Conducting investigative interviews virtually
Updated by Faso Aishath
Conducting investigative interviews is a core component of NHRI work.
Conducting interviews online, using platforms such as Zoom and MS Teams, has both advantages and challenges.
- Some interviewees may feel more comfortable being interviewed remotely
- There is often much less inconvenience for an interviewee
- There may be cost savings for the NHRI – the investigators don’t have to travel
- Access to technology for the interviewee, including a reliable internet connection
- More difficult to assess body language
- More difficult to build a rapport
- That you may not know who is present with the interviewee
- Privacy and confidentiality, particularly when dealing with whistleblowers or other vulnerable individuals.
Setting up a virtual interview
Make sure, to the extent that you possibly can, that the interviewee has access to technology – a smart phone, a laptop or whatever, as well as a reasonably reliable Internet connection.
Think about possible contingencies should problems arise during the interview – for example doing the interview by phone should all else fail.
Investigator and interviewee safety is always the most important consideration when setting up a face-to-face interview. It is no different in a virtual interview except the primary focus is on the safety of the interviewee, on the assumption that the interviewer will be in a safe place already.
Some things to factor into the mix include the location of the interviewee, can they be overheard, will there be exposure to an environmental or other hazard?
Consider completing a risk assessment of any safety issues that may impact an interview as part of your interview preparation process
Pre interview meetings
Consider arranging a brief pre-interview meeting with the interviewee to explain the process, manage expectations, discuss who can and cannot be present and instructions what to do if there are technical issues.
The NHRI investigators can use the pre interview meeting to:
- to build a rapport
- demystify the investigative process, particularly with people who may not be familiar with what an NHRI does and the purpose of your investigation
- ask the interviewee if they have any material, such as documents or digitally stored evidence that may be relevant to whatever is being investigated, then obtaining that information preferably before the interview begins
Generally, dress as you would if the interview was in-person. The goal is to make an interviewee feel respected and comfortable
In some circumstances you will want to ensure that there is an appropriate support person present for the interview, just as you would in a face-to-face interview. This is especially the case with traumatized interviewees. Here are a few considerations when assessing whether a support person is appropriate:
- does the interviewee want that particular support person present?
- is the support person a potential witness?
- could there be an adverse impact on the integrity of the investigation if that support person is present during the interview, such as having a chilling effect on the interviewee?
Setting up equipment at your end
Setup the camera, whether it’s on your smartphone, desk top, laptop or wherever, a bit further away from you than perhaps you normally would.
The camera should generally be a bit above you
Careful what the interviewee can see in the background
Have spare equipment available if possible, in case of technical difficulties
There are many ways to share documents during a virtual interview. If you are likely to be doing so, make sure you know how to do it and give the interviewee a heads up that you will be, unless there is a very good reason not to.
In some circumstances you may want to share documents in advance by email, so both you and the interviewee have hard copies.
Who is there?
If you have concerns that there may be someone with the interviewee who you are not aware of, ask the interviewee who else is present, but not in an accusatory way. Explain why it is important that you know if anyone else is present.
The fact that someone else is there is not necessarily a sign that the interviewee is acting in bad faith. They may not be aware that having someone else there may impact the integrity of the investigation - or it may be that they do not trust you.
Deal with the situation based on their response.
Encouraging the interviewee to be forthcoming
Mirroring, leaning in, smiling and nodding almost imperceptibly. These are some of the tools that many investigators use to build rapport and encourage the interviewee to be forthcoming.
It’s more difficult to do that as effectively when you are an image on a screen, rather than sitting next to them. You may have to focus on the interviewee even more than normal
Assessing credibility virtually
When we discussed assessing credibility during a face-to-face interview, we suggested that you are cautious drawing conclusions about credibility based solely on things such as body language.
This is even more important in virtual interviews, where it can more difficult to read cues and interpret body language
Taking breaks during an interview.
If you have ever participated in an online meeting, you know how exhausting it can be - and it doesn’t get better the longer it goes on. The same applies to online interviews. Consider taking frequent short breaks. How often will vary – use your judgment.
Interviewing virtually takes a bit of getting used to, just like anything else. In many cases, face-to-face interviewing is about establishing a rhythm of short question and long answers. That may not be possible in a virtual interview, for example if the screen freezes or someone accidentally presses the mute button.
Interviews tend to take longer. Don’t be afraid to slow down. Make sure the interviewee understands what you are saying. Give them ample opportunity to consider and deliver their response. Don’t rush.