A federal agency may, at any time during an employee’s career, initiate an official investigation against an employee or request an employee to submit to an interview as a witness. Federal employees should not take investigative interviews lightly.
Even a seemingly harmless mistake, such as submitting a travel voucher with an error, can trigger a full-scale investigation. The investigative interview process is complex, adversarial, and sometimes hostile. The investigators will thoroughly prepare for the interview and, as such, the employee should thoroughly prepare for the interview as well. The following guidelines are meant to assist you in thoughtfully preparing for an investigative interview:
- Prior to signing any document, be sure that you and/or your representative carefully read and understand the content of the document. In addition, request copies of any and all documents you are required to sign, including warnings.
- Behave in a polite and respectful manner at all times. Acting discourteously towards the investigator will not benefit you. Recognize that investigators have jobs to do and refrain from any behavior that causes an investigator to become personally motivated to uncover evidence of your alleged wrongdoing.
- The investigator will most likely place you under oath, which means any statements you make during the interview are considered “sworn statements.” You must cooperate and tell the absolute truth. As the subject of an investigation, your credibility is crucial. No matter how serious your misconduct, you will make matters far worse by lying, or stretching the truth, about any issue, whether it seems trivial or not.
- Listen to the questions asked and respond to them to the best of your ability. Do not attempt to evade any questions or “bend the truth.” As a federal employee, you have an obligation to respond candidly. You will make matters worse by lying or even by failing to provide information that you reasonably should have provided.
- Remember that every time you provide an answer, the investigator will assume that you understood the question asked. If you do not understand a question for any reason, do not answer it. Simply ask the investigator to clarify or rephrase the question.
- If, after you give an answer, you realize that the answer may be incorrect, incomplete, or likely to be misinterpreted, ask to have your answer corrected on the record. This is your opportunity to “fix” any misstatements you may have made during the interview.
- Do not allow the investigator to mischaracterize or misstate your words. If an investigator prepares a summary of your testimony, ask to see it. Carefully review the summary to ensure that it is complete and accurate.
- If the investigator gives you the option of providing a signed statement, request to speak with your representative or attorney before doing so. Depending on the circumstances, signing an accurate, written statement may prove beneficial as this ensures that the investigator will not misconstrue your words. However, risk always exists when a statement is put in writing. You should discuss the benefits and downsides to providing a signed statement prior to making this decision.
- At the conclusion of the interview, the investigator may instruct you not to discuss the interview with anyone other than your representative. If the investigator issues this instruction, take it seriously. Discussing the interview with outside parties may prove damaging or even give rise to further allegations of misconduct.
- Take these investigations seriously and consult with counsel or union representatives who have dealt with many previous investigations. Preparation and proper strategy may be essential to ensuring that you are able to prevent agency discipline.
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