The Right Question, the Right Way

As every CFE knows, an integral part of the fraud examination process involves obtaining information from people. Regardless of the interview’s objective, all CFEs should embrace the role of interviewer and use the time-tested techniques recommended to us by the ACFE. But asking the right questions does not necessarily ensure key information will be uncovered; an effective interviewer also recognizes the need to separate truth from deception. Consequently, crafting effective questions, understanding the communication dynamics at play, actively participating in the interview process, and remaining alert to signs of deception will help examiners increase the effectiveness and efficiency of our interviews and of our overall engagements.

Some interviewers try to gather as much information using as few questions as possible and end up receiving convoluted or vague responses. Others seek confirmation of every detail, which can quickly turn an interview into an unproductive probing of minutia. Balancing thoroughness and efficiency is imperative to obtaining the necessary and relevant facts without overburdening the interviewee. Because the location of this line varies by interviewee, CFEs can find this balance most effectively by ensuring they ask only clear questions throughout the interview.

Some individuals might respond to a question in a way that doesn’t provide a direct answer or that veers off topic. Sometimes these responses are innocent; sometimes they are not. To make the most of an interview, examiners must remain in control of the situation, regardless of how the interviewee responds.  Being assertive does not require being impolite, however. In some instances, wording questions as a subtle command (e.g., “Tell me about…. or “Please describe….) can help establish the interview relationship. Additionally, remaining in control does not mean dissuading the interviewee from exploring pertinent topics that are outside the planned discussion points.  Interview questions can be structured in several ways, each with its own strengths, weaknesses, and ideal usage. Open questions ask the interviewee to describe or explain something. Most examination interviews should rely heavily on open questions, as these provide the best view of how things operate and the perspective of the staff member involved in a particular area. They also enable the reviewer to observe the interviewee’s demeanor and attitude, which can provide additional information about specific issues. However, if the CFE believes an individual might not stay on topic or may avoid providing certain information, open questions should be used cautiously.  In contrast, closed questions can be answered with a specific, definitive response, most often “yes” or “no.” They are not meant to provide the big picture but can be useful in gathering details such as amounts and dates. Examiners should use closed questions sparingly in an informational interview, as they do not encourage the flow of information as effectively as open questions.

Occasionally, the questioner might want to direct the interviewee toward a specific point or evoke a certain reply. Leading questions can be useful in such circumstances by exploring an assumption, a fact or piece of information, that the interviewee did not provide previously. When used appropriately, such questions can help the interviewer confirm facts that the interviewee might be hesitant to discuss. Examples of leading questions include: “So there have been no changes in the process since last year?” and “You sign off on these exception reports, correct?” If the interviewee does not deny the assumption, then the fact is confirmed. However,  before using leading questions, the interviewer should raise the topic with open questions and allow the interviewee the chance to volunteer information.

The examiner should establish and maintain an appropriate level of eye contact with the interviewee throughout the interview to personalize the interaction and build rapport. However, the appropriate level of eye contact varies by culture and even by person; consequently, the examiner should pay attention to the interviewee to determine the level of eye contact that makes him or her comfortable.

People tend to mirror each other’s body language subconsciously as a way of bonding and creating rapport. CFEs can help put interviewees at ease by subtly reflecting their body language. Further, the skilled interviewer can assess the level of rapport established by changing posture and by watching the interviewee’s response. This information can help CFEs determine whether to move into sensitive areas of questioning or to continue establishing a connection with the individual.

Confirming periodically that the examiner is listening can encourage interviewees to continue talking. For example, the interviewer can provide auditory confirmation with a simple “mmm hmmm” and nonverbal confirmation by nodding or leaning toward the interviewee during his or her response.

When the interviewee finishes a narrative response, the examiner can encourage additional information by echoing back the last point the person made. This confirms that the interviewer is actively listening and absorbing the information, and it provides a starting point for the person to continue the response.

Occasionally, the examiner might summarize the information provided to that point so that the interviewee can affirm, clarify, or correct the interviewer’s understanding.

Most often, the greatest impediment to an effective interview is the interviewer him or herself.  While it is clearly important for the interviewer to observe, to listen, and to assess the subject in a variety of ways, the role of the interviewer, and the effect he or she has on the interview process, cannot be minimized.

The interviewer typically focuses on the subject as the person who will provide the information he or she seeks. The interviewer concentrates on establishing rapport, listening effectively, analyzing the subject’s verbal and nonverbal communication, and gauging how much or how little the subject is telling her. These are valid areas of concentration for the interviewer. One significant risk is that the interviewer may pay too little attention to the negative influences s/he can bring to the interview, process. The terms interview and communication are interchangeable, and effective communication is a two-way street. What makes the interviewer an effective communicator and effective interviewer is not just the signals he or she picks up from the subject but also the signals, the information, the tone, and the body language he or she sends to the subject. It is highly presumptuous of the interviewer to think he or she has little or no effect on the subject and that the subject is not evaluating, assessing, and analyzing the interviewer.

The interviewer’s style of dress, jewelry, and grooming may tell the subject as much about the interviewer as does the interviewer’s demeanor. If the interviewer is overdressed for the occasion, does it make the subject feel inferior or intimidated? If too casual, does the interviewer send a signal of the lack of importance of the interview and, as a result, does the subject become too relaxed or not as attentive? Attire should have a desired effect. For example, when interviewing an enforcement officer or other professional who is familiar with uniforms and clothing as indicators of status, it may be appropriate to wear a coat and tie. In general, it is best to always to err on the side of conservative dress for the circumstances.

The examiner should not attempt to interview two or more persons at one time unless there is no other option. It is more difficult to control an interview with two or more subjects. One subject may be more dominant than the other. The subjects will influence each other’s memories. Some subjects will not want to embarrass themselves in front of a peer or supervisor. The environment for confidential communications will be adversely affected.

When the interviewer responds to the subject’s responses, he sends signals. At times, it might be advisable to not write notes down at the time the individual tells the interviewer something sensitive. Rather, the interviewer might consider devoting his attention to the subject and writing down the sensitive information after the conversation has moved away from the sensitive area.  The interviewer should never become argumentative, antagonistic, or belligerent. The use of the  “Good Cop, Bad Cop” routine can have unwanted results, especially long term. The CFE interviewer should use tact, speak clearly and with authority but without use of threatening language. The interviewer should consistently set a professional tone.

Finally, all individuals want to be shown respect. Maintaining the personal dignity of the subject is critical for the success of the interview and follow-up efforts. Everyone wants respect, from homeless persons to top executives. To be shown respect, especially if the subject is not accustomed to it, is disarming and contributes to that essential, professional tone.

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