Being Interviewed as a Witness for a Workplace Investigation?

Formal workplace investigations are becoming increasingly common. How should you handle yourself if you are asked to be interviewed for one?

By Ramneek Pooni (Grievance Officer, QUFA) and Phil Goldman (Grievance Officer, QUFA)

Once extremely rare at Queen’s, formal workplace investigations are becoming a norm at the University, and you may be alerted about being interviewed for one. It may be as the complainant, or as the person complained against (the respondent), or as someone who has witnessed alleged actions giving rise to the complaint. This Grievance Corner is about the last scenario, which could include someone who was in the room when something was said, someone who was copied on e-mail directed at someone else, and so on.

For a formal workplace investigation, you would receive a letter from the Provost’s office. Generally speaking, employees have an obligation to cooperate with the employer if asked to participate in an investigation. There are very few instances when you can refuse, such as when doing so could lead to self-incrimination (literally, criminal).

In the best-case scenario, investigations are conducted as soon as possible after the employer has been alerted to a complaint and has done its own due diligence to ensure that the situation is one that requires formal investigation. Such haste reduces the chances of memory- and evidence-loss and helps to limit collateral damage that might result should the situation requiring investigation persist. Such haste might seem alarming to those being interviewed, as people normally need time to prepare themselves for what usually proves to be a stressful situation, but speed may actually be a good thing if it helps reduce uncertainty and bad feelings.

Either ahead of time or at the interview, the University or the investigator should give you the name of the interviewer, the terms of reference for the investigation, and also outline the need for confidentiality and what confidentiality means in that particular circumstance, as there is no one definition. Note that if a case goes to arbitration, then confidentiality can generally not be kept.

The questions asked at the interview should be relevant to the circumstances, as non-intrusive as possible, and should not become a “fishing expedition.” You should answer the questions as clearly and succinctly as possible. If you do not know the answer, then say so. If you need time to think over your response, whether on-the-spot or by reconvening, then ask for it.

You are not under a general obligation to “tell on” co-workers unless there is a clear safety issue involved, including both physical and psycho-social safety. Be aware, though, that if you choose to be silent about anything, and if your silence hinders the employer in collecting relevant and reliable information on which it can base its decision, this may weigh against you should the process end up at arbitration or in court. That said, you need to answer only the questions asked. Lying or misleading is obviously wrong.

As a witness, you may or may not be invited to bring along someone for support; witnesses do not normally have the right to do so. If you are not invited to but wish to bring someone, it is wise to alert the investigator well ahead of time in case there are any complications attached to doing so. If you do take someone along, remember that that person cannot participate in the interview: you are the one being interviewed and you must answer the questions. It is up to you whom to bring along so long as that person does not pose a problem for the investigation and abides by the confidentiality rules. We encourage you to take someone along if you are allowed so that you can concentrate on answering the questions rather than on scribbling notes during the meeting.

At the end of an investigation, the investigator will normally submit a report to the employer. The report should not be determinative, but rather one piece of evidence that the employer can use for decision making. Please keep in mind that should any administrative action be taken as a result of an investigation report, the investigative process and the administrative action are open to scrutiny and, if need be, the administrative action may be grieved. If the matter goes to arbitration, those interviewed by the investigator may be asked to tell their story again, this time to an arbitrator and with a potential for cross examination.

If you have any questions or concerns, please contact QUFA. Should you become concerned during the course of the interview that you are being investigated for wrongdoing yourself, and are no longer merely a witness, you may end the interview in order to arrange for union representation. In such a case, we urge to you contact QUFA.

Ramneek Pooni can be reached at poonir@queensu.ca.

Phil Goldman can be reached at goldmanp@queensu.ca.

This Grievance Corner was taken from the January-February, 2013 edition of QUFA Voices.