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Keep Calm and Carry On: When interviewees become aggressive

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Getting Ready for Bill C-65
27 Feb at
in Online
The legal requirements on how to prevent and address workplace harassment and violence will change for employers in federally-regulated industries after Bill C-65 comes into force later this year. Are you ready? To prepare, you will want to ensure that your policies, employee training, incident prevention protocol, resolution procedure and investigation process all comply with the new requirements.

It’s no secret that workplace investigations can be an emotionally charged process. To that end, it is not uncommon for individuals who are interviewed during an investigation to become visibly upset or frustrated. However, it is an altogether different situation where an interviewee becomes downright aggressive, hostile or disrespectful towards the investigator.

The question then arises: when and how is it appropriate for investigators to respond to aggressive interviewees?

Prepare in advance

Throughout an investigation, workplace investigators are expected to remain neutral and objective. This entails not assuming the truth of any allegations against an interviewee; for example, not assuming that they are violent simply because there is an allegation of workplace violence raised against them.

However, in preparing for an interview, investigators ought to be mindful of any indicators that an interviewee could become uncomfortably confrontational. To that end, investigators may wish to consider any known information about that interviewee (such as a confirmed history of violent behaviour) and the nature of the correspondence with that interviewee to date. For example, if an individual became verbally aggressive in response to simply being asked to participate in a workplace investigation, there may be a higher likelihood that they will also behave aggressively during the interview itself.

In such situations, investigators may wish to implement various safety measures. For example, they may want to ensure that there is a washroom/private space nearby should a break become necessary, and that the interview room allows for sufficient personal space between all of the attendees. Investigators may also want to ensure that they can readily access their phone or email should they need to contact someone during the interview. Further safety tips can be found in my colleague Michelle Bird’s blog post, found here.

Manage expectations at the outset

At the beginning of the interview, investigators may find it helpful to explain that their role is to impartially gather factual evidence regarding specific allegations. They may further wish to advise interviewees that they may be asked some difficult, albeit necessary, questions as part of the investigation.

Some interviewees may expect the interview to be a quick discussion that simply affirms their feelings. To that end, it may be beneficial to put interviewees on notice that they will be asked to provide a fair level of detail. Such a disclaimer can prevent situations where interviewees become defensive or agitated about the number of questions that they are asked.

Investigators can also consider offering some water, coffee or tea, and engaging in a casual preliminary conversation to put the interviewee at ease. Such gestures can help proactively defuse what could become a difficult interview.

Address aggressive behaviour where necessary

You have implemented all of the necessary safety precautions, and have clearly advised your interviewee of your role, the interview process and the type of information that you are seeking. Nonetheless, the interviewee becomes aggressive or hostile during their interview. Now what?

In our experience, aggressive behaviour tends to arise in one of two situations: when the interviewee generally communicates their evidence in an aggressive manner, and when the interviewee behaves aggressively towards the investigator specifically.

Each situation carries different considerations, outlined below.

Aggression in the delivery of evidence

Given the range of human emotions and dispositions, investigators may encounter interviewees who raise their voice, become extremely agitated, and use an aggressive tone when providing their evidence. Some interviewees may also gesture forcefully or re-enact a particular interaction; for example, to demonstrate a physical encounter.

Assuming that there are no safety considerations present, investigators may wish to consider the potential reasons behind such behaviour before intervening.

In some situations, the interviewee may have found the incident under investigation to be traumatic, thereby causing them to become angry when recounting it. Their communication style may also be informed by cultural norms, mental health conditions and/or previous lived experiences. Or perhaps this individual has simply had a bad day and is now irritable during their unfortunately-timed interview.

Investigators should therefore be mindful that they do not unnecessarily police an interviewee’s behaviour and impose their own norms about how an interviewee “should” provide evidence.

However, where an aggressive communication style impacts the investigator’s ability to gather the relevant information, there may be a need to refocus and deescalate the discussion. Investigators may wish to consider the following approaches:

  • Take breaks where it appears that an interviewee’s emotions are impeding their ability to clearly articulate their evidence;
  • Acknowledge the interviewee’s emotions and refocus the discussion to the allegations at hand; for example: “I can see that you are upset; however, as I mentioned earlier, it is important that I understand the specific details about what happened that day. If you are comfortable continuing, can you tell me a bit more about X?”;
  • Emulate a calm and composed demeanour by ensuring that your own tone and body language is relaxed. This may put your interviewee at ease and neutralize their behaviour;
  • Where appropriate, ask a defusing, “grounding” question to offset the emotional element of the discussion. I once had an interviewee become extremely agitated when recounting an alleged assault; as a result, they repeatedly provided tangential information, rather than specific details about the assault. I switched gears and asked them what the weather was like on the day of the assault. This neutral question refocused our conversation and eased the interviewee back to the allegation at hand; and
  • Where the interviewee continuously has difficulty providing cogent, relevant information, offer to reschedule the interview. You may wish to consider providing options about the format of your follow-up interview; for example, the interviewee may feel more comfortable providing their evidence via telephone, Skype, or a written response.

Aggression towards the investigator

There may be times where the investigator themselves become the target of aggressive behaviour. For example, interviewees may become angry about the nature of the investigator’s questions, criticize their neutrality or respond to their questions in an antagonizing manner.

While workplace investigations are an undoubtedly stressful process, interviewees are nonetheless expected to behave in a respectful manner. To that end, investigators may wish to consider the following approaches to address aggressive behaviour that is directed towards them:

  • Take a break to allow for the emotions to subside. When resuming the interview, remind the interviewee of your role as an investigator, the nature of the information that you are seeking and the need for the interviewee’s cooperation throughout the process;
  • Where an interviewee continually interrupts you, advise them that it is important to the process that you not talk over one another;
  • Consider warning an interviewee that if their aggressive/uncooperative behaviour does not stop, you will end the interview. Be prepared to follow through with this warning, rather than provide multiple “second chances”;
  • If it becomes clear that the interviewee is simply unwilling to be respectful or cooperative, advise them that you will reschedule your discussion for a later date. Consider whether another interview format would be more beneficial in the future (ie, Skype, telephone); and
  • Where an interviewee exhibits any sign of physical aggression, end the interview immediately.

Self-assess

Notwithstanding the above, investigators should be mindful of their own comfort and well-being. In particular, investigators should take note of their physiological reactions and their ability to focus on the interview.

When faced with an aggressive interviewee, investigators may become tense, lose concentration or have difficulty taking adequate notes. In such circumstances, it may be beneficial to take a break or reschedule the interview to allow for a more productive discussion.

Concluding thoughts

Workplace investigations can be a frustrating process for all individuals involved. However, investigators ought to watch out for situations where simple frustration turns into aggressive, disrespectful or uncooperative behaviour.

This type of behaviour can negatively impact an investigator’s ability to gather the evidence that they need. Under such circumstances, investigators are entitled to implement the necessary measures to maintain a safe and respectful interview environment.


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