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Credibility Assessments in a “He Said- She Said”

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If you’re conducting workplace investigations, it’s inevitable that at some point you’ll be faced with the dreaded “he said-she said” file. I think of a “he said-she said” scenario to be one where two parties have widely divergent versions of events and there are no eyewitnesses or other direct evidence. In these instances, either someone is lying, the truth lies somewhere in the middle, or someone has a flawed recollection.

As investigators, we can’t throw up our arms in defeat and give up on making findings of fact. There’s always more to the story, but how do we go about finding out what that is?

In a “he said-she said” situation, investigators must assess the credibility and reliability of the parties to draw a reasonable conclusion about what is more likely than not to have happened.

As a starting place, it is helpful to understand that credibility encompasses honesty (which is sometimes also called credibility) and reliability. Honesty or credibility has to do with the truthfulness of the party. Reliability has to do with the party’s ability to accurately observe, recall, and recount the events. To that end, a party may present as credible or honest and still be unreliable. Conversely, a party who is not credible or honest cannot be deemed to be reliable.

When faced with a “he said-she said,” there are a number of factors to consider that will help you to assess credibility and reliability. The following is a (non-exhaustive) list:

    • Consistency of evidence;
    • Corroborative evidence that supports or refutes evidence of the party;
    • Forthcoming, straightforward evidence, versus evasive and defensive;
    • Plausibility of evidence (does it make sense?);
    • Admissions against one’s own interest;
    • Motive

Factors that are generally not acceptable to rely on in assessing credibility include personal factors, such as body language and demeanour of the party (such as eye contact and fidgeting). While it may be tempting to rely on these factors, they are often inaccurate and tainted by bias, and are not reliable predictors of truthfulness.

With that in mind, here are some tips to help you navigate credibility assessments in a “he said-she said” investigation:

    • Consider whether an external investigator is necessary:

Since these investigations largely fall on an assessment of credibility, it is crucial that an investigator is selected who is not familiar with the parties and does not have preconceived notions about them. This may require use of an external investigator, particularly in smaller organizations where employees are more likely to know one another.

    • Create a chronology of events:

Details shared by the parties that may seem irrelevant or outside of the scope of your investigation at first glance, may become important when you begin assessing credibility. Sometimes it is the minutiae and information that relates to the periphery of what you are investigating that becomes a puzzle piece that impacts your credibility assessment. For example, a party may volunteer that, at the time of the alleged incident, they wore a uniform, or that there was an office renovation going on at the time. If the other party (or witnesses) disagrees or recalls something different about the uniform or the renovation, this may become relevant to your assessment of the parties’ honesty and/or reliability.

Therefore, in your initial interviews, gather as much information as you can relating to the storyline; the who, what, where, when, and how. Probe for specific details as it relates to the allegations from the complainant. If the respondent denies everything, they will not have details that relate to the allegations, but they may have an account of what, in their view, did occur, or have reasons to suggest why what is alleged could not have occurred.

    • Look for corroborating evidence:

After meeting with the parties, seek ways to corroborate each party’s version of events, including their surrounding “storyline.”

Consider whether there are witnesses that can assist with your investigation, such as someone who spoke to the parties just after the alleged incident or is familiar with the dynamic between the parties.

Gather documentary evidence. If you’re unable to access certain records, some functions within an organization can be good sources of information, including IT, HR, and security. They can provide relevant documentary evidence (such as blueprints, personnel files, security logs), and can speak generally about the organization’s policies, processes, and layout. This information may inform your credibility assessment of the parties.

    • Look for inconsistencies:

Once you have met with witnesses and reviewed documentary evidence, consider whether the evidence supports or refutes each party’s account. If there are inconsistencies, put this back to the parties for their response. In these follow-up meetings with the parties, consider whether their additional evidence and version of events is consistent with what they had told you initially, or whether there are now additional inconsistencies.

Consistencies and inconsistencies will serve to either bolster or diminish a party’s credibility and should be detailed in your assessment.

    • Consider motive:

Consider whether it would benefit either party to lie, particularly if this is raised during your investigation. For example, if a party provides a motive to you to explain why a false claim has been raised against them, explore this motive and put this to the other party for response. If you determine that a party does have a motive, consider what weight to give this in your credibility assessment.

    • Clearly articulate the reasons for your credibility assessments:

Assessing credibility in a “he said-she said” investigation can be a difficult and daunting task. Conducting a thorough investigation and having a detailed assessment of credibility, considering as many factors as possible, will strengthen your report.

These considerations will help you assess the credibility and reliability of the individuals involved and to ultimately reach a conclusion about whether the allegations have been substantiated.

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