To lead, or not to lead

A reliable interview is one where the subject has not been influenced by suggestion, coercion, duress or trickery. The voluntariness of an interview is often argued in our courts and many a question and sometimes the whole interview is deemed inadmissible as the court cannot rely on the responses given. Currently in Australia most investigators understand that an interview is in danger if a subject being interviewed is threatened, tricked or coerced into giving certain responses.However, what about the more subtle form of influence which is suggestion. This often comes in the form of the type of question asked. What does this mean to the investigator charged with the responsibility to interview a subject for any one of a myriad of issues from work place bullying to fraud?

One example of suggestive questions is leading. They are often used to confirm information and expedite the process.A leading question is one that tends to suggest a particular answer to the question or assumes the existence of a fact. For example, was the car green?This type of question is suggestive. Why would an interviewer ask if the car was green unless the interviewer already possessed this information? Therefore the interviewer in this case is merely trying to confirm what they already know or they are suggesting the answer to the subject to get a quickresponse. In any case this question can not only hamper the investigation with misleading responses but could be deemed to be inadmissible and therefore struck from the interview.

Why do the courts frown on leading questions? Let’s use the car example. The interviewer has spoken to one witness who said the car was green. The interviewer now speaks with a second witness and or a person of interest. The subject of this second interview however is very nervous because they feel uncomfortable speaking to someone in authority. Put yourself in a position with someone who holds much more authority over you. Not your immediate boss but let’s go 3 levels above that position. That very senior manager walks up to you and starts to talk about the organisation you work for. You are immediately on guard and feel anxious because you have never even seen this person before let alone been in a conversation with them. This senior manager suggests that things could be done better if certain changes are made. You just want either the conversation to be over or to be thought of in a positive light so you find yourself agreeing with this manager even though you think differently. If this scenario doesn’t ring true with you then think of a situation when you might find yourself agreeing with someone because you are struck by who they are such as a movie star or sports star or the prime minister. What if one of these people suggested something to you?It could be along the lines of your colleague is doing a great job isn’t she?You say yes not wanting to disagree. Most people have a vulnerable situation where they are open to suggestions. The courts recognise that interviewers are often in a position of authority when conducting an interview and it is possible the subject is feeling anxious and therefore open to suggestions. It won’t matter if that is the actual case or not. It is the accepted position and needs to be understood. Further to this as an investigator you are searching for the truth so to suggest answers is counterproductive to that outcome.

What if the car was green on one side but black on the other? What if it is a green blue colour or the first witness was looking at the wrong car altogether. So instead of is the car green? ask what colour was the car? If you want greater detail then use an open question like describe everything about the car?

The bottom line is if there is a consequence attached to the interview. It is likely to be examined bya regulative body so the interviewer must understand the type of questions they ask and the impact they can have. Either that or risk losing the interview and attracting negative comments towards the investigative process and your organisation.