Asked and Answered

Some months ago, I was involved as a member of an out-of-town fraud examination team during which the question of note taking during an investigative interview arose. A younger member of the team (a junior internal auditor) wanted to know about approaches to the documentation of not just one, but possibly of the several prospective interview sessions it initially appeared might be necessary regarding the examination.

As the ACFE tells us, notes, whether handwritten or recorded, always send an unambiguous signal to the subject that the interviewer is memorializing his or her comments. Interviews without notes are significantly limited in their value and may even signal to the interview subject that it may later be just a question of her word against the interviewer’s. If the interviewer takes only cryptic or shorthand notes and later reviews those notes with the subject to confirm what was said, the interviewer should recognize that the notes, while confirmed and edited to a certain extent, will still be less than complete.

On the other hand, tape recording an interview is a significant obstacle to full cooperation. People are reluctant to be recorded. For the most part, the use of tape recorders to take notes is not recommended in situations involving a potential fraud. Most subjects will resist the use of recorders and, even in circumstances where the subject may have agreed to their use, their responses will be more guarded than if a recorder was not used. If a recorder is used, be sure to begin the taping by recording the date, time, names of the individuals present, and an acknowledgment by the subject that they know the interview is being recorded and they have agreed to be recorded.

Once the interviewer has determined how s/he will document the interview, s/he should ask the subject if it is okay to take notes or record the session. It is the polite and professional thing to do and it serves two purposes:

–It is part of the process by which the subject is encouraged to be a participant;
–If the subject balks or tells the interviewer she does mind that the interviewer takes notes, it can open a line of questioning by the interviewer to determine the exact cause of the subject’s objections;

The subject should always be advised that note taking is critical to the integrity of the process and that notes ensure that what the subject says is documented properly. Failure to take notes limits the information to the memory and interpretation of the interviewer.  In a professional setting, most subjects will understand the critical nature of notes. Very few people will say it is not all right to take notes, regardless of how they feel about it. If they are absolutely opposed to the taking of notes, find out why and concentrate on what the subject says and reduce the interview to notes as quickly as possible after the interview. With a hostile subject who opposes note taking, the interviewer can ask if it is okay for her to make selected notes regarding dates or things the interviewer might not remember later. The interviewer can explain that it is important that s/he understand the subject’s position or communication correctly. If the subject is still adamant about the interviewer not taking notes, it should be documented in the interviewer’s report.

As the fraud interviewer develops his or her interviewing skill set, s/he should concentrate on taking verbatim notes which, among other things, include, at a minimum, nouns, pronouns, and verbs. Some practitioners recommend that the interviewer not attempt to write everything down. The argument is that, in doing so, the interviewer will not have an opportunity to observe the subject’s nonverbal communications.

The generally accepted recommendation is, therefore, where feasible, that the interviewer take down verbatim as much of what the subject says as is possible. This includes repeated words and parenthetical comments. This practice allows the interviewer to later review what the subject said as opposed to what the interviewer thought the subject said. Note taking also provides additional documentation of what the subject is communicating and (when reviewed after the fact in the light of additional knowledge) of what the subject has excluded.

During the act of taking notes, the interviewer should exercise caution. Taking notes intermittently can signal to the subject that the interviewer takes notes only when the information is important. Conversely, if, during the interview, a very sensitive area is broached, or if the subject indicates that s/he is uncomfortable with an area or issue, the interviewer can put her pencil down, lean forward, establish good eye contact, and listen to the subject. The simple suspension of note taking may place the subject at ease. As soon as the interview moves to a less sensitive area, the interviewer should try to reduce the previously mentioned sensitive area to notes. If the subject associates note taking with core interview information, the subject may interpret continued note taking as encouragement to continue talking.

The interviewer should not write down interpretive comments while taking notes. The interviewer should however make notes, where appropriate, in cases where verbal and
nonverbal indications of both resistance or cooperation are found.

The interviewer should always take notes with the possibility in mind that the notes may be subjected to third party scrutiny. This scrutiny may extend to opposing counsel in the event of litigation. The interviewer’s notes may or may not be privileged materials. With this in
mind, the interviewer should consider the following:

–Begin each separate set of interview notes on a clean page;
–Identify the date, time, and place of the interview and all the individuals present at the interview;
–Obtain as much background data on the subject as possible, including telephone numbers, and identify means of contacting him or her, including alternate numbers for family and friends;
–Initial and date the notes;
–Document the interviewer’s questions;
–Take verbatim notes if possible. Concentrate, but do not limit notes of the subject’s responses to:
• Nouns
• Pronouns
• Verb tense
• Qualifiers
• Indicators of responsibility, innocence, or guilt
–Do not document conclusions or interpretations;
–Report any unusual change in body language in an objective manner. Document the changes in body language and tone, if applicable, in conjunction with notes of what the subject or interviewer said at the time the body language or tone changed;
–At the conclusion of the interview, review the notes with the subject to confirm what the subject has said.

Finally, following the interview, your notes should be reproduced in printed form as quickly as possible.  Enough cannot be said for the value of a well-documented set of interview notes for every aspect of a subsequent investigation; their presence or absence can make or break your entire case.

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