Trauma-Informed Interviewing in Workplace Investigations
By: Keith Rohman, Brenda Ingram, and Cathleen Watkins
Trauma is part of the world we live in, and trauma survivors are present in every workplace. Some people are exposed to trauma on a daily basis as part of their jobs, such as first responders or mental health professionals. Others experience trauma as part of a work-related incident, such as workplace violence, a serious industrial accident, or a sexual assault. Finally, some employees experience trauma in their personal lives that influences how they respond to events at work.
To conduct effective investigations, workplace investigators need to recognize the signs of trauma and understand how it affects complainants, respondents, and witnesses. Recent studies in neuroscience show that trauma leaves an indelible imprint on the brain and impacts memory, perception, and the ability to recount specific events. In this article, we suggest a new paradigm for workplace investigators when interviewing those who have been directly exposed to trauma or are closely connected to those who have.
What Is Trauma?
We now know that the impact of trauma is not confined to veterans suffering from combat fatigue, and many people have been exposed to traumatic events, either directly or indirectly, or are close to those who have. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, an agency within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, defines trauma as resulting from “an event, series of events, or set of circumstances that is experienced by an individual as physically or emotionally harmful or life threatening and that has lasting adverse effects on the individual’s functioning and mental, physical, social, emotional or spiritual well-being.”1
Other researchers define psychological trauma as “the unique individual experience of an event or enduring condition, in which: the individual’s ability to integrate his/her emotional experience is overwhelmed, or the individual experiences (subjectively) a threat to life, bodily integrity, or sanity.”2
Based on these definitions, job-related trauma can be caused by sexual assault; severe or pervasive sexual harassment; experiencing an accident on the job, either by being the victim or a witness; workplace violence or bullying; stalking; operational decisions such as downsizing, mergers, or forced reassignments; and discriminatory or retaliatory behavior that leads an employee to feel overwhelmed and unable to cope.
Additionally, survivors of child abuse, domestic violence, serious criminal acts, natural disasters, or military conflict are employed in all types of jobs; they are managers, support staff, line operators, IT personnel, and customer service representatives. In short, they are our coworkers, and they may become part of a workplace investigation. Their life experiences may impact how they recall events or react to future events in the workplace.
Differences in Professions
The term “trauma-informed” is now used in the fields of health care, mental health, law enforcement, education, and social work. It describes a way of interacting with people in a professional capacity that recognizes they may have been impacted by trauma.
Workplace investigators are not typically mental health professionals. Even if they had such training, their role as an investigator places them in a substantially different relationship with the people they are interviewing. This article is a collaboration of two experienced investigators and a clinical social worker, and we are mindful of the important distinctions between the two professions. Psychologists, social workers, therapists, and others working in mental health have different objectives, different confidentiality restrictions, different reporting requirements, and different training than investigators have. In addition, investigators’ procedures and the resulting reports are scrutinized in different ways than the work of mental health professionals and are sometimes subjected to legal challenges.
Despite the differences, however, both professions rely on asking people about information they possess and learning from the narratives that unfold. Professionals in both fields struggle at times when asking people to describe difficult experiences. These challenges are magnified when the interviewee shows signs of trauma and is at risk of being retraumatized by talking about what happened.
Your job as an investigator is to conduct the investigation even when trauma is a factor. Given the goal of obtaining the maximum amount of information without causing the interviewee unnecessary stress, interviewers are reconsidering how they approach traumatized witnesses. The Forensic Experiential Trauma Interview (FETI) process was developed by Russell Strand, formerly a senior special agent in the United States Army Criminal Investigations Command.3 FETI was designed especially for interviewing traumatized individuals and is discussed in more detail below.
The FETI approach recognizes that when a person is traumatized, his or her ability to recall information is changed. Usually interviewers ask questions that use the “cognitive” brain (the thinking brain, or the prefrontal cortex). However, when someone has undergone an extreme stressful event, the “cognitive” brain tends to shut down, and the more “primitive” brain (limbic system and brain stem) takes over.4
How Trauma Affects People
Bottom line, trauma impacts memory. As J. Douglas Bremner, MD, of Emory University School of Medicine wrote, “Clinical studies have shown alteration in memory function following traumatic stress, as well as changes in a circuit of brain areas . . . that mediate alterations in memory. The hippocampus, a brain area involved in verbal declarative memory, is very sensitive to the effects of stress.”5
Following a trauma, a person may only have fragmented memories, or memory gaps and inconsistencies.6Studies have shown that certain details that were most significant to the person experiencing the trauma can be strongly encoded and stored, while “peripheral details” may not be remembered. These details can fade quickly or be recalled inconsistently.7The authors of this article have direct experience with people reporting sexual assault, who often tell us they have snippets or flashes of memory, rather than full, linear recollections.
Significantly, as Jim Hooper, PhD, writing in Psychology Today noted, the interviewee’s idea of what was central and what was peripheral may be very different from the person asking the questions. 8Put more simply, what is important for us as investigators may not have been that important to the person experiencing the trauma. A person experiencing a sexual assault or other trauma will sometimes withdraw mentally and focus on a seemingly incidental detail, such as an object in the room where the assault occurred, or a sound in the distance.9
“Remembering always involves reconstruction and is never totally complete or perfectly accurate,” Hooper writes. “Such gaps and inconsistencies are simply how memory works—especially for highly stressful and traumatic experiences . . . where the differential encoding and storage of central vs. peripheral details is the greatest.”10This reality undoubtedly impacts the investigator’s primary objective, which is to collect memory-based information, sometimes weeks or months after an incident has occurred.
Addressing Trauma’s Impact on the Investigation
Investigators are highly dependent on peoples’ memories, and routinely want to know who, what, where, when, why, and how from witnesses. Workplace investigators routinely ask about prior conversations, the chronological order of events, and thought processes and decision making.
These basic investigative questions target information that is accessed through the integrative functions of the prefrontal cortex, which brings together various types of memories stored in other brain structures into a chronologically ordered narrative. Generally, most people are able to give dependable, fact-intensive descriptions of events. In the majority of cases, the tried-and-true interview techniques used to investigate workplace allegations of misconduct are still reliable.
However, investigators may be required to interview those who fall outside this normal paradigm. Neuroscience and the neurobiology of trauma tell us that when witnesses have been stressed or traumatized, inconsistent statements should be expected, and could even be evidence the memory was laid down in the brain at a time of high stress and trauma.11As Strand notes, “Most trauma victims … are not only unable to accurately provide … information [about specific details], but when asked to do so often inadvertently provide inaccurate information and details which frequently cause the fact-finder to become suspicious of the information provided.”12
These observations about trauma and memory upend significant assumptions workplace investigators and others in the law make about credibility. For investigators and attorneys, inconsistent statements are typically seen as undermining the witness’s credibility and can factor significantly in how witness information is analyzed. In fact, the California Civil Jury Instructions cite inconsistent statements as among the factors jurors can use in assessing witness credibility.13
We understand that these new concepts about the impact on trauma on memory may be unsettling and controversial for experienced workplace investigators. And we recognize that this article will not resolve this controversy. Scientific research into trauma and memory is still unfolding, and there is no clear consensus yet on how investigators should navigate the credibility issues entwined in trauma and witness inconsistencies.
Fortunately, we do not need to resolve all these issues to conduct effective interviews with trauma survivors. There are relatively simple techniques that workplace investigators can utilize to draw out a witness’s fullest recollections, some of which are already part of current practice. Making other small changes in how interviews are conducted and how questions are worded (discussed below) can go a long way toward obtaining more accurate and useful information.
Interviewing More Primitive Parts of the Brain
As discussed above, the more developed parts of the brain, which constitute our consciousness, may not be able to access key details fully when undergoing trauma. Several parts of the brain—the amygdala, hippocampus, and prefrontal cortex—play important roles in both stress response and memory. This interplay between memory and trauma response can provide directions on how to effectively interview trauma survivors.14
To overcome the hurdles associated with incomplete memory recall, the FETI process works to increase the investigator’s understanding of the witness’s experience, and thus develop a better picture of the totality of the event.15
Many of the objectives of the FETI process align with our usual goals in an interview. We want to maximize the information obtained, reduce contaminating the interviewee’s memory, and maintain the integrity of the investigation. The FETI process also seeks to minimize potential harm from retraumatization of the interviewee, which further serves the general goal of getting reliable
Aspects of the FETI approach that are already familiar to skilled workplace investigators include building rapport, explaining our role in a transparent manner, and using active listening skills and a neutral, nonleading process.
The FETI process adds another useful layer to our long-used interview practices. This approach starts even before the investigator asks the first question. Because those affected by trauma need to feel safe, investigators should have a comfortable, quiet, and private space for the interview, and have water and tissues available. Allowing the witness to choose where to sit is also important. Because traumatized witnesses worry about giving up control, let the witness select where to sit before the interview starts, even if it merely means picking one chair over another.16Offering witnesses this choice is a simple way of giving them some control to create a comfortable environment.
Once the interview starts, investigators need to be able to recognize the signs of trauma and be alert for them. These signs include lack of focus, fragmented or inconsistent memories, memory gaps, nervousness, confusion, disorientation, exhaustion, anxiety, and blunt affect.
Witnesses who are very anxious or stressed can sometimes feel compelled to use their hands and will benefit from doodling, playing with pipe cleaners, or using a fidget spinner. Article authors Rohman and Watkins once interviewed a college student about a sexual assault, and while responding to questions, the witness unwittingly shredded their business cards into countless little pieces.
For this witness, having fidget objects within reach likely would have had a calming effect and also alleviated the awkward apology the witness offered later for destroying the cards.
Offering a drink of water to someone revisiting trauma has several beneficial aspects. There is the basic caring dynamic involved in offering a drink, which can help build rapport. In addition, the act of drinking water requires a person to also breathe, which can be inherently calming.
Many, if not most, people find speaking to an investigator akin to going to the dentist, and any witness can be mistrustful and apprehensive. Investigators already know the opening moments of any interview are critical to building rapport, but this is magnified exponentially when trauma is a factor. When talking to trauma survivors, investigators need to demonstrate transparency and build trust. Before posing any questions, explain your role and what you’ll be asking. If the witness seems reluctant, be prepared to offer a motivational statement that will encourage participation. For example, in sexual harassment investigations, reticent witnesses will sometimes open up if they believe that by doing so, they may help others or prevent harm to others.
It can be helpful to let the interviewee know he or she is not alone, that others have also come forward. Although a workplace investigator cannot usually identify other witnesses, a motivational statement in this situation might be: “We are talking to lots of employees about this situation. Your experience will help management put together a complete picture of what happened.”
Once the witness is comfortable, the FETI process, like other effective interview practices, advises the investigator to actively listen and to show empathy. Acknowledging that the witness experienced a traumatic event goes a long way toward achieving witness trust, but this must be done in a way consistent with our role as neutral investigators. Although therapists can use phrases like, “I’m so sorry this happened to you,” or “I know this was a tough thing to experience,” such statements are inappropriate coming from a neutral fact finder.
Neutral investigators can show empathy by recognizing the difficulty of the complaint process without acknowledging that an incident took place. Phrases like, “I can see this is hard for you to talk about,” can show empathy without confirming any factual bases.
Asking Trauma-Informed Questions
Front and center in most investigators’ traditional toolkit is a basic set of questions, many of which focus on chronological order. How many times have you told a witness to “start at the beginning,” or asked “What happened next”? These techniques target sequencing information stored in the prefrontal cortex and are designed to elicit a linear narrative.
A trauma-informed process is built on a different paradigm. It is designed to get at information stored in other parts of the brain, and to build the investigator’s full understanding of the events, even when the witness has only fragmented memories.
Because trauma so significantly impacts the whole memory process, FETI focuses on drawing out what the witness is able to share. Rather than leading with, “Start at the beginning,” investigators can say, “Start where you feel comfortable,” or “Tell me what you remember.” This simple, but effective, technique lets the witness choose a starting point. It gives the witness control over how the narrative unfolds and minimizes contaminating fragile memories.
“What happened next?” may be the most used question in traditional investigations. But, given the nonchronological recollections that can derive from a trauma situation, this standard question can effectively shut witnesses down; trauma survivors may be trying to fit the round peg of what they actually recall into the square hole of our question. Asking, “What else happened?” or “What else do you remember?” can be more productive when trauma is present.
Establishing a chronology is an important part of investigations. However, focusing too rigidly on getting a chronology from a trauma survivor can be counterproductive and prevent the fullest possible disclosure. In addition, workplace investigators now usually have electronic data that can pinpoint when things occurred, leaving us less reliant on witness memories to establish timing. Text messages, cell phone logs, emails, Facebook messages, and other social media provide time-stamped data that is often more reliable than witness recollections.
There are other concerns about how we ask questions, concerns that are heightened with potential trauma survivors. In an important finding, Elizabeth Loftus, a psychologist who conducted extensive research on eyewitness testimony, showed that people will change their responses based on how a question is posed. In 1974, Loftus and her colleague, John Palmer, conducted experiments on the impact of leading questions by asking students to watch films of road accidents and to estimate the cars’ rates of speed. Loftus and Palmer used different verbs in their questions, asking if the cars “smashed,” “collided,” “bumped,” “hit,” or “contacted.” They found that based on which of verbs they used, the students changed the estimated speed of the vehicles.17When suggesting that the cars “smashed,” the students estimated the cars traveled at 40.8 mph, the fastest rate. However, the verb “contacted” drew an estimated speed of only 31.8 mph from the students, the slowest rate.
It is important to note that the work of Loftus and Palmer was conducted on students who had not suffered any trauma in connection to the researchers’ questions. Given what recent brain science tells us about the intersection of trauma and memory, investigators need to take even greater care not to influence traumatized witnesses inappropriately by asking questions that signal a desired response.
When experiencing traumatic events, some witnesses report becoming frozen. According to an article in Scientific American entitled, “Sexual Assault May Trigger Involuntary Paralysis,” tonic immobility is a “state of involuntary paralysis in which individuals cannot move or . . . even speak.”18 The article cites a new study, published in Acta Obstetrecia et Gynecologica Scandinavica, of 298 women who went to a rape clinic after an assault. Seventy percent of these women said they “experienced at least ‘significant’ tonic mobility and 48 percent met the criteria for ‘extreme’ tonic mobility during the rape.”
Although scientists are still researching the frequency of tonic immobility or similar nonresponsive reactions, Strand notes that asking questions that get at why traumatized individuals did not call for help sooner, or why they did not assist others, can retraumatize them, and cause them to shut down. Such questions may also create, or compound, shame for witnesses by focusing on a failure to defend themselves. Instead, by asking people to share what they were thinking during an attack, witnesses may say, “I couldn’t move or scream,” or “I couldn’t understand what was happening at that moment.”19 Those answers help the investigator understand why people responded as they did and will help build a full picture of what happened.
Other questions investigators can ask include:
• What was your thought process during the event?
• How did you react physically? Emotionally?
• What was the most difficult part of the experience for you?
• Is there something about this experience that you can’t forget?
Getting at Sensory Information
Trauma-informed questioning can include an area that workplace investigators rarely ask about: information about sensory details. During a traumatic event, the primitive part of the brain records sensory information more effectively than cognitive facts. Asking about these sense memories, like sounds, smells, sights, and touch, can enable a victim to begin remembering and talking about what happened in a manner that provides significantly more information.20
Sense memories can be a key to unlocking other memories. Strand referenced an interview with a police officer who was involved in an unsuccessful attempt to prevent a gun-related suicide. When the police officer was asked if he recalled any particular scent or smell in the moments after the suicide, the officer said in an animated manner that he had smelled honeysuckle. The officer was then able to provide several other details about the incident, presumably because the honeysuckle memory triggered other recollections.21
Once the interviewee has provided his or her account, the investigator can then circle back to ask some follow-up questions for clarification and to try to fill in gaps in the narrative. However, a trauma-informed process requires the investigator to continue to be mindful of how the questions are phrased. The questions should be asked in a nonleading and sensitive manner that does not contaminate the witness’s recollections.
Closing the Interview
Endings are as important as beginnings in all interviews, but they can be even more meaningful in a trauma-informed interview. Just talking about traumatic experiences can trigger severe emotional reactions in witnesses, including nightmares or intrusive thoughts. The investigator can play an important role in dealing with this potential fallout.
During the closing moments of the interviews, the trauma-informed investigator advises the witnesses that they may have emotional reactions to having participated in the interview and to be prepared for these feelings. Therefore, the interviewer should conclude the questioning by again showing empathy to the witnesses while still using language appropriate to a neutral process. It is always appropriate to thank the witnesses for their cooperation, and to acknowledge that these are difficult subjects to talk about. If the organization has resources for the witnesses, such an Employee Assistance Program or other counseling, the investigator can make sure the witnesses knows about these resources.
One final point is that trauma is contagious. Investigators’ contact with trauma stories can impact them in unexpected, negative ways, a phenomenon referred to as “secondary trauma.” Secondary trauma is especially problematic when investigators have repeated contact with those who are traumatized, and even limited exposure can bring on secondary trauma. Self-care techniques such as talking with a colleague or therapist, engaging in physical activities like hiking or exercise, and enjoying music or other artistic endeavors are important components of a successful trauma-informed approach to the interview process.
We are not suggesting workplace investigators throw out their old playbook on how to conduct interviews. In fact, many of our traditional interview approaches are critical to a trauma-informed approach, including building rapport, being transparent about our role, showing empathy, and posing neutral, nonleading questions.
A trauma-informed interview approach supplements these techniques. Asking about sense memories, providing witnesses some modest control over the physical space where the interview takes place, being alert to the signs of trauma, and understanding possible differences in recollection and memory are just a few of these useful tools.
Brain science tells us that memories are fragile and imprecise, yet as investigators we rely on memories to put together a picture of what happened. Understanding trauma is a new area for most investigators, and as science’s understanding of trauma and memory increases, the field of investigation needs to evolve as well.
This article is not meant to be the final word on how interviews should be conducted; it is meant to increase understanding and serve as a starting point for continued discussion about these important
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14. J. Douglas Bremner, MD. Traumatic stress: Effects on the brain
15. R. Strand & L. Heitman, The Forensic Experiential Trauma Interview. http://
16. Workplace investigators also need to be careful about their own personal
safety, including making sure they have an exit strategy with potentially volatile
interviewees. In those situations, an analysis of competing priorities should be
17. Saul McLeod, Loftus & Palmer, Simply Psychology (2014), available at:
18. F. Russo, Sexual Assault May Trigger Involuntary Paralysis. Scientific American,
19. Russell Strand & Lori D. Heitman, The Forensic Experiential Trauma Interview