As my 30th wedding anniversary approaches, I have been nostalgic about my former life as a single lawyer in Manhattan. But not too nostalgic—what they say about life in a big law firm is true. With so little personal time, I went on 30 blind dates in one year.
Fast forward to today. In my work as an investigator, coach, and instructor, I constantly polish my investigation techniques. Conducting effective interviews is the most important technique.
Don’t we prepare for blind dates and investigation interviews the same way? The goals are different, but the techniques are similar.
I did some online research about blind dates. The articles are loaded with dos and don’ts about meeting someone new. The steps are essentially the same ones used to prepare for interviews.
Here are some of those blind date tips and how they apply to our work.
Bug your matchmaker
Don’t approach the blind date unprepared. Learn as much information as you can about the other person. Learn about their personality so you will know what to discuss.
For an investigator, remember the witness has multiple dimensions. They have motivations and fears. They have a history with their coworkers. Learn about your witness from human resources colleagues or the witness’ manager.
Every interview must have a purpose. What do you hope to learn from this interview? If an investigation is a jigsaw puzzle, where does this piece fit?
Be flexible in your expectations
Don’t expect the other person to be perfect. Keep your expectations minimal. Leave your biases at home.
There is no ideal witness. No interview plays out the way you anticipated. The bully boss becomes a whimpering pile of emotions once you identify their fear of failure. The meek subject employee suddenly becomes aggressive.
Expect surprises in your interviews and prepare for them. Anticipate challenges. Have your responses ready.
Leave your insecurities at home
If you are nervous about your date, the other person might notice. They don’t know who you are. Keep your head held high. Your date will think you have it all together.
All investigators have fears. We do serious work. A lot can go wrong. Can you turn your weakness into a strength?
I worked with an investigator from a generation younger than me. She quickly developed serious investigator skills. Her apparent youth became an advantage when subject employees assumed she was a novice, lowered their guard, and spoke too much.
Be honest with yourselves. Learn where your fear comes from. Is it a fear of failure? Then, focus more on your preparation than outcomes.
A fear about confronting someone? Then, interview professionally with respect, dignity, and empathy.
A fear of bringing pain to someone when discussing their apparent misconduct? Focus on the allegedly improper conduct. Even good people make mistakes.
Think of the perfect place to meet beforehand
Find a location that works for a good meeting. Also, choose a place that you can escape from if necessary.
An in-person interview needs the right venue. You need a place where you can speak confidentially and privately. You need somewhere that facilitates a good conversation.
You need a safe place. No interview is more important than your professional and personal safety. Choose a location that allows you to quickly adjourn the interview and exit the room if needed.
Don’t be fake
Do not be a liar and a fake just to impress your date. Be warm and interesting. Don’t lie blatantly just to win them over.
What is your professional style when you interview someone? Are you analytical, as if trying to decode what happened so that the puzzle pieces fit?
Are you a protector? Perhaps you convey to the witness—especially the person who made the report—that you want each employee to work in a safe, hassle-free environment. Maybe you treat the subject employee professionally but with the intention of holding them accountable for their misconduct.
Are you shy? Don’t let that be an obstacle. Find your investigation persona and wear it like a cloak. You may be nervous, but the investigator is not.
Don’t bluff. It risks your credibility. Your witnesses may not like the truth, but they must believe that is what you are telling them.
Stay in your knowledge zone, even if it is not your comfort zone. Bring a backup person, if needed, to shadow your interview and help you fill any information gaps.
Open your mind
Don’t burden yourself with preconceived notions or wild ambitions. Don’t have a long list of dating turn-offs. You really don’t know anything about this person. Learn something new from them. They may act in a way you’ve never seen before.
An investigator can spoil an interview by arriving with their mind made up. They think they know what the witness will say. They already factored the expected result into the case. The discussion will be an easy check-the-box step. Until it isn’t.
Prepare for the unexpected. Your subject employee may implicate the employee who made the report. Someone else decides that the best defense is a good offense. Another one decides that “creative amnesia” is a good strategy.
You make multiple real-time decisions during an interview. You can anticipate some of them. Wait to be surprised. Don’t fear it. Welcome it.
Find the funny
Laughter is essential on a blind date. Laughter is human. Laughter keeps things lighthearted. Laughing helps us connect with others.
Improper conduct can be troubling. People forget everything their mother and kindergarten teacher taught them about treating others.
See the human being behind the conduct. Treat them with respect and courtesy. Let them keep their dignity. Look for the improper conduct and not the bad guy.
People make bad choices. Think of them like hangovers. At one time, it seemed like a good idea. Upon later reflection, it turns out not to have been so good.
No one wants to be with someone negative. Don’t share your problems unless it is to your advantage. If your date complains excessively, change the subject.
Interviews can be frustrating. Revealing your emotions plays into the witness’ hands.
The witness may deflect your questions. They may try to answer every possible question other than the one you asked. They may challenge the information they assume other employees provided you.
Don’t say you think they are lying or trying to stonewall you. This chills the conversation. No one cooperates if you start shaming them.
Take a moment to assess the problem. Adjust your questions accordingly. But don’t expect the witness to make things easy.
What can you learn about your date? Do they do any fun activities you should consider for yourself? Do they have a passion that speaks to you as well?
Your witness is an information source. What can they tell you?
A witness can corroborate information that you learned from another witness. If a fact is corroborated, you can accept it for your purposes as true.
A witness can identify other witnesses who may be good information sources. They can also provide additional insights into the matter or further evidence to consider.
A subject employee can provide you with the “why” and the “how” regarding the improper conduct under review. This provides additional context and helps identify contributory factors.
Don’t get too personal
There is a middle ground between not talking and asking questions that are too personal. Avoid discussing family, your dating history, politics, and money on a date.
What are your legitimate areas of inquiry in the interview? The topics can cover anything that occurred in connection with the workplace. You need to respect an employee’s privacy.
You also need to use reasonable techniques. You are investigating an allegation of improper conduct and not a person. Focus on what was said and done.
Don’t give too much information. You don’t know the other person yet. You can always plan a second date.
An effective interviewer does not reveal too much information. That does not mean you sit there like a sphinx. You need to share relevant details to facilitate comprehensive responses.
Be careful about what you share. If you give them a roadmap of the investigation process, they will find a pothole. Share your theory of the case and—appropriately—what you’ve learned so far. Focus their thinking for your benefit.
Leave on a high note
Don’t push your luck on the date and let it go too long. Leave a good impression. You can always see them again.
Some witnesses will leave you with troubling information. They may realize their statements will lead to their dismissal. You should take an “at least we all know what happened” tone.
Ask the witness if there is anything else you both should discuss. Leave the door open for further discussions. Remind the witness that you may reconnect with them soon if you have additional questions.
A successful meeting does not happen spontaneously. We need to look at ourselves in the mirror and have a private assessment. We must accept the other person as they truly are, not what we wish them to be. And then, we combine those dynamics in a meeting.
And we hope the stars align.
Meric wishes success to anyone going on a blind date. He hopes they get to enjoy their 30th anniversary someday.
A good interview does not happen by accident. Preparation is key.
Be flexible during the interview. It rarely goes as planned.
Know your own limitations and areas for professional growth. Then, plan accordingly.
Show your humanity. You don’t have to agree with others to understand what they did.
Respect and courtesy are the signs of a professional. Even if the other person does not reciprocate.