We all have “fond” memories of lying as a child. Our backs were against the wall, and we were forced to admit we had done something wrong. Our parents almost expected us to lie about our bad behavior. In the end, we did not have to pay a very big price.
Fast forward to our teenage years, and we lied again – this time with a sense of indignation. We were righteous in our lies because we were victims of adulthood – we just were not there yet, and we were “right” to lie when we had to do so.
Compliance officers face a number of challenges, one of which is how to talk to people, and more importantly, how to listen. Many times the compliance officer already knows the truth, has documentation to back up the truth, and has evidence supporting the truth. The company employee, however, is unwilling to admit that he or she did something “wrong.”
We all underestimate the power of an admission. Even before we get to the point of being accused of wrongdoing, there are times when admitting something and accepting responsibility can be very powerful. I know it sounds strange but an admission is not always a sign of weakness.
On the witness stand, a witness who admits his or her own wrongdoing can be a powerful witness. Cooperating witnesses on television are always ripped apart and disbelieved. In reality, that is far from the truth.
Confessions are viewed as a cleansing process – look at the religious context, you confess and you are absolved. Humans put great value on the cathartic experience of admitting conduct or feelings. Witnesses can do the same.
White collar criminals or corporate wrongdoers find it difficult to confess and take responsibility for their actions. Violent criminals have an easier time – indeed, sometimes they are proud of their violent acts and the secrecy with which they committed the act.
White collar criminals have a harder time admitting they have done something wrong. Why?
They are usually successful professionals and have high regard for themselves. It is difficult to square their status in society or in a corporation with the charge that they have committed a crime, violated a company’s code of conduct or engaged in some other misdeed.
Compliance professionals have to recognize this phenomenon when interviewing employees during an investigation of potential misconduct. Demanding admissions of responsibility will usually lead to blank stares and repeated denials. Empathy is a powerful tool in the interview context. Humans naturally respond to empathetic expressions of concern.
The best way to approach a corporate wrongdoer requires tactful use of empathy and careful language to describe how the employee “made a mistake.” If you condemn a person as a “criminal,” the person is likely to clam up and refuse to cooperate. However, if you approach the person seeking an admission of an aberrant mistake of judgment, you may get somewhere during the interview.
It is a delicate balancing act that depends on the specific personalities of the interviewer and the subject of the investigation. A compliance professional has to stick to his or her role – meaning they are not a friend of the employee, but they are human. Keeping the dividing line between empathy and professionalism can be difficult but is an effective tactic when dealing with professional wrongdoers.