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The Prevalence of trauma and trauma-informed interviewing

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It seems like every time I see the news or read the paper, there are stories of trauma everywhere. This is partially because, sometimes, these are the stories the media features for “clicks.” But I think, more importantly, this is because trauma is just incredibly prevalent in the human experience.

In the last few years, the concept of Adverse Childhood Experiences (or “ACES”) has come to the forefront after a study was done in 1998 that linked ten ACES, or childhood traumas,1 to long-term negative health effects in adults who had faced these adverse experiences.2 Many people are familiar with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (“PTSD”) and the way it affects those who have served in the military or suffered sexual assaults, for example. There appears to be increasing awareness as well around Complex PTSD (“CPTSD”), which is a condition that generally affects adults as a result of childhood trauma. One of the devastating effects of CPTSD is the inability to detect or respond to danger cues, which often causes subsequent and repeated trauma exposure.3

All of this is to say that trauma, and its pervasive impacts, are extremely prevalent, so I think it’s important for workplace investigators to have an awareness of trauma. In some cases, it’s at the core of the allegations we deal with, such as ongoing sexual harassment, sexual violence, bullying, or racial trauma.

Given how much we now know, or are now learning about trauma, I also think it is helpful for investigators to employ a trauma-informed approach to interviewing.  While it is true that not every case involves trauma, we don’t actually know how much the parties or witnesses are affected by trauma, given how common it is. So, from my perspective, there’s really no “down-side” to taking a trauma-informed approach in our interviews, as it is also a great way to approach the process with respect and neutrality.

The definition of “trauma-informed” can be hard to pin down, but for my purposes, I use this as my working definition:

A trauma-informed approach…includes an understanding of trauma and an awareness of the impact it can have across settings, services, and populations. It involves viewing trauma through an ecological and cultural lens and recognizing that context plays a significant role in how individuals perceive and process traumatic events, whether acute or chronic.4

Two key elements of a trauma-informed approach include:

  1. realizing the prevalence of trauma;
  2. responding by putting this knowledge into practice5

So, how can we apply these principles to workplace investigations? I don’t think there are any black and white answers, but I’ll share some of my tips and the approaches that I generally employ, in the hopes that they might be useful for you.

  1. I keep myself up-to-date on the latest trauma research6
  2. I understand that trauma affects everyone differently, and so I try to be flexible in my investigation approach
  3. Within the context of workplace investigation interviews, I try to do the following:
    1. Where the employer has advised a party or witness that I will be contacting them, I reach out by email with an invitation for them to contact me. This gives people some time to process things, and gives them some control over the process by allowing them to contact me once they’ve had a moment to process and are ready to speak to me.
    2. I ensure the interview space is set up appropriately for an interview (blinds are closed, there are enough chairs, etc.), and I allow the party or witness to select where they would like to sit, which of course means arriving before the party or witness.7
    3. Ensure the party or witness has water and tissues available. When conducting interviews online, where I can’t provide these items myself, I always invite the interviewee to ensure that they have water or anything else they might need with them, before I begin the interview.
    4. I provide a “road-map” to the party or witness to explain what the interview might look like and what they can expect, and in particular, I highlight where an interview might be unusual or uncomfortable — examples include witness interviews where witnesses are given little to no context, or follow-up/reply interviews with parties. The parties will usually have already had an initial interview with very open-ended questions; the reply interview, where a different narrative(s) or contradictory evidence may be put to them, can be quite difficult and upsetting, so I try to prepare parties for this.
    5. If the interviewee demonstrates any distress whatsoever, I invite them to take a break to get some fresh air, have some water, or get a snack. Drinking water can be a very grounding activity, which the interviewee may find helpful; having a snack may assist with a drop in blood sugar from the stress of the interview, which can be caused by increased cortisol levels as a result of stress.
    6. I advise the party, to the extent possible within the bounds of confidentiality, what the next steps are, and I provide a general idea of when they might hear from me next. I almost always say that things will take longer than they expect as I realize that, to a party, any wait can often feel interminable — it may be even harder on someone who has experienced trauma, so I try to prepare them for that

Hopefully, you’ll find these tips helpful. If you’re interested in learning more about being trauma-informed, I recommend “The Trauma-Informed Lawyer,” a podcast by Myrna McCallum. She features a variety of guests and topics related to practicing in a trauma-informed way. As she mentions in one of her podcasts, being trauma-informed is an act of empathy. In my view, that empathy is perfectly compatible with taking a neutral approach to workplace investigations in general, and interviews in particular.

These experiences include: physical, emotional, and sexual abuse; physical and emotional neglect; growing up in a household where a parent was mentally ill, substance-dependent, and/or incarcerated; where there was parental separation or divorce, or domestic violence.

Dr. Nadine Burke-Harris’ book, The Deepest Well, delves into detail about ACES and their long-term effects. Dr. Burke-Harris is the current Surgeon-General of California.

3  The definition of CPTSD is:

The term refers to the pervasive impact, including developmental consequences, of exposure to multiple or prolonged traumatic events. …[C]omplex trauma typically involves exposure to sequential or simultaneous occurrences of maltreatment, “including psychological maltreatment, neglect, physical and sexual abuse, and domestic violence…. Exposure to these initial traumatic experiences—and the resulting emotional dysregulation and the loss of safety, direction, and the ability to detect or respond to danger cues—often sets off a chain of events leading to subsequent or repeated trauma exposure in adolescence and adulthood.

I have taken this definition from the publicly-available resource, “Trauma-Informed Care in Behavioral Health Sciences,” published by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), at pp. xvi-xvii. If you are interested in the topic of Complex PTSD, Pete Walker’s book Complex PTSD is a good resource.

4 “Trauma-Informed Care in Behavioral Health Sciences,” at p. xix.

5  Ibid. The third principle of trauma-informed care is recognizing how trauma affects all individuals involved with the program, organization, or system, including its own workforce, but this is more applicable to health care or mental health services contexts.

The Body Keeps the Score, by Bessel Van der Kolk, and Waking the Tiger, by Peter Levine, both review some of the latest trauma research.

This obviously does not apply during the pandemic when we are conducting most of our interviews virtually.

New 2021 Virtual Workshop Schedule – Now Available!

Our 2021 workplace investigation workshop schedule is now available on our website. Click here to view our courses and register today!