How to Use Timelines in Interviews
How to Use Timelines in Interviews

When conducting an investigative interview in the workplace, finding out exactly ‘who did what when’ can be somewhat easier said than done. Because we are generally interviewing a number of people and collating various documents and/ or items, we need to find ways to accurately collect and reconcile the information on hand. One useful tool to use during the investigative process is a timeline of relevant dates, times and events. During and after each interview with witnesses, a well-constructed chronology has a number of important uses.

Recording time

Prior to commencing witness interviews, set out a clear timeline document that can be populated as you go along. Software for this purpose is available, but a simple spreadsheet can be very effective. The three basic columns will be Event, Time/Date and Source. You can also add an extra column within Time/ Date if events are reported to have occurred over a period of time, for example March 7 to March 20. ‘Source’ might be a witness that you interview, or items such as policies, correspondence or records. Also make sure that you are completely confident with your chosen format – having informed your witness that you will be taking notes, it can be off-putting if you are struggling with your admin tools during the course of the interview.

The comparison of chronologies

In the initial collection of data in your timeline, start with the least controversial data that you have. For example, the incident in question might have occurred at the office Christmas party, which is documented and confirmed as being December 17, 2014. Less clear issues around time and date can then be discussed during interview. Yet it is incredibly important not to utilise leading questions as your timeline develops, and interviews roll along. To illustrate – Witness 1 might have stated that she left the party around 11pm. Witness 2 should not then be asked: “Did you see Witness 1 leave at around 11pm?”

Potential ways to maintain the integrity of the interview and the timeline data in this instance could be to ask open questions along the lines of: “Can you remember seeing Witness 1 leave the party?” and if affirmative, “What time would that have been, approximately?”

The issue of discrepancies

As your timeline fills out, it is often the case that discrepancies will arise both around facts and times. For the purposes of the overall workplace investigation, some of these might be negligible and/or able to be explained by other factors (such as the possible haziness of time at a Christmas party!) However, other glaring clashes in your timeline will need further investigation or analysis. It is vitally important that you don’t discard out of hand one witness’s version of dates and times as wrong, instead favouring more ‘cogent’ versions of events. In the interests of natural justice, seek a fair and open method to resolve the discrepancy.

Let us say that you have telephone and computer records indicating that Witness 3 was at work on December 17, 2014. Yet Witness 3 states clearly and repeatedly that she did not work from the office that day. Putting the contradictory information from the records to Witness 3 is essential for natural justice. And she might just reveal with a little embarrassment that her work colleagues all share passwords for convenience: Witness 2 prefers Witness 3’s workstation with a view, and always uses her computer and phone while the other is out. With some more digging, this placement of Witness 3 out of the office on the date in question might well be verified.

Time is of the essence

Using a timeline to trace and develop the chronological aspect of your investigation is highly recommended. Without a precise and cross-checked ordering of events, there is a danger that procedural fairness will be hampered during the interview process, as illustrated above. When compiling a professional and accessible investigation report, a quality graphic timeline will prove itself to be a must-have tool.

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