‘Why didn’t you say something earlier?’ and other things to avoid in a trauma-informed investigation
November 10, 2021
I don’t remember, I don’t know, I can’t recall.
In a typical investigation too many “I don’t remember” answers about significant pieces of the events might cause me to question someone’s credibility and the reliability of their evidence; the same is not necessarily true when the person has suffered trauma.
Trauma impacts memory. And the assessment of a trauma-experienced person’s version of the events requires us to look through a trauma-informed lens.
In a workplace, serious or persistent harassment can cause a person to suffer trauma. As an investigator, I am mindful of ensuring the investigation process does not exacerbate that or cause further trauma.
Consider the following to apply a trauma-informed approach to workplace investigations:
- Trauma impacts memory – when we experience a traumatic event, we are more likely to remember sensory details like touch, sound, smell and taste than details of the event. So a trauma-experienced person will have gaps in their memory and are more likely to be inconsistent in the information they provide
- Memory and credibility – while these memory gaps might impact the assessment of a person’s credibility in a traditional interview, it is less determinative of credibility for a trauma-experienced person
- Focus on what they remember – ask what they remember and what most stands out for them rather than focusing on gaps in their memory
- Counterintuitive response – be mindful of biases about how a survivor should act. Trauma-experienced persons may respond to the event or the person who has imposed the trauma in ways that seem illogical or counterintuitive, such as being friendly, maintaining a relationship, “freezing” or staying silent. Fear, humiliation, concerns about reprisal, a power imbalance or attempts to repress or recharacterize the traumatic experience can drive these responses.
- Notifying the parties – a trauma-experienced person may be scared, anxious, nervous or embarrassed. They may also be reliving the trauma by participating in the investigation. Consider reaching out to introduce yourself as a first step to ease their discomfort and anxiety
- Take the time needed – ensure a trauma-experienced person is mentally well and able to participate in the investigation process. The investigation may have a slower start or take longer to complete to accommodate a trauma-experienced person’s need for time off work or a slower pace
- Offer supports – ensure notice of available supports is provided, such as an employee assistance program and the option to have a support person or, if applicable, union representative, or support animal present in the interview
- Provide a comfortable interview space – have the interview take place in a private, neutral and comfortable space and have tissues and water available
- Allow frequent breaks – provide frequent breaks, particularly if the person becomes emotional or seems to be having difficulty proceeding, and divide the interview into two or three shorter meetings over multiple days rather than one long meeting
- Neutral and non-accusatory – be empathetic and take care to avoid language or phrasing that could be interpreted as inflammatory or accusatory (e.g., why didn’t you report the behaviour sooner?). Instead, ask them to help you reconcile inconsistencies to help you understand
- Free narrative – provide them the freedom to provide their narrative of the events rather than walking them through a chronology or a structured line of questions
- Do not interrupt or rush – allow them time to answer without interruption even if there are moments of silence and provide the time they need to review their statement. A trauma-experienced person may get distracted, seem scattered or find it hard to focus
Taking a compassionate and patient approach absent of judgements and bias is necessary when applying a trauma-informed approach. Taking time to educate yourself on the impact of trauma can also assist in providing a trauma-experienced person with an investigation process that is sensitive to their needs.