The Corroboration Myth

Perhaps the scariest investigation scenario for an employment investigator – be it an HR person, a manager, or an outside independent – is the classic “He said. She said.” This is the situation where two parties dispute what happened between them and there are no witnesses to the incident.

Many think that without corroboration, it’s just not possible to determine what happened or who is telling the truth. While at times this may be true, it’s often not. The application of credibility factors and a little common sense can go a long way toward deciding what happened.

First, a story. Many years ago I did a sexual harassment investigation. A few weeks later, the accused party called me and said he’d been fired. He then asked if there were any witnesses to the alleged harassment. When I said no, he asked how I could say what had happened. My answer: “I believed her.”

Following are some of the factors to consider when determining witness credibility:

  • Whose story has the most details? A more detailed story is often more credible than a vague or general one.
  • Who has a motive to lie? Typically, this question is asked about the complaining party (why would he or she make this up?) since the accused inherently has a motive to lie. But it can apply to the accused as well as witnesses also.
  • Is the story internally consistent? A credible story is internally consistent.
  • Is there contemporaneous documentation of an event? The key word here is contemporaneous since documentation created months or years later may be helpful, but will not necessarily lend support to the truth of the facts stated in the documents. Too much time has elapsed.
  • Did the party tell anyone about it contemporaneously? Again, if one of the parties talked to someone else very close in time to the event, this may be useful as corroboration of that party’s story. I’ve seen this operate very powerfully. It doesn’t always though, particularly if the party in question has perception issues.
  • Is it likely there would be corroborating evidence if the event occurred? If such evidence is missing, that may be significant. One party alleges that that other was screaming at him. If no one else heard it – and there were people around at the time who should have – maybe the screaming didn’t occur. “Scream” is a rather subjective word anyway….
  • Whose perceptions seem most accurate? Often, no one is lying per se. Witnesses just have different perceptions. The issue then is: whose perceptions seem most accurate based on all the circumstances. Here’s where common sense and putting all the pieces together come into play.
  • Who has access to information? Sometimes the winner is the one with the access to the best information.
  • One clear lie. Sometimes, if you catch a witness in one clear lie, that will cast doubt on other things they said. The lie has to be significant and not just something the witness could have remembered incorrectly.

So is this a recipe for determining credibility? Sadly, no. It still takes judgment, and the courage to take a position. Just tell yourself that the buck has to stop somewhere.

Do any of you have other useful credibility tools?  ~Amy Stephson

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