Phone Interviews: Why I Swear By Them

(This article originally appeared in CFInsider)

It’s a typical Sunday at my house. Dog barking. Four year old asking for snacks, asking to play a game, asking to go to the neighbors, asking to go to Chuck E. Cheese’s asking, asking, asking… What else do four year olds do? Six month old eating, crying, pooping. Sixteen year old plotting something. Thirteen year old in self-imposed seclusion in his room. Husband napping with a newspaper on his lap and hat over his eyes (maybe I won’t notice). Meanwhile, I’m trying to clean up the tornado aftermath that is my home.

My cell phone rings. Great. It can’t be good if I’m getting called on Sunday. Just the usual: a dishonest associate in Iowa (yes, people do steal in Iowa). The associate was caught red handed and is sitting in the manager’s office waiting for the other shoe to drop. She’s short term, part-time, and has limited access.

Thank God for phone interviews!

Changes in business have not left Loss Prevention untouched. We cannot afford to allow a thief to do damage over a long period and turnover is too high to expect that part-timer will still be around in two weeks when we get to the store. Our departments are being streamlined, leaving us with larger territories to cover and stretched thinner than ever. We have to react sooner but with just as much thoroughness as in the past.

For the majority of my career, I have managed far flung regions and districts, some without a major airport. The only solution: interview the suspect remotely.

I have utilized phone interviews for ten years with a modicum of success. Originally trained in the Wicklander-Zulawski method, I was trained on the job in conducting phone interviews. I began using phone interviews with some trepidation: What if the suspect hangs up on me? How will I read his behavior? How will the statement be written? With time, I began to realize that my fears were unfounded and that I actually, at times, preferred the phone interview method. Here are my top ten reasons for using a phone interview:

  1. Cost. Compare the cost of my free cell minutes to the cost of an airline ticket, hotel, food, etc.
  2. Speed. I can react quickly to an issue.
  3. Anonymity. Yes, sometimes there is a benefit to being that faceless voice on the phone. Suspects will unload their deepest darkest secrets to someone they don’t know and can’t see. Think: priest in a confessional or a phone sex operator.
  4. Family time. If I traveled non-stop to every dishonest associate in every city, I’d never get to see my lovely aforementioned brood.
  5. Implied knowledge. The suspect may believe that you have more knowledge than you actually do about the theft because he can’t read your behavior.
  6. Minimization. The suspect may be more willing to buy into the idea that his crime was no big deal since you are calling on the phone (where in the world would he get that idea?).
  7. Versatility. On the phone I could be old, young, intimidating, friendly, whatever the suspect needs to feel compelled to talk. In person, he may have been more inclined to stereotype due to looks. This is another issue you have to deal with in face-to-face interviews.
  8. Pajama factor. I can do a phone interview in my PJs, with a cup of coffee, notes spread out on the couch, and Bears slippers kicked up on the coffee table.
  9. Liability. Should one of my cases ever go to court—knock on wood, it hasn’t happened yet—I will have an easier time defending myself against false imprisonment. Can’t they hang up on me at any time? And as for coercion, how could I make a physical threat from 700 miles away?
  10. Personal connection. I am the voice in their head during an interview. At times, I can make a quicker connection and build rapport due to this.

Of course, phone interviews aren’t always the solution. I don’t recommend them for mysterious cash loss, long term associates, complex cases with multiple players, or upper level management. They also have some severe limitations for reading behavior. The interviewer needs to become an adept listener and at reading silence as well. Over the phone, silence can mean submission or it can mean the suspect walked out on you. By the way, I’ve only had one person hang up on me in ten years.

Possibly the most difficult aspect of conducting a phone interview is getting the statement. I rely on my witness to ensure the statement is written appropriately. Two more tips: be choosy about your witness and don’t let the witness and suspect put the call on speakerphone. Your witness plays a key role in assisting you with this process so make sure they fully understand their job. The speakerphone on the suspect’s end takes away the advantage of one on one intimate conversation. I’ve heard from several suspects that they completely forgot that there was a witness in the room during the interview.

Just like face-to-face interviews, phone interviews take practice. With time, investigators can add this weapon to their arsenal and increase efficiency, productivity and have more time with the screaming kids and napping spouse. Hmm, well maybe I’ll rethink the whole phone interview thing.


Stefanie is a regular contributor to the work of the International Association of Interviewers. To enjoy other great content from her and other contributors, please visit CertifiedInterviewer.com