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Is disparity dishonesty? On the Dolly Parton challenge and credibility

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Did you see the Dolly Parton Challenge meme that went viral in January 2020?
Initiated by American singer Dolly Parton, participants in the Challenge composite four photographs of themselves labelled, “LinkedIn”, “Facebook”, “Instagram”, and “Tinder”.¹ The idea is that each photograph presents a version of the user that corresponds to a different professional, social, or romantic context. The humour in the meme lies in confessional self-awareness – a person can appear and act in one context in a way that might seem awkward or inappropriate in another.

The meme made me think about credibility assessments in investigations. When someone’s credibility is assessed in law, this includes consideration of the sincerity and the honesty of the person who is giving the evidence. Are they telling the truth as they believe it to be? Are they sincerely recounting the events to the best of their recollection? In workplace investigations, investigators must assess the credibility of the people they interview. Whether a person is found to be credible or not can impact the weight that the investigator gives to that person’s evidence.

As my colleague Katharine Montpetit noted in her recent blog post, investigators grapple with credibility assessments. Honesty can be difficult to assess. The Dolly Parton Challenge points to a possible reason for that difficulty: people have multiple, contextual selves.² We put on different presentations and describe different versions of ourselves depending on our immediate circumstances. We may behave in one way in one situation, and take a different, even seemingly contradictory course of action in another. These disparities may seem unremarkable in the normal course of life. In the context of an investigation however, disparities in a person’s behaviour, presentation, and self-understanding from one situation to another can raise concern that the person is not being honest in their recounting of events to the investigator. Is the person being sincere in their telling of one situation but not in another? Are they downplaying or emphasizing aspects of their behaviour to cast themselves in a particular light?

For an investigator tasked with assessing the allegations and determining what is more likely than not to have happened, the challenge is keeping in mind that disparity does not necessarily equal dishonesty on the part of the interviewee. Here are some pointers on how to navigate the challenge.

1) Put it to the person. The investigator can ask the interviewee to clarify. Clarifications can lead to greater procedural fairness and a more thorough interview in which an interviewee has the opportunity to explain any seeming divergencies. Possible phrasing could be:

• Based on what I’m hearing, your actions in [Situation A] are not what you described as your usual behaviour/is different from how you acted in [Situation B]. Can you help me understand the difference?

• Why do you think that you acted in [the way that the interviewee describes]? What made you react like that?

• How do your actions in this situation compare with you what you did [elsewhere]? Why?

• In recounting this interaction, you seem to focus on this [detail] that has not previously come up in our discussion about the allegations. Can you help me understand this?

Note that the above questions are phrased neutrally; in this way, the investigator communicates that they are not judging or drawing any meaning from the disparity without further information/explanation.

2) Consider the context. As the Dolly Parton Challenge illustrates, people act differently depending on their audience and environment. Ask questions to understand the context of each allegation as well as the broader environment of the overall complaint. (i.e. the workplace that the parties share; the relationship between the people named in the complaint).

If the complaint involves allegations of discrimination and/or if the interviewee identifies as being a member of racialized group and/or marginalized community, the investigator may wish to be alert to the phenomena of code switching and covering:

• Code switching is a term that describes the temporary adjustments that people make to their language, behaviour, or appearance to align with the expectations put forward by a more “mainstream” or powerful entity (i.e. one’s boss).

• Covering refers to a similar effort to consciously “fit in,” in which individuals do not deny but do downplay aspects of their identities that are recognized as protected human rights grounds (i.e. race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, disability).

Whether code switching or covering were factors in the interviewees retelling of their actions would be something that the investigator and the interviewee have to further discuss.

3) Compare the interviewee’s account with other sources of information. There may be external sources or documents that corroborate or contradict the interviewee’s account. An investigator can consider putting the external source to the interviewee to ask for their explanation. The interviewee’s explanation may help an investigator to further gauge the person’s credibility. It may be that the interviewee initially recounted what they genuinely thought they did, but they were mistaken due to lapses in memory or sensory perception. In that case, the person may be found to still be honest, but not reliable, because their information was inaccurate. Conversely, the external evidence and the interviewee’s response to it may lead to a finding that the person was not truthful in how they presented their actions to the investigator.³ In either case, the interviewee would not be considered credible, as this requires evidence to be both honestly and sincerely given, and reliable.

A workplace investigation entails not only different sides to a story, but also, likely, multiple dimensions to the people telling the story. Keeping in mind that people have contextual selves, and asking questions to discern the possible reasons behind a seeming disparity, will make for a more nuanced credibility assessment and a fairer investigation overall.

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As it often happens with memes, people have built upon the original concept by using different labels and/or images not of themselves.
In his poem Song of Myself, American poet Walt Whitman famously wrote “Very well then I contradict myself, (I am large, I contain multitudes.)”
The parallel example in the Dolly Parton Challenge context may be those people who post misleading photographs on dating sites to present a more attractive version of themselves.