Posted tagged ‘credibility’

Evaluating Credibility in Sexual Harassment Investigations

February 8, 2012

One of the biggest challenges investigators face during sexual harassment investigations is deciding whether or not a witness is telling the truth.  In fact, according to a 2009 article in Legal and Criminological Psychology, even judges aren’t’ so hot at it.  And one of the reasons is the way most of us go about making credibility assessments.

For one thing, research indicates that we are heavily influenced by schemas (cognitive maps) we’ve developed based on our past experiences with similar individuals.  The old adage, “to a policeman, everyone is a criminal” is an example of the tendency we all have to judge new people based on our past experiences with others.  This can be problematic for those of us in HR who get railroaded into being the head of the unofficial “employee complaint department.”  Dealing with minor (and seemingly ridiculous) employee complaints day in and day out can unconsciously skew our view of new or legitimate complaints in the direction of skepticism and disbelief.

Second, we all have some pretty understandable – and false – beliefs about how to actually evaluate someone’s truthfulness.  It is common wisdom, for example, that liars often exhibit nervous gestures (longer pauses, not looking the other person in the eyes, speech disturbance) when research actually suggests the opposite.  Throw cultural differences into the mix and the usefulness of relying upon body language to detect deception is virtually nil.

Third, most of us make snap judgments of the general trustworthiness of a witness immediately upon seeing him or her for the first time.  Not only is this intuition unreliable, it can influence how we gather, and interpret, future evidence.  In a study of criminal investigators, those who presumed guilt were more skeptical about evidence that suggested innocent than they were about information that confirmed their preexisting belief.   In other words, we tend to see what we believe.

Here’s the good news.  First, we need to throw out any ideas we might have that credibility assessment is a common sense matter and that our intuition is a useful guide.  Second, we need to let go of any notions that we can tell someone is lying by his shifty gaze or nervous hand wringing.  We need to be aware of how our past experiences with complainants might influence our approach to a new sexual harassment investigation.  And we need to build in safeguards (a second opinion, critical thinking that objectively evaluates all evidence, clearly thinking through and documenting why we are taking each step in an investigation).  This doesn’t guarantee that we’ll make the right decision; but it does raise the odds that we’ll make a fair one.