Everything was quieter before social media, including workplace investigations. Investigators rarely worried about public attention, except in the rare case when their investigation was picked up by the local newspaper or TV station. Employees who suffered discrimination could report it to HR, get a lawyer, or call a state or federal agency, but drawing media interest to their individual problems was a long shot at best.
Investigators know that words – and their nuanced meanings – matter. We rely on how people describe their experiences to learn what took place. Sometimes our job involves determining the exact wording and connotations of conversations that occurred months earlier.
But what happens when the investigator and the interviewee lack a common language? For example, when a witness is more comfortable being interviewed in Mandarin than in English, or when a deaf or hard-of-hearing complainant uses American Sign Language (ASL)?
Seventeen unarmed Iraqi citizens died in Baghdad’s Nisour Square in September 2007, and at least two dozen more were wounded when guards working for the contractor Blackwater USA opened fire into the square with machine guns, grenade launchers, and other weapons. Several years later, four Blackwater security guards were held accountable and convicted of charges ranging from first-degree murder to manslaughter. They were incarcerated in a U.S. prison until a few weeks ago.
Interviewing is a large part of our work as investigators. We frequently ask people to describe difficult or painful experiences or to share information that might cause them negative repercussions later. We might need to ask a college student about a sexual assault, or an employee about bullying by an abusive supervisor.
There is a risk we have not been talking about in the field of workplace investigations.
With the recent stay-at-home orders, we have all become “in-house” investigators. And who is there with us, day in and day out: listening to our interviews, looking over our desks at confidential documents, participating in Zoom calls with colleagues?
It is our pets: dogs, cats, reptiles, even chickens. Sure, they may look uninterested in our conversations, but are they really? How do we know? And can they be fully trusted to keep our client’s most sensitive secrets? Who do they talk to? Who do they socialize with? Do they have social media accounts? Honestly, I love my cat, Sophie, but do I trust her with information about allegations of high-level corruption among elected officials in a nearby city? I am not sure.
Retrospective: A look back at PII’s investigation into Thai workers enslaved in an El Monte sweatshop.
In 1995, 72 Thai nationals who were being held captive in a sweatshop concealed in a converted El Monte, California apartment complex were released in an early morning, multi-agency raid by state and federal law enforcement. This shocking example of modern-day slavery raised public awareness of human trafficking in California, led to legislative reforms, and later became part of an exhibit at the Smithsonian Institution called “Sweatshops in America.”