How to handle workplace complaints

4 tips for LP professionals

“LP guys sometimes have to act like HR people,” says David Thompson, vice president of operations for Wicklander-Zulawski & Associates. When incidents such as sexual harassment, workplace violence, bullying or fraternizing are brought to their attention, LP leaders are often on the front lines to handle such complaints. Training is crucial in knowing what to say, how to act and, most importantly, how to gather as much information as possible. At NRF PROTECT, NRF’s annual loss prevention event, Thompson outlined how an intake interview is likely to be influenced by biases that come with experience and offered tips and best practices to preserve true facts.

Wicklander-Zulawski & Associates' David Thompson speaks at NRF PROTECT
David Thompson, vice president of operations for Wicklander-Zulawski & Associates

Ask open-ended questions

The interviewer’s job is to elicit as much information as possible. Closed questions like “Where were you when this happened?” and “Who were you with?” will only produce minimal information. An open-ended request like “Can you tell me what happened?” is the easiest way to get the witness to tell their story in their own words. It is important to engage in active listening and resist interrupting at this initial stage.

Listen actively

Active listening means asking an open-ended question to initiate the conversation and then giving the speaker full attention, waiting to ask clarifying questions until the story has been told. Interrupting can stop the speaker’s train of thought even when they are recounting their own experiences. The incident in question is likely to have been uncomfortable, disturbing, embarrassing or elicit a variety of other negative emotions in the first place, and retelling the story may bring up similar emotions. It is normal for someone under duress to forget important details, but an engaged listener can ease the tension.

If there are gaps in the story, an investigator may find themselves filling in those gaps using their own experiences. “It’s important that we ask clarifying questions and we don’t make assumptions,” Thompson says.

Choose words carefully

“Everybody is different,” Thompson says. The perception of an incident and the words they choose to describe it may differ vastly from person to person. When someone says, “It made a loud noise,” their perception of “loud” may be far from another’s. “Allow them to use their words first,” Thompson says.

“It’s important during these interviews,” he says, “that we use the same words that the subject used.” However, the investigator must be careful not to repeat accusatory words. “Your employees think you know the answer because you’re the investigator,” Thompson says, so repeating accusations is likely to solidify them as fact, whether it is true or not: “Tell me more about that” is a far better phrase than “How hard did Gary hit Craig?”

Elicit as much information as possible

A skilled investigator can employ tactics to put the interviewee at ease and help jog their memory.

  • Use diagrams: Ask the witness to draw, for example, a map of the location where the event took place before walking the investigator through what happened.
  • Increase cognitive load: Ask questions that increase the amount of brain power or memory needed to answer. This method also reduces the potential for fabrications or alterations of the truth as it becomes harder to keep track of details.
  • Reverse the order: “Just like I retrace my steps when I lose my keys,” Thompson says, a third tactic is to ask for the witness to repeat their story in different orders and perspectives.

For more resources for loss prevention and asset protection professionals, check out NRF’s LP resources and tools; to learn more about NRF PROTECT, visit the event recap.

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