Trauma-Informed Interviewing: A Compassionate and Effective Approach

I have interviewed many people over the years. Complainants, offenders, and witnesses. You should prepare an interview plan to allow you to address key issues. What are you trying to discover? You sit down and ask the questions and expect the answers. But do we think enough about the person we are speaking to?

I recently interviewed a witness. It related to allegations of bullying. A relatively simple matter to investigate. Allegations made, witnesses present, evidence gathered, report written.

However, there is another side we, as investigators, must consider. The impact of the investigation on all parties. The witness broke down during the interview. Was this my fault? Did I fail to prepare properly? Did I fail to consider the “feelings” of the witness?

This led me to consider the need to adopt a compassionate and effective approach to trauma-informed interviewing.

I realised trauma-based interviewing is an approach to communication that recognises and respects the potential impact of trauma on an individual’s life.

It is a sensitive, empathetic, and supportive method to interview individuals who have experienced trauma, ensuring that they feel comfortable and safe while sharing their experiences. This technique not only helps the interviewee feel more at ease but also promotes more accurate and reliable information gathering.

Investigators need to think more about the person we are about to speak to. It does not matter whether they are the complainant, a witness, or the alleged offender.

We need to appreciate trauma is an emotional response to an event or series of events that a person perceives as physically or emotionally harmful. It can have lasting adverse effects on an individual’s mental, emotional, and physical well-being. The experience of trauma is subjective, and people react to and recover from traumatic events in different ways.

Investigators sometimes do not appreciate the emotions felt by persons we speak to. We plough on with the investigation, gathering evidence and getting ready for the next one. We should consider the fundamentals of trauma-informed interviewing.

Trauma-informed interviewing is based on the understanding that many individuals have experienced trauma in their lives. This approach allows for a more compassionate and effective dialogue, providing a safe space for the interviewee to share their story without re-traumatizing them. We do not know what feelings we may trigger as we speak to the parties.

I conducted some research to identify what I believe to be the key principles of trauma-based interviewing. These are:

Safety: Create a safe and welcoming environment for the interviewee. Ensure the space is free from distractions, noise, and potential triggers. Communicate the purpose and goals of the interview clearly and maintain confidentiality.

Empathy and Compassion: Approach the interview with genuine empathy and understanding. Listen actively, validate the interviewee’s feelings, and acknowledge their courage in sharing their experiences.

Choice and Control: Allow the interviewee to have control over the process. Give them the option to choose.

Explain the process: Make sure the interviewee knows what will happen. Do not provide false assurances (no one will find out, etc.).

Follow up: Where appropriate, follow up personally.  If not, speak to someone in the organisation to alert them to potential difficulties with the person because of the trauma of the incident.

If you need help, then contact me ([email protected] or

#acca #TraumaInformedInterviewing #TraumaBasedApproach #InterviewingSurvivors #TraumaRecovery #InterviewingSkills #InterviewTechniques #TherapeuticInterviewing #InterviewingTraumaVictims #TraumaTherapy #MentalHealthInterviewing #PsychologicalTrauma #TraumaAwareness #InterviewingBestPractices #TraumaSensitiveInterviewing

The Danger Season is Approaching

The Christmas season is fast approaching. Parties are being planned. 

Joy and happiness abound as we move to a festive season without Covid restrictions.

However, danger lurks- what may occur at the Christmas party? 

Christmas parties can be a WHS minefield! 

Exuberant guests fuelled by alcohol may cross the line with comments and actions. 

Alcohol may also lead to accidents at the venue and travelling from the venue.

Employers have a responsibility to act to ensure the safety and welfare of staff and associates at the parties.

Some actions may include:

• Make sure the venue has no “hidden” dangers which may expose employees to accidents. Potential hazards which may cause a fall, a slip or trip.
• Limiting and monitoring alcohol consumption.
• Providing access to transport (Uber, Taxis etc) to make sure people travel safely after the event.
• Reinforce with employees the expected behaviour and limitations on consumption of alcohol at the event.
• Appoint people to monitor conduct at the function.

Remember the function is still a workplace even though it is a Christmas party. The Code of Conduct and behaviour guidelines apply.

Overindulgence in alcohol has the potential to increase the risk of accidents and sexual harassment. Remember the bar on sexual harassment is lower now–inappropriate touching and/or comments will open the door to a claim.

What do I do if someone complains? The most important thing is to treat the complaint seriously. Do not write it off. Respond in a timely manner. Arrange for a fair and confidential workplace investigation. The investigation must provide procedural fairness to everyone.

ACCA can assist with an independent, unbiased investigation. This removes any allegations of actual or perceived conflict of interest. See or contact me direct at [email protected].

When Sex Takes Over

Sexual Harassment ACCA Blog Post

When sex takes over

Sex and alcohol in the workplace can lead to major trouble.

Today I would like to review a matter involving sex, alcohol and lies.

First, let me set the scene:

It is a combined Christmas party and a farewell party. The company paid $25 a head towards the costs of the function. Several employees attended it.

Before the function, several employees went to a hotel (“A”) for pre-dinner drinks.

Other employees arranged accommodation at another hotel–we will call this hotel “B” for clarity.

The function was well lubricated with copious amounts of alcohol flowing.

To describe the function and subsequent activities as bawdy would not do it justice.

After the function, several employees returned to Hotel B. One of these (we will call Madam X for her sake) came to the room with other employees. Some employees were trying to sleep despite the interruptions.

Madam X decided it would be great to have a little fun–she had a bath with two other employees. She then stood at the bathroom door with a bath towel around her body while another employee went to the toilet.

That must have triggered something in her, so she jumped in the bath with two employees. She then had sexual intercourse with another employee then another.

All of her actions were within the view and/or earshot of other employees in the room.

The complaint

The behaviour of Madam X and the other employees who engaged in the sexual behaviour and exhibition shocked one of the other employees. She rang the Acting Manager of the store–she was hysterical as she outlined the conduct. The manager confirmed the conduct by speaking with two other employees who were present.

One person could not come to work because she was crying and hyperventilating. Another employee stated she was distressed and disgusted by the activities.

The company suspended the employees involved in the sexual activities.

The investigation

The company spoke to employees who were present. These employees confirmed the activities and expressed disgust by what had occurred. Some expressed remorse about not stopping the conduct before it escalated.

The investigator questioned Madam X. She initially denied having sex. She said she could not remember. She inferred she was so affected by alcohol she could not remember what happened.

The investigator questioned her again some two weeks later. He asked specific questions about the sexual activity on the night. She replied “no comment” or she did not recall.

The interviewer then told her:

• “[W]e feel you have been dishonest with us throughout this interview process. In particular, you have lied to us about:
• Whether you had sex with [the fourth employee].
• Whether you had sex with [another employee].
• Your recollections of what happened that night at the hotel; and
• What you did in the bathroom with [another employee] and [the fourth employee].
• Do you have anything to say about this?”

Madam X replied with “No comment.”

You should note when Madam X gave evidence at the Australian Industrial Relations Commission (Commission) she admitted she engaged in the alleged sexual activities. She was too embarrassed to tell the truth.

The company advised her, during the second interview, they were considering ending her employment because of her activities and dishonesty when questioned about her activities. The investigator asked her if she wanted to respond to this or to provide any further information. She did not.

The company ended her employment.

Initial hearing in the Australian Industrial Relations Commission

Madam X referred to the Commission as she argued against termination. The Commission addressed two issues–sexual harassment and her dishonesty.

The Commissioner commented on sexual harassment occurring when unwelcome sexual conduct occurred in the presence of a person. Was the person sexually harassed? The conduct occurring in circumstances in which a reasonable person engaging in the conduct, having regard to the circumstances, would have expected the person harassed would be offended, humiliated or intimidated.
He then determined he would not characterise her conduct as sexual harassment or, even if considered sexual harassment, the conduct was only of the “indirect kind.”

The Commissioner then reflected on her failure to answer questions truthfully during the investigation. He considered a previous decision where dishonesty resulted in dismissal. He then referred to the conduct of Madam X:

The conduct about which Madam X lied was of an inherently personal nature. Lying is never to be condoned. However, given the nature of the conduct about which she has been untruthful, I do not consider that any dishonesty on her part has been such that it should be regarded as likely to destroy the necessary relationship of trust between an employer and employee. In drawing this conclusion, I have also had regard to the evidence of [the Assistant Manager of the xxx store] who said that he had no reason to believe that Madam X was dishonest when it came to stock or cash.

He then made these comments about the matter:

• Allegations of sexual harassment must be taken seriously by employers. Indeed, they may be held liable for sexual harassment by their employees even where this occurs out of hours and away from the workplace.
• I have rejected the argument that there was no connection between Madam X’s conduct and her employment.
• The respondent’s submissions greatly exaggerated the seriousness of Madam X’s misconduct, particularly the suggestion that she committed a criminal act of obscenity. Moreover, I have found most of the behaviour complained of either did not constitute sexual harassment as defined by the SDA or only did so in a relatively marginal way.
• As the respondent conceded, the less direct the relationship with the workplace the more serious the misconduct would need to be to justify termination of employment. Most of the impugned behaviour occurred well away from the workplace, after rather then [sic] during a work function, in a hotel room that was booked and paid for privately.
• In all the circumstances, Madam X’s conduct was not so serious as to constitute a valid reason for the termination of her employment.
The Appeal
The matter went to appeal. The grounds were the Commissioner:
• Misconstrued and/or misapplied s.652(3)(a) by failing to consider and determine the effect of the conduct on the welfare of other employees.
• Failed to make necessary findings of fact and law, in deciding whether there was a valid reason for the termination.
• Erred in the construction and application of s.28A(1)(b) of the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 (Cth).
• Erred by making an order of re-instatement without making findings of fact regarding whether an appropriate level of trust and confidence could be re-established, given the respondent’s dishonesty.
• Misconstrued and/or misapplied the test of what constitutes a valid reason for termination by failing to consider relevant matters and requiring the appellant to establish serious misconduct.

The matter wound its way through the various avenues in the Australian Industrial Relations Commission. It was eventually determined the termination of Madam X’s employment was not harsh, unjust, or unreasonable. They quashed the previous judgements.

It is interesting to note this is a 2007 matter–I believe the initial determination (the one appealed) would be different if they addressed the conduct today.

See Australian Industrial Relations Commission Appeal by Telstra Corporation Limited C2007/3458)

Take aways

• Employers should make comprehensive notes relating to the investigation process.
• Explore all evidence both for and against the respondent
• Lock in witnesses with a formal statement
• Provide procedural fairness in all aspects of the investigation.
• Take positive action if the circumstances warrant it.

Contact ACCA if you want any assistance with policies and/or investigations concerning sexual harassment in the work place.

Mick Symons – ACCA (

Legal Professional Privilege – Workplace Investigation

Legal Professional Privilege – Workplace Investigation Blog Post

If a legal firm conducts a workplace investigation, does that investigation attract legal professional privilege?

The Fair Work Commission recently considered this matter in Gaynor King [2018] FWC 6006 (26 September 2018).

This matter related to allegations of bullying in the City of Darwin (Council). The Council retained Minter Ellison to conduct the investigation into the allegations. The investigation substantiated allegations of “inappropriate conduct” by various parties.

There was an argument relating to the production of the investigation report to the Fair Work Commission. The Council argued the report was subject to legal professional privilege because the dominant purpose was to obtain legal advice or legal services in relation to a proceeding.

Commissioner Wilson highlighted the mere fact that a law firm conducted the investigation did not attract legal professional privilege. He stated the focus of the investigation and subsequent report was on the allegations raised by the complainant. It was an investigation into workplace conduct in accordance with the Council’s policies/procedures.

Commissioner Wilson determined the predominant purpose of the investigation was to inquire into the complaints made by the employee. It was to “test” if the code was breached and if so, hold the transgressors to account.

He further determined the investigation report was not covered by legal professional privilege and was required to be produced before the Commission. #investigation #legal_professional_privilege

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