Issue: Many HR professionals (and most supervisors) aren't prepared when called to serve as witnesses.
Risk: One simple mistake can hurt your organization's chances and damage your professional image.
Action: Use the following eight tips to create practice sessions for yourself and other employees who serve as witnesses.
Say you appear on behalf of your organization in an arbitration, deposition or jury trial regarding an employee's sexual harassment complaint. You're asked, "Does your organization have a policy against sex harassment?" You answer, "Yes," and then proceed to explain the policy.
That's a mistake.
You should have responded: "Yes." Period. Volunteering information that isn't requested is the most common blunder that witnesses make, according to employment law attorney Allan H. Weitzman, a partner in the Boca Raton, Fla., office of Proskauer Rose. Weitzman spoke on effective-witness tactics at a recent Society for Human Resourceconference.
To avoid costly slip-ups, you and/or other supervisors called to be witnesses should do a bit of role-playing to prepare, focusing on these eight points:
1. Listen closely to the question. Don't start answering until you hear the complete question, even if it's one that you practiced beforehand. Never interrupt the questioner.
2. If you don't understand the question, ask for a clarification. Don't ask in a way that provides the other side with ammunition. Example: "Are you referring to the draft of our policy or the one in the employee handbook?"
3. Pause before answering. "Know the last word of your answer before you open your mouth to say the first word," Weitzman advises. Pausing too long can make you appear calculated or unsure. But saying the right words is much more important than any possible impact from a long pause.
4. If you don't know the answer, say, "I don't know." Witnesses, including HR professionals, sometimes babble to avoid the embarrassment of appearing unintelligent. That's dangerous.
5. Don't provide more information than requested. People often want to show how smart they are or they feel eager to help. Best course: Answer the question asked, nothing more, nothing less.
6. Act professionally and unbiased. Don't show disdain for the employee's lawyers or their questions. Don't overstate the company's position; it can make you appear biased against employees.
7. Tell the truth, even if it's hard. Don't equivocate or dance around a difficult answer. It can ruin your credibility as a witness and lose your case. Don't leave out important facts to match what others have said or would say.
8. Look at the judge, jury or arbitrator when you answer. You are trying to convince them, not opposing lawyers or representatives.