Workplace Investigations: A Lesson from Psychics and Ghost Hunters (Part Two)

This is the second article of a two-part series. Read Part One now.

No matter how fair-minded an investigator may be, the inescapable reality is that we all have inherent biases. The situations we investigate are viewed through our own lens, and sometimes our past experiences and our perceptions can interfere with a fair and neutral information gathering process unless steps are taken to mitigate the risk. The important first step is to be aware of the different kinds of bias, and how they can operate to influence our decision making. Read Part One Now.

5. Likeability bias
It’s not surprising that we tend to form a more positive general impression of those who are likeable. Studies have shown that when it comes to hiring decisions, whether someone is likeable is even more important than whether they are competent to do the job.

While it makes some sense that you would want to hire a person you like, it shouldn’t matter whether an investigator likes the person they are interviewing. The likeability of the complainant or respondent should never influence the investigative findings. In practice, however, it’s a common pitfall to think that a person who is nice to us during the investigation process is also more truthful and trustworthy. If one party is kind, friendly and polite and the other is surly, rude and insulting, it’s hard not to let that impression spill over into our findings on their credibility.

Investigators must keep in mind that just because someone is nice, it doesn’t mean they are honest. You can curb the effects of likeability bias by doing the following:

  • Consider whether one party is particularly kind or rude to you, and how that made you feel during the interview.
  • Review your notes a day or two after the interview, and ask yourself what someone who knows nothing about the parties would think of the evidence provided.

6. Empathy gap
The idea behind “empathy gap” is that it’s hard to imagine what it’s like to be in a state other than the one you’re in. If you’re stuffed from a full meal, it’s hard to imagine what someone who is hungry feels like. In hospital settings, studies1 have shown that empathy gaps cause staff to routinely under-medicate patients who are in a great deal of pain, because it is hard to understand pain that you are not experiencing yourself.

This also applies to bullying. People have difficulty understanding the severity of the trauma experienced by bullying victims if they are not also being bullied themselves2.

This is important for workplace investigators, since part of our job is to understand the subjective impact of workplace harassment or bullying on the complainant. It can be easy to think that bullying is less serious if you have never experienced it yourself. Investigators should ensure that they have explored with the complainant the subjective impact that the respondent’s behaviour had on them.

You can limit the effects of empathy gap on your investigations by:

  • Asking the complainant how they felt during their interactions with the respondent, and why
  • Continually evaluating what assumptions you are making about the complainant’s experiences

7. The Illusory Truth effect
The foundation of the illusory truth effect, also known as the reiteration effect, is that repetition makes things seem more plausible. This is the reason you hear talking points being circulated during elections – one candidate is “tough on crime”, while another is a “flip-flopper”. The more people hear these sayings repeated, the more likely they are to believe they are true.

All investigators have encountered a complainant or respondent who is stuck on repeat; you might hear “Jane is a bully” or “John is a liar” 20 or 30 times during the course of an interview. It is crucial for any investigator to examine the findings and assumptions they are making and to consider what evidence backs them up. If you believe Jane is a bully, is that because the evidence points to that conclusion, or because you heard it so many times during an interview that it became the “truth”?

Prevent the illusionary truth effect from de-railing your investigations by:

  • Being alert for statements that are repeated without supporting evidence
  • Actively considering what objective facts corroborate each version of the events

8. Information bias
This type of bias relates to the way an investigation is conducted, rather than the conclusions eventually reached. It causes a person to believe that more information is always better. In reality, sometimes extra information adds nothing to an investigation, and can only serve to confuse the issue.

A 1988 study3 asked subjects to pretend to be a doctor treating a hypothetical patient who had one of three possible fictitious diseases. A test could be run that would determine if the patient had one of the diseases, but would not impact the course of treatment. Most subjects decided that the test should be run, even if it were costly. This is an example of thinking information is critical, even when, in a practical sense, it is unimportant.

How does this apply to workplace investigations? Consider the following scenario:

John says that his manager, Mark, called him an “ugly jerk” and shoved him. Mark admits that he called John a “jerk” and shoved him, but denies that he called him ugly. The harassment policy is clear that a manager calling someone that reports to them a derogatory name and shoving them would constitute harassment. What more information does a workplace investigator need?
Someone who is succumbing to information bias might go to great lengths to sort out whether Mark really did call John “ugly”. An important question to consider is: what difference does it make? In some cases the exact wording of the insult might be relevant, but in most the respondent’s own admission is enough for the investigator to conclude that the behaviour was in violation of the harassment policy.

Investigators tend to be naturally curious people, and accordingly it is easy for information bias to take hold. We don’t only want to understand the relevant facts; we want to understand everything.

Investigators can avoid information bias by:

  • Continually evaluating their investigation plan and revising as necessary
  • Determining whether the steps they are taking during an investigation are necessary for them to reach their findings

While we may all fall victim to one or more of these biases on occasion, it’s not inevitable that they will impact our work. There are some ways investigators can help avoid the impact of bias:

  • Be honest with yourself about your own biases;
  • Admit to yourself that you will not know everything at the beginning of an investigation, and that this is okay;
  • Relentlessly challenge your own assumptions, and encourage your colleagues to do the same. Talking out a case with a co-worker can provide valuable third-party input that will let you know if you’re heading in the wrong direction;
  • If more information is needed, seek out professional training on how to deal with bias.

Michelle Bird conducts workplace investigations into allegations of harassment, bullying, poisoned work environments, and other problematic workplace behaviour. Michelle also provides workplace investigation and human rights training to staff at all levels.

1. Twycross, A., & Powls, L. (2006). How do children’s nurses make clinical decisions? Two preliminary studies. Journal of Clinical Nursing, 15(10), 1324-1335.
2. Nordgren, Loran, Kasia Banas and Geoff MacDonald. 2011. Empathy Gaps for Social Pain: Why People Underestimate the Pain of Social Suffering. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 100: 120-128.
3. Baron, Jonathan; Beattie, Jane; Hershey, John C (1988). “Heuristics and biases in diagnostic reasoning” (PDF). Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes. 42 (1): 88–110

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