• Leah Norman

Are they lying?

Assessing Credibility in a Workplace Investigation


In some employee misconduct allegations and workplace investigations, the facts are clear and undisputed.


Sometimes, everyone agrees about what happened, but not about whether it was appropriate. In a harassment investigation, for example, both employees might agree the one asked the other out on a date several times. But the asker might believe this was harmless flirtation, while the askee found it to be unwanted and hostile. Here, the investigator doesn’t have to decide the facts, but instead must decide what to do about what everyone agrees happened. In many investigations, however, the facts are less clear.


Often, the main witnesses contradict each other, in the classic “he said, she said” scenario.


Now you’re facing what may be the hardest part of any investigation; reaching a conclusion about what happened. You have interviewed all the witnesses. You have gathered relevant evidence. But how do you decide who is telling the truth and who is lying? How do you figure out what actually occurred and why?


Because every investigation—and every person involved in an investigation—is a little bit different, there’s no single formula to apply or test to use that will always lead you to the right answers. When you’re faced with conflicting stories—as happens in many investigations—you will have to consider each person’s version of the facts. Evaluating credibility and determining who’s telling the truth can be difficult, but the following guidelines will help you sift through the evidence:


The outcome of any investigation hinges on how credible the investigator feels the complainant and/or witnesses are. When one person’s statements contradict or simply don’t align with what someone else said happened, you may need to make a judgment call.


Consider the following questions when you’re faced with this type of “he said/she said” investigation:

  1. Will the outcome of the investigation impact the interviewee in some way that could be influencing his or her side of the story?

  2. Taken on its face, is the interviewee’ story plausible? Could events have occurred as described?

  3. What is the source of the interviewee's knowledge? Did he or she see or hear events first-hand or are they relying on something they heard from someone else?

  4. How specific are the interviewee's statements? Is there evidence to support details the witness provided?

  5. Are there other witnesses that can back up the interviewee's statements?

  6. Is there reason to believe the interviewee has a history of being untruthful?

  7. Was the interviewee consistent with his or her story throughout questioning or did they contradict themselves?

  8. When assessing the credibility of the complainant, have there been similar complaints about this person in the past? Of course, that is not an automatic indication that he or she is guilty, but it’s a factor to consider.

  9. What was the witness’ demeanor when being interviewed? While subjective, eye contact, body language and posture can help inform your credibility determination.


Document the Determination - When making credibility determinations, it is essential that you document your rationale. Make a contemporaneous record of the facts and observations that lead to a decision to either trust or discredit a witness’ retelling of events.


Using an Objective Investigator Matters - It’s important to use a skilled, trained, impartial investigator for any workplace misconduct matter. When stories don’t align and the ultimate determination comes down to witness credibility, it is critical that the investigator not have any real or perceived bias in the outcome.

Choosing an external investigator can help protect your organization in the event the investigator is a witness later in subsequent legal proceedings.

Disclaimer

This article, and any information contained on our website is necessarily brief and general in nature, and should not be substituted for professional advice. You should always seek professional advice before taking any action in relation to the matters addressed.