As workplace investigators, our role is to make findings of fact. Every interviewee brings their own unique cultural perspective and interpretation of the facts to an interview. In being respectful, understanding, and responsive to all interviewees’ cultural backgrounds we can ensure they are fully understood, interviews are more productive, fair and achieve more effective fact-finding.
Preparing a framework for a culturally responsive interview is much more than arranging a translation and interpretation service for an interviewee from a culturally and linguistically diverse background. The cultural context of an individual transcends language and ethnic identity. A person’s cultural perspective also includes their socioeconomic class, gender, religious and spiritual beliefs, sexuality, ability and disability, profession, generational group, political affiliation … etc. It is a human’s whole lived experience that shapes their perspective of the world and their perspective of facts in the workplace.
If cultural contexts are ignored in workplace investigation interviews, it could lead to poor rapport, unproductive interviews, and ineffective fact-finding.
As investigators we first need to be conscious of our own cultural biases, behaviours, and predispositions. Secondly, investigators need to be culturally literate in a broad sense, to understand how cultural factors affect investigations and interviews. Thirdly, investigators need to embrace each individual’s dynamic cultural complexities and adapt processes and behaviours to each situation.
Ten tips for a culturally responsive interview
- Offer a brief preliminary meeting to the participants to provide an opportunity to understand the investigator’s role, outline the process, and provide time for the participant to understand the implications or possible outcomes of their participation. If appropriate, offer to respond to any concerns or questions about the interviewer’s background and qualifications.
- Explain that the participants are not ‘in trouble’. When investigation processes and interviews are strictly confidential, and formal template letters inviting participation in the process can be impersonal, anxieties can escalate. Consider a person may have had previous negative experiences with authority and confidential meetings. This not only affects a person’s emotional response but may have implications for how open they may be in responding to an investigator’s questions. Even calling the process an ‘investigation’ may be received with a range of assumptions. It is important to be clear about why you have asked to meet with this person from the outset.
- Invite interviewees to consider what they may need to feel confident or safe to participate in the process. For example, ‘Please let me know if you have any preferences about the way I communicate with you, so I can ensure this process is one that suits you and allows you to feel confident and safe in participating?’
- Consider the suitability of an interpreter or a cultural support person. When interpreter assistance is required, clarify the interviewee’s preferences for the interpreter’s dialect, nationality, and gender. Avoid using an interviewee’s support person as the interpreter. A person may have sufficient or very good English proficiency, but cultural support may assist with the individual’s participation in the investigation process. There may be cultural support services accessible through community organisations (for example, community legal centres, migrant, and refugee support services, LGBTIQ support services, and Aboriginal support services). Alternatively, a person may nominate who they would like as a cultural support person, such as a religious leader or community elder. Be open to adjusting the process to accommodate different rituals, such as prayer or a tea service.
During the interview
- Consider inviting the interviewee to describe the situation as if they were explaining it to someone close to them. This invites an expansion of the narrative, and includes greater cultural nuance, than they may otherwise have described to a professional or person of perceived authority.
- Consider explaining that if you are asking the same questions, it does not mean you disagree with their response or that you do not accept their response. When a question is repeated, an interviewee may feel pressure to change their responses to the ‘correct’ response the interviewer is probing for. Explain that it simply means that you are seeking clarity, or you did not understand the response.
- Acknowledge the sensitivities and the difficulty of the conversation. Provide assurance that you are not making any judgements about them as a person and that there are no right or wrong answers. The impact of ‘face’ or honour may have relevance in culturally sensitive topics, such as sexual harassment or sexual assault, where addressing taboo topics may cause shame or harm to themselves or the ‘tribe’ they are a part of (e.g., friends, family, community). Interviewers using specific terminology about the conduct or behaviours being investigated may find a clash in communication norms when interviewees wanting to maintain honour or avoid losing face use more oblique terminology and euphemisms (e.g., ‘he really gets around’, ‘something dirty’ or ‘shame place’). Similarly, the interviewee may be perceived as uncooperative if they are reluctant to respond to questions, when they may need to try to reclaim any ‘face’ or honour that has been perceived as lost before responding to the interviewer. Consider allowing time or ‘space’ in the interview for this occur.
- Be attentive to possible ‘gratuitous concurrence’ where the interviewee agrees with the questions to please the investigator. As an example, the interviewee may nod, make affirmative noises, and even say ‘yes’ or ‘okay’ to communicate respect and deference toward the investigator. Seek specific clarification or response, rather than accept a non-specific affirmative reaction. Cultural factors may be relevant when a person communicates that they’ve heard, rather than understood or agreed with the speaker.
- Be aware of any unconscious biases you may have as you elicit information from an interviewee. A lack of specificity or vague reporting may reflect that person’s cultural perception of their environment being more contextual and holistic, rather than trying to obfuscate or even being deceptive. Consider inviting any environmental details in that person’s recall to attempt ‘setting the scene’ first, and then coming back to asking the specific questions directly related to the matter being investigated. Similarly, avoid assigning greater credibility to evidence that is accompanied by emotion, as honour or face may influence displays of perceived vulnerability.
- If it’s appropriate and the participants agree, follow up with questions seeking feedback about how they felt or found the investigation process and interviews. Debrief with a professional peer. Identify any challenging interaction with the interviewee, any frustrations in communication or eliciting information, and reflect on what cultural factors were relevant in the interview. Investigators need to continually tune and fine-tune their competencies in responding to cultural complexity.
Culture refers to values, behaviours, interactions, beliefs, and habits. It is not limited to ethnic identity, national origin or linguistic differences. Culture also manifests through socioeconomic class, gender, religion, sexuality, ability and disability, profession, generational groups, and political affiliation – to name only a few. Individuals are bearers of multiple complex cultures.
We cannot be completely aware of all cultural nuances. We can only be experts of our own cultural make-up. We can be aware that unique cultural differences exist for each of us, and these differences may lead to clashes in communication, behaviours, and values.
Adopt a person-centred approach to culturally responsive interviews by embracing that person’s cultural complexities and adapting processes accordingly. Preparation and adjusting your interview plan to be responsive to cultural frameworks assists with productive interactions between interviewees and investigators, and ultimately achieves more effective fact-finding.