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Trauma Informed Approach to Workplace Investigations


A workplace investigation is a process that enables the resolution of workplace complaints by determining unknown or disputed facts and making findings in relation to inappropriate conduct. During this process an Investigator must be mindful that some interviewees may have been subject to trauma.

What is Trauma and How Does It Affect Memory?

Trauma is essentially a person’s emotional response to a distressing experience. Trauma can arise from incidents such as workplace violence, workplace bullying, sexual harassment or assault and workplace accidents. However, not every person who experiences a distressing event will experience trauma.

A person who has experienced trauma tends to be unable to accurately provide specific details about the event and when asked to do so often inadvertently provides inaccurate information and details. This is because trauma affects a person’s memory. During a traumatic event, the prefrontal cortex of the brain frequently shuts down leaving the less primitive parts of the brain to experience and record the event. A person who has experienced trauma may also withdraw mentally during an interview to focus on incidental details such as an object in the room or a sound in the distance.

These observations about trauma and memory would normally lead an Investigator to make adverse assumptions about credibility. It also presents a challenge when trying to ascertain the complaint details. This is particularly the case as traumatized people tend to present for interview in a highly agitated or emotionally unpredictable state and may need several breaks.

Trauma-Informed Approach

In these circumstances, it is important that an Investigator adopts a ‘trauma-informed approach’ to the workplace investigation process.

A trauma-Informed approach means the Investigator is:

  • able to identify trauma; and
  • acknowledges that one or more participants involved in the investigation may be experiencing trauma unrelated to the present matter.

Once trauma is recognised, the Investigator will need to adapt the interview so as to mitigate re-traumatising or triggering the interviewee. Essentially, the goal of the investigator is to obtain the maximum amount of information without causing the interviewee unnecessary stress.

There are three parts to the interview process.

A. Prior to Asking Questions

A trauma-informed approach starts prior to asking any questions. Rapport is important regardless of who is being interviewed. However, for a traumatised interviewee it is vital. The investigator should spend time introducing themselves, find out more about the interviewee and explain the Investigator’s role.

A traumatised interviewee will need to feel safe so the interview should be conducted in a comfortable, quiet and private space with water and tissues available. The interviewee should have already been allowed a support person. Traumatised interviewees are concerned about giving up control so it is important to allow them to decide where to sit such as choosing one chair over another.

Once the interview starts, the Investigator needs to be able to recognise the signs of trauma. This includes a lack of focus, fragmented or inconsistent memories, memory gaps, nervousness, confusion, disorientation, exhaustion, anxiety and blunt effect which is where a person shows almost no emotion.

Interviewees who are very anxious or stressed may feel compelled to use their hands and will benefit from scribbling on a piece of paper or using a fidget spinner. Such items should be made available.

Offering a drink of water to a person recalling trauma can be helpful as it has several beneficial aspects. Firstly, there is the caring aspect which can help build rapport. Secondly, the act of drinking requires a person to breathe which is inherently calming.

Demonstrating empathy is important. However, this can be difficult in front of an emotional interviewee as the Investigator needs to avoid the appearance of being bias. Statements such as “I can see this is hard for you to talk about” is a way to show empathy by recognising the difficulty with the complaint process without acknowledging that the incident took place.

B. Trauma Informed Questions

As trauma can significantly impact a person’s memory, it is appropriate to focus on what the interviewee is able to recall. For instance, instead of beginning with “Start from the beginning” it is preferable to say “Start where you feel comfortable,” or “Tell me what you remember.” This allows the interviewee more control over how the narrative unfolds and minimises contaminating fragile memories.

Standard questions such as “What happened next?” can be counter-productive for a traumatised person as nonchronological recollections can derive from a trauma situation. Questions such as “What else happened?” or “What else do you remember?” can be more productive when trauma is present.

Avoid using legal terminology that may have a negative impact and discourage a person from reporting or pursuing a complaint by making them feel they are over-reacting or ‘making a fuss’. For example, during an interview do not refer to a person who has made a sexual harassment complaint as ‘the complainant’. Further, do not refer to them as ‘the victim’ as this has a disempowering effect.

Establishing a chronology is important. The use of electronic data or documentary evidence can determine when incidents occurred thereby making the Investigator less reliant on the interviewee’s memory. For example, text messages, mobile phone logs and attendance sheets are useful sources of evidence to determine chronology.

During a traumatic event the primitive part of our brain records sensory information more effectively than cognitive facts. Therefore, questions about sense memories such as sounds, smells, sights and touch can enable an interviewee to recall significantly more information.

Once the interviewee has provided their account, the Investigator can then ask follow-up questions for clarification and attempt to fill in gaps in their evidence. The Investigator must still apply a trauma-informed process by asking questions in a non-leading and sensitive manner that does not contaminate the interviewee’s recollections.

C. Closing the Interview

Merely speaking about traumatic experiences can trigger severe emotional reactions including nightmares or intrusive thoughts.

The Investigator can assist by:

  • advising that the interviewee may have emotional reactions to having participated in the interview and to be prepared for these feelings;
  • showing empathy while still using language appropriate to the neutral process;
  • thank the interviewee for their cooperation;
  • acknowledge that these are difficult topics to speak about;
  • where the organisation has an Employee Assistance Program or other support/counselling service, then this should be made known to the interviewee.

Take home points

The use of a trauma-informed approach to workplace investigations is necessary when interviewing people that have experienced trauma. Trauma may be experienced from a range of distressing events. When conducting interviews, the Investigator must be mindful of the effects that trauma has on a person’s memory and their ability to participate in the interview process.

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Mapien Workplace Strategists is a specialist people consultancy with extensive experience conducting workplace investigations of sensitive matters. If you would like to know more about a trauma-informed approach to workplace investigations, please contact us and a Mapien Workplace Strategist will be in touch within 24 hours.

Coming Soon…. Webinar

Further to this topic, our Mapien team will be hosting a webinar discussing Trauma-Informed Approach to Workplace Investigations.

Stay tuned for dates and webinar invitation!

Written by
Charles Lentini
Charles combines his passion for delivering successful outcomes with his extensive experience in both the public and private sector to provide tailored and practical Industrial Relations solutions. He has a calm, methodical and diligent approach to solving complex issues which allows him to analyse each issue logically and instil confidence in his clients.