being challenged. After completing a report, investigators should go back and carefully review how they have assessed credibility, to ensure that they have avoided the above pitfalls.


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