Social distancing practices implemented to slow the spread of COVID-19 have required the use of remote interviews in many situations, including forensic accounting investigations and financial audits. Given the importance of being able to evaluate nonverbal cues and establish rapport with the interviewee, forensic accountants, auditors, and other CPAs may be wary of conducting interviews via video.
That skepticism is understandable, but recent experience has shown that video interviews can be effective provided the right technologies and techniques are used. Some experts believe that conducting court proceedings, depositions, and interviews remotely will become standard practice, at least for the foreseeable future.
While conducting an interview remotely may not always be the best option, it has some advantages compared to in-person interviews. It has drawbacks as well. Let’s take a quick look at the pros and cons of doing virtual forensic interviews instead of face-to-face conversations.
- Often easier and quicker to schedule an interview, which can be crucial in a time-sensitive investigation.
- Reduced time and expense for travel to conduct interview.
- Some interviewees may be more comfortable speaking from the comfort of their home, as opposed to a formal conference room in an office setting.
- Technological advancements in platforms now allow an interviewer to share documents with the interviewee remotely, as well as to highlight and mark up the documents.
- If a mask is required for an in-person interview, a remote interview without a mask might reveal important nonverbal cues otherwise hidden behind a mask.
- Difficult to access hard copies of documents and conduct searches of physical evidence.
- Possibly more difficult to build rapport with interviewee in a remote setting.
- In a remote setting, the interviewee may try to multitask, lose focus on the questions, or end the interview prematurely.
- Due to visual limitations inherent with virtual interviews, some nonverbal cues may go undetected because they are outside of the camera’s view.
- Possibility for unintended parties to be present during the interview, or the interview to be recorded without all parties being aware.
Establishing rapport may be more challenging in a virtual interview, but it is possible. Make a concerted effort to create rapport, in spite of the natural limitations of a virtual experience. (For general tips on establishing rapport and all aspects of conducting interviews in face-to-face situations, see “Forensic Interviews: Plan to Succeed,” JofA, Aug. 2015).
In response to COVID-19 concerns, professionals may be tempted to use written questionnaires instead of in-person interviews. Be judicious in doing so. Written questionnaires are appropriate and preferred in certain instances for various reasons, but when written questionnaires are used in place of face-to-face interviews, any chance of gathering nonverbal cues evaporates.
Video addresses many of the problems of written Q&As, but it is not recommended for conducting conversations with those strongly suspected to be wrongdoers. Those interviews should be held in-person, if possible.
Once you’ve decided that a video interview is appropriate, the next steps are to prepare for and then conduct the interview. Following are 18 tips for doing so effectively.
Preparing for a virtual interview
1. Do an advanced setup call with the interviewee, ensuring that wireless connections, sound, and visuals work properly. During this technical check, avoid asking questions to be covered during the interview. If possible, have an information technologist or administrative person handle this entirely.
2. The interviewee and interviewer should both be in a quiet, private space during the interview to eliminate noise and distractions.
3. Practice beforehand with demonstratives or other visuals. These documents may be screen-shared, but their presentation should be mastered in advance of the interview. It is imperative to be extremely organized with any documents that may be used, and all should be clearly identified.
4. As the interviewer, know how to share your screen (and not share) to ensure any extraneous information you have displayed on your device (e.g., emails, chat, interview questions from team members) is not being inadvertently provided to the interviewee.
5. Determine with counsel if recording the interview is appropriate.
6. Have alternative devices (cellphone, extra laptop or tablet) and/or platforms (Zoom, WebEx, Teams, etc.) available in case the original setup malfunctions.
7. When preparing and scheduling the interview, include additional time to allow for any last-minute technical issues.
8. Have another member of the team practice with the lead interviewer by dialing in as if he or she is the interviewee. The forensic or audit team then can more satisfactorily gauge how the questions will come across virtually.
Once you are ready for the interview itself, keep the following in mind.
Conducting a virtual interview
9. Establish at the start of the interview how participants should respond in the event the virtual connection is lost; e.g., ask the interviewee to dial in again immediately if the connection becomes severed.
10. Make sure the interviewee understands how the controls (e.g., video, mute, etc.) work. Generally, the interviewer should request that the interviewee refrain from utilizing these controls once the interview has begun.
11. Whether or not a “recording” icon appears on the screen, inform the interviewee if the session is to be recorded.
12. Have the interviewee’s camera include his or her body view from the midsection up, not just the interviewee’s face. Nonverbal cues may be missed if the camera includes only the interviewee’s face.
13. Allow frequent breaks, but due to potential problems with reconnecting, do not close the call during the breaks.
14. Both interviewer’s and interviewee’s video should be turned on. An audio-only interview may be better than no interview but runs the risk of missing important nonverbal cues. As in all forensic interviews, pay particular attention to all nonverbal cues. Additional remote nonverbal cues may include attempts to mute the sound or obscure the camera view.
15. Understand that while a document is being shared on the screen, some virtual setups eliminate the interviewee’s image entirely, rendering the interviewee’s immediate reaction unobservable. Make sure your setup allows the interviewee’s picture to be viewed, and possibly enlarge this image compared to a default (small box) setting. Most programs have an option for enlarged settings.
16. As is recommended in a face-to-face interview, having at least two forensic investigators participate in the virtual interview may be well worth the added cost. The main interviewer may ask questions and observe the interviewee’s reactions, while the second interviewer controls documents to be screen-shared and takes notes.
17. Monitor the participant list provided in the platform and note if any unidentified caller appears. At the beginning of the interview, ask the interviewee if anyone else is in the room or listening remotely. Toward the end of the interview ask the interviewee if he or she has communicated with anyone while being interviewed. If the answer is yes, ask the interviewee what was discussed.
18. Consider the security of documents to be shared during the interview. In a face-to-face interview, documents may be shown to the interviewee and returned to the interviewer. However, in a virtual interview the document may be photographed by the interviewee without the interviewer’s knowledge.
Obstacles and opportunities
While presenting new obstacles to conducting effective forensic interviews, virtual approaches can be successful and even provide benefits not present in face-to-face interviews. However, focused modifications to traditional in-person interviews must be addressed and implemented.
— Charles L. McGimsey, CPA/CFF, and Natalie S. Lewis, CPA/CFF, are principals with the Forensic and Litigation Services Team at Windham Brannon LLC. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Jeff Drew, a JofA senior editor, at Jeff.Drew@aicpa-cima.com.